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.

IBM to laid-off employees: “Want to work in India?”

With the national unemployment rate now over 7%, many out-of-work Americans are wondering how they’re ever going to find another job in this sagging economy. But for some of the 4,000 workers who were recently laid off from IBM, their former employer is offering to hire them back– with one small catch. They have to promise to move to India.

IBM is launching an initiative called Project Match which promises to help its former employees “locate potential job opportunities in growth markets where [their] skills are in demand,” according to an internal memo on the program. If the ex-employee agrees to move to a developing market like India, China, or Brazil, IBM promises to find the person a job as well as provide financial support and visa assistance.

What’s not to love about working in India, with its rich culture, delicious food, and low cost of living? Well, apparently the employees will be paid only a small fraction of what they earned in the United States. And for most of the 4,000 laid-off workers, picking up and moving their families to India is not the most realistic option.

But perhaps there are a few unattached computer nerds out there who will take the company up on their offer. As an unattached computer nerd myself, I know I’d give it some serious consideration.

More here.

Product review – Lenovo Ideapad S10

In this product review, I’m going to give you a (long overdue) review of the Lenovo Ideapad S10. The S10 was featured as one of the top 25 travel technology product of 2008 here on Gadling.

2008 was without a doubt the year of the netbook. These smaller computers have completely overtaken most computer sales charts, and have been the best selling style computer on for almost 7 months.

In a previous article, I’ve described what a netbook is, and how it can help you on the road, so check out that article if the term “netbook” is foreign to you.

I’ve picked the Lenovo S10 out of all the other netbooks on the market because of a couple of features that help it stand out in the busy crowd. So, why the Lenovo S10? Design may be a very personal thing, but I personally find it to be one of the best looking machines in the market.

Every part of the machine has been extremely well designed, and it’s quite simply great to look at. From the nice speaker grill on the front to the well positioned ports and buttons, it is obvious that Lenovo took their experience in making other notebooks, and put that into designing the S10. For those not up to date on the computer market, Lenovo purchased the IBM desktop/notebook division in 2005, so they have a very rich heritage.

Inside the Ideapad S10 is an Intel Atom CPU running at 1.6GHz, the version on review here also features 1GB of memory, a 160GB hard drive, a webcam, 802.11b/g WiFi, Bluetooth and Windows XP. The various available versions of the Ideapad S10 offer different amounts of memory and hard drive space. The machine is available in black, white, pink, blue and red.


On the outside of the Ideapad S10 is of course where you’ll find the various ports. The S10 offers you 2 USB ports, an Ethernet (network) connector, audio in/out, a 4-in-1 memory card slot and an Expresscard/34 expansion slot.

That last feature is unique to most machines in this class. Expresscard slots allow you to add a large variety of expansion cards to the device, from memory card readers to 3G broadband access cards. Business users will most certainly appreciate the availability of this slot if they travel with a suitable 3G card. One minor beef I have with the Expresscard slot is that cards do not fully slide into it, this means you will always have to remove the card when you stow your machine to prevent damage.

On the inside of the machine, you’ll find a well designed keyboard, a fairly large trackpad and dedicated buttons for power and wireless control.

Keyboards have always been a very strong part of most Lenovo machines, and this one does not disappoint. The buttons are of course smaller than your home PC, but they are all very well positioned, and I rarely found myself reaching for the wrong button.

The trackpad has a slightly rough texture, making it much easier to navigate precisely, the 2 buttons for the trackpad are below the pad itself, much easier than on some other machines (like the Acer Aspire One).

Display and performance

The 10.2″ display has a 1024×600 resolution and is powered by an Intel 945G video chip. Of course, if none of this means anything to you, don’t worry. What it means in real life is that the screen has a decent resolution, without getting too small (or too big). Web pages fit the screen just fine, and the video performance is perfectly sufficient for most on-the-road entertainment purposes. Of course, with no internal DVD player, you’ll have to resort to video files to get your movie fix.

The screen is nice and bright, and even during some direct sunlight on a recent flight, I was able to read it. It also works from a fairly wide angle, so if you plan to get some private work done in public, you’ll need to consider getting a privacy screen.

Application performance is equally impressive, at least if you limit yourself to the kind of applications you’d use on the road. Web browsing, email, music and video all work just fine, but don’t expect to pull it out of your bag to play the latest and greatest 3D shooting game.

Travel with the Lenovo Ideapad S10 is quite comfortable – the machine is light, powerful enough for most tasks and with its built in webcam you can use chat applications like Skype or AIM.

