Building your own travel proof laptop — a step by step guide

The x60s is my fourth generation travel laptop and at this point, I have my laptop system down. Far have I traveled around the world with my Thinkpads, starting with my 240 in Vietnam and evolving up to an x20, x30, x40 and finally an x60.

Fact of the matter is, everyone can use a cheap, lightweight throwaway laptop these days. As long as it runs an internet browser, plays MP3’s and you can upload photos to it, it’s a great alternative to taking your $1600 Macbook into the Amazon and dropping it into piranah infested waters.

Is the solution really in a new fangled netbook though? It’s true that you can get a fancy Acer, Dell or IBM netbook straight off the shelf for $250. New shiny objects can be a blessing and a curse though — many of those units are difficult to modify, some of them are complex and all of them are going to be eye catching to potential thieves.

Instead let Gadling take you through the steps of putting together a good, reliable computer for very little cost, using recycled parts and software from the web and saving you a bundle. With a few tweaks you can make it modular and interchangeble, so that if you drop it in the water or run it over with your rental car (this has happened to me) you can still probably save your data. And If you play your cards right, you can put the entire package together for $150 or so.

The CPU: $25 – $125

First, you’re going to need to invest on a laptop on which your foundation will be built. They call these “barebones” systems in the computer world, with only the bare essentials to get your system operating.

You’ll want something small, lightweight, not too complicated and cheap. This can be any brand, but you want it to have at least Pentium III processor over 400MHz or so. Under that point it gets difficult to run an operating system, web browser and Java or Flash (ie, Youtube.) My personal choice is among the IBM X series of notebooks, with the X20 as the lowest vintage machine you want to invest in. With enough RAM you might be able to get away with a 240X as well, but it’ll be close — and there are other problems with that unit as well, so let’s skip it.

Asus and Acer both are fairly easy-to-work-with brands as well, you just need to keep your minimal requirements, sizes and weights in mind. Older Dells, on the other hand, are frequently difficult to disassemble, so you may want avoid them. Apples suffer from the same problem.

You can invest in a laptop in any state of repair that you choose. Starting on ebay, you can pick out systems with no hard drive, memory or battery and a la carte your accessories as you see fit. In a way, this is an advantage because now you have more control over your project.

Expect to spend anywhere from $25 – $150 on the CPU. As an example, two barebones X20 laptops just finished up on ebay for $25 plus $10 shipping.

Memory: $10

You’ll want at least 128MB of memory in your machine to run Firefox, and since it’s so inexpensive, get at least 256MB. Just make sure you get the right type of memory (pc100, pc133, pc2700 etc) or else it won’t fit in your laptop. Go to the product page for your laptop’s manufacturer when you start building to see what variety you want.

Hard Drive: $40$100

The hard drive is where you’ll store all of your data from the trip, so you want to make this as robust as possible. Using an off the shelf 20GB IDE is inexpensive and fast, but it’s also got the highest probability of failure because it’s got moving parts. Instead, consider two options:

Solid State Drives (SSDs) consume lower energy and are sturdier against shock and damage. The technology is still fairly new though, so to get an IDE SSD it can cost over $100. But they’re a great alternative to a moving drive, and my last two notebooks have run swimmingly with them.

Alternatively, consider using the combination of an IDE converter and a Compact Flash (CF) or Secure Digital (SD) card. You can get an IDE conveter with an 8GB SD drive combo on ebay for less than $40 shipped. Think 8GB is too small for you? Is it really? If you’re just using the computer to surf the web, write up a few documents and store some photos, you should be able to get away with 8GB or even 2GB without much strain. Heck, if necessary, you can bring another 8GB USB thumb drive with you.

The best part about using a flash card as you hard drive is that the data is portable. If you drop your laptop at the airport, kick it across the street or run over it with your scooter, chances are that the SD or CF card is in tact. Pick that card out, stick it in your change pocket and bring it to a cyber cafe and you’ve got all of your data back. Or, buy another identical laptop off of ebay for $50, put the hard drive in and forget anything happened.

Afraid you’ll drop your notebook in the water? Try getting a waterproof SD card.

WiFi capability: $20

First, check to make sure if your laptop has internal WiFi built in. If it doesn’t, see if it has the capability. Many units come with a WiFi slot and no card installed. You can get a new one on ebay for $10. If you don’t have internal wireless capabilities, you can get a PCMCIA wireless card for about $20 (search “PCMCIA wireless” on ebay.)

Battery: $20 – $40

Depending on your model, a new battery on ebay will run you around $30. Don’t get a new battery from your local Best Buy or direct from the manufacturer. They’ll just rip you off.


Installing a proper operating system and software can be tricky. Effectively there are three routes you can take:

Buy it: $80 upward
At the very least, you need an operating system like Windows 2000 or Windows XP to run on your notebook. You can buy clean versions of these on ebay for around $80 or you could just

Dowload it
Which is basically stealing. So I’ll let you follow up on that if you want to.

Use Open Source Software
Operating systems like Ubuntu and Fedora have made expensive operating systems a thing of the past. You just have to come to terms with your fear and give them a try. Fact of the matter is, system slike Ubuntu are so well engineered and logical that they work just like Windows — you just click on the appropriate icons and run your programs — so the learning curve is fairly shallow. The installation process, furthermore, is just as easy. Which brings us to:

Installing your operating system
All of the above operating systems and example notebooks support a full install by just dropping a CD into the drive and booting. The problem is, none of the above notebooks have CD-ROM drives. You’ll need to find a friend with an external USB CD-ROM drive, buy one yourself or get crafty to get figure out how to install without the hardware. The latter is doable, but chances are that if you can figure out how to do that you don’t need to be reading this article.

Aside from the operating system, you’ll want to install the basics to keep your computer running, Firefox, Macromedia Flash and Open Office (a free alternative to MS Office) as well as some basic drivers depending on your CPU.


So what have we got?

$50 — CPU
$10 — Memory
$50 — Hard Drive
$20 — Wireless
$30 — Battery
$0 — Software

$160 — Total. That’s still $90 less than most netbooks on the market. Along the way? You’ve put together your own computer, ensured that you’ve got the best value for your dollar and finished an amazing project. Pat yourself on the back, you just created your own modular travel notebook.