A note from AJ:  While this post is over two years old, I believe it is still relevant.  The D830 continues to represent a great value in computing, and with the addition of a little RAM, a solid state drive, and the right OS, it’s a solid performer.

Have you seen the price of laptops lately?  I don’t mean the cheaply made, nearly all plastic models that manufactures sell as their budget models.  Yeah, I’m talking the ruggedly-built, metallic-cased, durable notebooks that are usually marketed as business models.  Surfing through a few of the manufacturer’s websites, I saw starting prices averaging over $1000, and it wasn’t too hard to spend more than $2000.

Along with those high price tags came some high specs.  Core i5 and i7 processors, 16GB RAM, solid state hard drives…the works.  Now, I mainly use my laptop for writing, checking out the Internet, and maybe watching a video or two.  None of that requires the high specs that today’s business machines offer.  That got me thinking about the business laptops of a few years ago.  Obviously, they would be durably built like today’s models, but shouldn’t yesterday’s high spec models be just as good as todays budget models, all the while being available on a shoestring budget?

Thus began my latest project, to setup an older laptop with more than adequate performance for my needs, and do so on a tight budget.  I began scouring EBay for potential candidates, looking for the following characteristics:

  • A reputation for durability I needed a laptop that would be durable.  An all-terrain, military spec machine would be overkill, but I’ve seen far too many broken plastic hinges and cases in my day.
  • 14-16 inch screen I’ll be the first to admit that my eyes aren’t what they used to be.  While a model with an 11-12 inch screen would be lighter and more portable, I was willing to trade weight for screen size.  My previous laptop had a 13 inch screen, and I wanted something that was at least a little larger.
  • Dual core processor at 2GHz or higher 95% of the work done on my laptop will be done with office or web documents, which don’t require extreme processor speeds.  At the same time, I didn’t want a dog that took forever to boot or would bog down when multitasking.  (Of course, not all dual core processors are built the same, even if their clock speed is the same.  For example, the Core i5 2.27GHz can outperform a Core 2 duo 2.93GHz processor.  Newer technologies such as hyper-threading, integrated graphics processors and so forth trump clock speed.)  Dual cores with 2.0GHz processing speed should handle the bulk of my needs nicely.
  • 4GB RAM minimum Fast processors and RAM, along with a relatively quick hard drive, are key to quick boot and load times.  There is nothing more frustrating than waiting for a slow laptop to boot.
  • Solid State Drive A solid state drive (or ssd) is a hard drive that is made up of flash memory (just like an SD or CF Card.) and has no moving parts.  They are extremely fast, and use far less power than traditional hard drives.  Their downside is cost, which can be 7-8 times the price for a similarly sized traditional hard drive.  Fortunately, I don’t need a lot of storage space on my laptop, so a small ssd in the 80-120 gigabyte range would suffice.

Another storage option considered was a hybrid drive.  If you are unfamiliar with these units, a hybrid hard drive combines a traditional hard drive with a small amount of flash memory.  This allows for a relatively large storage capacity (typically 500GB to 1TB) with read/write speeds nearly equal to that of a solid state drive.  The price of hybrid drives is also much lower than that of a solid state drive, making it an excellent way to achieve near solid state performance at a fraction of the cost.

After much searching, I found the ideal candidate for my project.  A Dell D830 that looked to be in good condition but missing a hard drive, hard drive cover and charger.  It also didn’t appear that many people were bidding on the machine.  As my usual EBay custom, I watched the item and placed a bid at the very last minute.  I managed to pick up the unit for $55, plus $12 shipping.  I also picked up an aftermarket charger ($9.95) and a hard drive cover ($2.50).  Microcenter was running a special on 90GB ssd drives, which put me back another $47.

The Dell D830

Latitude D830 Laptop The Dell D830 was a top of the line business laptop from 2007.  There were tons of options available in these business units, but they all had one thing in common…rock solid construction.  The chassis is built from a rugged alloy (no plastic here) with big and beefy hinges that attach the screen and lid.  Unlike a lot of cheaper built laptops, screen flex is not a problem; in fact, it’s a chore to get the screen to flex at all.

There is a CD/DVD drive, although it is the older style that will only read (not burn) DVDs.  This isn’t a concern for me, as I doubt I will ever use the drive.  In fact, there is an add-on battery that can be purchased to replace the optical drive, and I may just do that.