It’s small size makes it perfect for using in-flight, and you won’t run the risk of snapping it in half when your fellow passenger decides to recline his or her seat in front of you.

Other machines often include a (very) basic case, but you’ll have to find one of those yourself for the S10. I recommend the Solo Netbook Messenger pictured here on the right.

Power and battery life

Power for the S10 comes from a 3 cell Lithium-Ion battery pack, which brings me to the only real complaint I have about the machine – battery life is pretty limited. In its defense, no other 3 cell powered netbook is any better.

With the 3 cell battery I was able to squeeze about 2 hours and 32 minutes out of the machine, before it shut down. If you need more than this, you’ll have to find a power source or outfit the machine with a $129 6 cell battery pack. The biggest drawback of the 6-cell pack is that it sticks out the back of the machine, adding quite a bit of bulk. The 6-cell pack doubles battery life to a respectable 5 hours.

Final thoughts

All in all, a very impressive machine, and of all the netbook machines I’ve tested in this price range, it is the most well equipped. Battery life is always going to be an issue on 3-cell computers, but there are options out there to increase it.

The Lenovo Ideapad S10 is priced between $349 and $409 depending on the version and color you select. This puts it well in line with most other netbook brands, despite offering some features not found in the competition.

To me, the price and Lenovo quality make it the best pick. The machine comes in a fairly basic package – you get the netbook, battery, AC charger and a manual/CD kit.


National Geographic’s Genographic Project

Having just gotten the results of my ancestor’s genetic journey from the National Geographic Genographic project I can’t say that I’m all that surprised about my findings. However, before I dive right into the details of what my own DNA sampling revealed perhaps I should start by revealing how I came to find out about this incredible project and what it is all about.

It was at the bazaar in Khorog, Tajikistan while I was waiting on the packed marshutka to take me and the rest of the passengers on a 16 hour drive down from and thru the Pamir mountain region back into the country’s capital city, Dushanbe when I noticed an individual walking, snapping shot after shot of the Tajik people in their everyday life. I shot a smile as to say “you’re not from here either,” which earned me some conversation and a more comfortable ride to the city with the photographer that minutes later I found out a was a part of a team from National Geographic working on the Genographic project. Their team which included some Russian scientists, Geneticist, Spencer Wells and video/photography crew had just wrapped up a few days worth of sampling some of the indigenous people of the Pamirs and Tajikistan’s Wakhan Corridor. Their work here was complete and it was time to take the samples to the lab, but not without the long, bumpy ride back down in a marshutka. They kindly allowed me to swap out of the super-cramped vehicle I was supposed to ride in for a little more space in their two marshutka caravan. This is where my journey into the project began.

According to what the team told me on the ride down and the official Genographic website, “DNA studies suggest that all humans today descend from a group of African ancestors who – about 60,000 years ago – began a remarkable journey.” The footprints of their journey can be found in your genes. The more I thought about the project, the more my curiosity got a hold of me and finally I went out to the Nat Geo Explorer’s Hall in D.C. and picked up my own participation kit. This is part two of my journey.

It wasn’t as if I were expecting my swab test/DNA results to tell me my ancestors had started in East Africa, worked their way into Estonia before hitting up Tibet, cruised over to Hawaii and finally decided to settle on into Mississippi, but at the same time I was. I wanted the results to show me a dynamic journey from point A to point B that with the right amount of savings I could relive one day on my own. Considering I’m African-American and my DNA identifies me as belonging to a specific branch called the haplogroup L3 group on the human family tree, my maternal ancestor’s journey is depicted in the map above and as you can see stops in Africa. Ditching science and going with what I know from history I’m guessing my people later went on an excursion against their will across the Atlantic Ocean. And even though my tests didn’t tell me anything mind-shattering I did gain a better a understanding of genetics, my personal sequence of letters and the name of the markers found inside of myself.

In the long run I’m still planning on reliving a good portion of the journey as a “trip of a lifetime” sort of deal. This will be part three of my journey. Right now, I’m encouraging all those with the slightest interest in science, DNA and genetics or perhaps just themselves to see where out of Africa their own ancestors took off from and where they journeyed before deciding to rest in one place. If you’re Asian, Caucasian, or Hispanic I imagine the results could be earth-shattering, though there could be a few African-Americans with some surprising genetics as well.

Scope out the Genographic project here and learn how to participate. They’ll explain all the particulars much better on the site.