If only computer parts weren't so expensive....
August 30, 2016 2:53 PM   Subscribe

So I've enjoyed building computers as a hobby for years now. I enjoy putting the components together, reading comparison tests, looking at spec sheets and comparing prices, all that stuff. The problem is that I can't do it as often as I'd like because its too expensive! I need a hobby that's like building computer but is a lot cheaper.

My question pretty much says it all but I'll elaborate a little more and say that I probably would be constantly pulling my computer apart and putting new parts in if it didn't cost me hundreds of dollars to do it every time. I'm looking for hobby suggestions that have similarities to computer-building but where the required equipment isn't so darn pricey.

I briefly thought about selling them just so I could have an excuse to put them together but after looking at ebay it seems I'd have to take a loss on each one since I'd be competing with stuff shipped over from China. I guess I could look into selling them locally but even then I feel like I'd have a hard time even breaking even.

I've gotten into programming a little over the last few years partly due to my job, and while it does scratch some of the tech itches its just not the same. There is just something about physically putting something together that I enjoy.

I thought about arduino but I wasn't sure if that would also involve buying a lot of pricey parts.

Any suggestions?
posted by ajax287 to Computers & Internet (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Arduino/RaspberryPi stuff sounds like it'd be a good fit.
posted by pyro979 at 3:04 PM on August 30, 2016 [9 favorites]

I'm considering a computer building camp, where for a set fee (including parts costs) I teach your kids about all the parts of a computer as we build it, and then at the end they take it home. I teach in an affluent area, so I already have parents who are interested, and I can arrange a place to hold it fairly easily here, so YMMV.
posted by Huck500 at 3:04 PM on August 30, 2016

I would check and see if there are any surplus equipment sales in your area. The local college here has a very good one; I generally manage to get parts for 2 or 3 computers and a monitor for around $100 every year or so. All of the equipment tends to be no more than four years old.
posted by graxe at 3:06 PM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Small run physical parts will always be somewhat pricey. But consider a $5 computer, a Raspberry Pi or Omega2 (which looks more practical than the Pi). Don't try to build a workstation but fine a new use with minimum extra parts. Perhaps a small robot.
posted by sammyo at 3:07 PM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Spam your comunity/FB/craigslist with "I can take your old computer off your hands! I'll show you how to remove all of your data from it so no-one can steal your data!" or "Donate old computers to me! Good cause!" posts.

Simultaneously, do a similar campaign with "Do you need a computer? I can donate one to you (or teach you how to build them)!"

Collect old computers, disassemble into components. Build better computers from the collection of parts. Distribute to the needy.
posted by porpoise at 3:19 PM on August 30, 2016 [9 favorites]

Build speakers perhaps.
posted by adamrice at 3:21 PM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

How about clock-building, or constructing basic (pinhole-style) cameras?
posted by delight at 3:25 PM on August 30, 2016

If you haven't already, you can put the word out to your friends and their families that you're available to help design and build systems. (For fun not profit). This brings in a lot of extra systems to build, though it may be prudent to be clear upfront about limits on ongoing servicing :)

Bicycles also have a similarly large degree of component selection and customizing, but like the computer, too pricey to do often.

Arduino sounds like a good match for you. The parts can be very cheap, and even the most premium parts from the premium manufacturers are cheap compared to desktop computers.

To make a little money, assembling working laptops from ebay parts might be something to look at. You pick a laptop line that was ultra-high-end and widely adopted by businesses (rather than fashionable to consumers) a few years ago (long enough for masses of broken ones to be being parted out on ebay), so you can build laptops that are high-ish end today for very cheap. It's less creative though since laptop configurations are much more limited.

Also, AFOLs (Adult Fans Of Lego) make amazing creations, and Lego has programmable robotics sets, user-hacked third-party programming environments, etc. You can build a device, then tear it down and build something else.
posted by anonymisc at 3:40 PM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

I had a friend build a computer for me after Dell cancelled the order on a computer I had customized and ordered from them. Basically, I needed very specific things because I was using my computer both as a stats powerhouse AND as my media centre, and I had a spot for the tower that required a specific-sized tower, on top of all that. Dell basically decided they were going to have business machines that could do awesome stats or media machines that could have TV cards, but would no longer do a computer with both.

Anyway, you might not get a bite too often, but I would advertise yourself as designing computers for niche users. Gamers who need to do photoediting (well, that may be the same graphics-based system, I don't know), or photographers who need to run their own secure web servers or whatever.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 4:01 PM on August 30, 2016

Arduino stuff may scratch this itch! But, it can be a lot harder than putting computers together and also is pretty expensive. I blew up an $80 module recently and was pretty upset with myself! So something to take on with caution.
posted by miyabo at 4:02 PM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also: if you want to keep building computers, see if you can do small/low-power FreeNAS servers. LOTS of people want these right now for home or small office, and no big companies are really adequately meeting the need. Set up a Shopify and I bet you could sell dozens.
posted by miyabo at 4:05 PM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

12v battery, solar panel, wooden chassis with 1/4" panels to hold switches, metal switches.... all wired up with a charge controller and then make stuff up to power with 12v and attach to the battery. So far, I've got a fan (intended for a computer) and a cell phone charger. Also a plug system for connecting the solar panel at need, plus a voltmeter and button to measure the charge on the battery.