When you consider this laptop is a business design, the sound quality is fairly good.  There is a small speaker on each side of the keyboard, and for tasks like watching a YouTube video or a little background music, they will get the job done.

Speaking of keyboards, the d830 has one of the best keyboards I have ever used on a laptop.  It does lack a full number pad (I doubt one would fit), but everything else about the keyboard is great.  There is none of the mushiness or keyboard flex found in so many laptops these days, and the keys are very responsive.  While typing, the sound of the keys is not overly loud.  A pointing stick is included, although this is a device I rarely, if ever, use.  The track pad is about average, but has the nice feature of buttons both above and below the pad (the upper buttons are just below the keyboard space bar, and can be reached by your thumbs while typing).

There’s a pretty good selection of ports, with a pair of USB ports, headphone and mic, standard and s-video out, Ethernet, and both a PC and express-card slot.  Do to the era when this unit was produced, there is no HDMI output or SD card reader.  No web-cam either, although I’ve never used one so this isn’t a loss.

My unit came with the 2.4GHz core 2 duo processor and 3GB of RAM.  (While I wanted at least 4, I decided to wait on the purchase of new RAM until after using the laptop for a while.) The 15.4 inch screen has the mid-grade resolution of 1680×1050 with the matte finish (which is much better than the glossy screen for document and office work).  Doing a little research, it looks like my laptop so configured would have cost around $1600 when new.

Putting the Pieces Together

After my laptop and all of the ordered components arrived, it was time to get to work.  The installation of the ssd and drive cover was a piece of cake.  First install the cover on the ssd with two screws, then the entire assembly is slid into a slot on the left-hand side of the laptop.  Two screws hold the entire assembly in place.

Before installing an operating system, I booted the laptop to BIOS to check system specs and settings.  I was happy to see the previous owner had updated the BIOS to the latest version, so there was one less thing I would have to deal with.  (As a side benefit, the later BIOS version allows the motherboard to handle up to 8GB of RAM.)

Choosing and installing the OS

What operating system to use was next on my list.  It was a given that I would use Linux instead of Windows, but the question was what OS?  I wanted something lightweight, and didn’t want to spend a lot of time tweaking to get the system just the way I wanted.  I also did not want to spend a lot of time on the installation.

This was about the time I discovered Elementary OS.  Based on Ubuntu 12.04, this system uses its own custom desktop environment called pantheon.  It is quick and easy to use, with several custom built applications just for this OS.  I decided to give it a try.

After downloading Elementary, I copied it to a bootable USB and began the installation.  Installation was easy, with a graphical installer that reminded me of the one used by Ubuntu.  Fifteen minutes later, installation was complete.

After the installation, I booted the laptop, and everything started up without any problems.  No wireless driver problems, no graphics issues…everything just worked great! I was impressed with the startup time of the OS, and all of the applications loaded quickly.  I did a quick update to get my software running on the latest versions, and then began to explore the new OS to see what software I would need to add.

I found that Elementary OS doesn’t come with an office suite, so I added the latest version of LibreOffice.  Scrivener, the writing software I use for my novels, came next, as well as NixNote 2, which is a Linux desktop application for Evernote.  Dropbox was setup so I could access my Dropbox account.  While Elementary includes a command line terminal, I added Guake, which is a terminal application that will drop down from the top of the screen by clicking F12.

When installing a new Linux OS, I typically spend quite a bit of time adding themes and icon sets so I can get the appearance just right.  Not this time.  For once, I found an OS that has a great theme (at least to me) that needs no tweaking.  So to the Elementary development team, two thumbs up on the look of this system.

In Conclusion….

I’m pretty happy with the setup on this laptop.  3GB of RAM still resides on the system, and I have yet to run into a situation where I was wishing for more.  The learning curve with Elementary was pretty quick, and I’ve configured a few shortcuts to help speed up my workflow.  Everything runs quick and snappy; there’s never a sign of lag.  Battery life is in the 3-4 hour range, which isn’t too bad considering the screen size.  Who knows, maybe one day I’ll buy that axillary battery and 8GB of RAM, but for now, I happy with the setup.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article.  If you’re interested in learning more about Elementary OS, be sure to check out my review of this great system.  Feel free to leave a comment in the section below; as usual, I love feedback on my blog posts.