Almost exactly a year ago I experimented with getting some older Dell SX270 and SX280 machines off of eBay for between $30-$75 with the thought of turning these into low-end workstations. The experiment failed… one machine was dead on arrival, one was noisy, and one worked for a little while, but then seemed to fail as well.
So I was a little surprised to find some swapped-out Optiplex GX270s, which, while not as compact as the SX boxes, seem to have a lot of life in them. They aren’t young… they were built in 2004 and first delivered to an insurance company which then recycled them sometime around 2007. But they have 2.6 or 2.8Ghz Intel processors, 40 megabyte hard drives, 1 gig of RAM, and most them of them, nine out of ten or so, are silent. The one deficiency that I can find is that the USB ports are not the fastest, so some peripherals that expect a USB 2.0 interface may not work. This issue came up with connecting to an iPod media player.
Looking at eBay again, I see a number of these selling in the $75.00 range, with various case styles and memory. Most include a Windows XP sticker, which means if they don’t have Windows already installed, there is a legal installation number available. The machines also work well Ubuntu Linux as a desktop operating system, and I’m using a couple as FreeNAS file servers. A colleague is giving one to an senior member at his church. They are like candy… you can just pass them out.
OK…the $30.00 figure for a Windows computer is a little like The Four-Hour Workweek. In this case, I managed to get a dozen of these machines for free, when we upgraded to new Windows 7 machines from Dell. In the Real World, they might cost more, and I think I may just have lucked out (finally). On the other hand, similar machines might be available from other larger companies who are upgrading. My original premise that you might be able to get a Windows workstation or small file server with some sweat equity and maybe $150 or so, now seems within reach. When you have more time than money …