I want to add a fan that will allow different speeds with a potentiometer, and some kind of LED reading light (having a hard time finding a 12v LED bulb that's the right intensity -- all I'm finding is super-bright outdoor lights or tiny tiny indicator-type lights).

I'm interested in other ideas for good applications for this power system, too.

Here's where I got my original 20w foldable solar panel, but I don't think he sells that model anymore.

Solar power! It's really great, and handy too.

(If you figure out how to make a good solar-charged lamp, you could potentially make and distribute kits.)
posted by amtho at 4:30 PM on August 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Nthing Arduino/Raspberry Pi. The parts are actually fairly cheap, and you don't really need too many expensive tools. I'd recommend a good midrange soldering iron. A good quality handheld one is all you need for through-hole soldering, which is usually enough for hobbyist projects. That's $15-20, and Adafruit and Sparkfun (two great hobbyist sites) both offer a good range of them. They don't carry the bottom of the barrel ones you'd find at a hardware store, which are probably better suited to plumbing and woodburning.

If you aren't familiar with basic electronics, buy an Arduino or Rasp-Pi kit from Adafruit or Sparkfun and work through the book. It'll also get you good jumper wires and a breadboard, which are awful when they're low-quality. From your history, you seem to have a bit of programming experience, which will be handy. Arduino is programmed in C/C++ with a bunch of simple libraries that make the Arduino way easier to program than a typical embedded chip. And the Raspberry Pi runs Linux, so you can program or use any program that has an appropriate port. So, C, Python, Java, whatever suits you.

As for components, the parts most guides exist for happen to be available super-cheap on eBay and Aliexpress. They tend to ship from China, so shipping takes quite a while, but other than that, you can get a lot of interesting parts very cheaply. Of course, with Sparkfun/Adafruit, you're supporting enthusiast sites, and they often have better build quality, as well as many handy boards and parts they designed themselves.
posted by mccarty.tim at 4:40 PM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

You can definitely do Arduino on the cheap. Pretty much all the actual modules also have cheap knock-off versions from China. (Some of which don't work, and then you get all the trouble-shooting fun).

You can also build circuits to do the same stuff the pricey modules do, but from scratch out of component parts like resistors, transistors, LEDs, IR LEDs, photocells, etc. None of those parts will cost you more than a few cents to a dollar. You can usually build something quite complex (I built a whole robot!) from parts like this spending a total of no more than about $20, and it will take months. Longer if you rely on scavenging parts from old computers....
posted by lollusc at 4:50 PM on August 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

How about getting broken computers for free or cheap on Craig's List, then cobbling together working computers from the results? You could sell them back on Craig's List once you have them working.
posted by chiefthe at 5:37 PM on August 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you like programming computers, do what everyone else says and take up with Arduino or Raspberry Pi.

If you have musical ability, consider building your own synthesizers or synthesis modules from non-microprocessor parts. You can do this with Ard/RPi as well, but programming a chip to perform functions on functions feels fundamentally different from matching transistors and soldering parts, even if the end results are the same.

Once you figure out the settings to the bass line of one of your favorite songs, doors open in your mind, and you end up wanting to figure out how to do the drums and melody as well. And nothing is cooler than building a module that takes inputs from another module you've already built and outputs something that shakes the room/your booty.

Parts are cheap, plans are often free, but assembly (pre-printed PCBs, potentiometers, knobs, housings) and testing (multimeters with a certain precision, oscilloscopes) can be expensive.
posted by infinitewindow at 5:50 PM on August 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

I helped* my nephew build a drone from a box full of parts he'd ordered. Holy cow, if you enjoy reading specs and descriptions about components and what goes with what, the scratch built drone hobby is the hobby for you. It's a rapidly maturing segment, with lots of specialization.

*My contribution was some woodwork (the chassis was a pair of laser cut birch panels he'd found the drawings for online and cut on his high school's laser cutter and the booms were cheap poplar -- where I came in), but he planned and sourced all the rest of it and I kinda stood agape at all the wires and motors and controllers.
posted by notyou at 7:06 PM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Check to see if there are any maker spaces in your area.
posted by aniola at 8:29 PM on August 30, 2016

Build a synthesizer.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:49 PM on August 30, 2016

... and once you have a pile of junk parts; you can extract the gold (there's a little silver, too) from them, before sending them to 'final' disposal.
posted by porpoise at 9:54 PM on August 30, 2016

There are DIY 3D printers that might scratch the itch- the coolest thing is printing your own parts to make the printer better.
posted by freethefeet at 12:08 AM on August 31, 2016

There are various folks around rebuilding computers for charitable causes.
You get all sorts of donations and need to construct useful systems from the various mixed parts you get.
It is very much what you describe, but a few years in the past as you are dealing with non-new components.
And you would be doing somebody a good turn!
posted by bystander at 4:08 AM on August 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you have a Free Geek or similar non-profit nearby you could volunteer there. One of their major activities is testing donated parts then assembling them into working computers to be resold.
posted by aerotive at 6:12 AM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

Nthing the Free Geek / computer refurbishing charity option. I did it for a few years and it definitely scratched that itch while not costing an arm and a leg in parts.
posted by Pong74LS at 6:31 AM on August 31, 2016

Tabletop miniature games. I can speak specifically for Warhammer 40K, but I think the following is pretty universal:

I enjoy putting the components together
Let me talk to you about sprues and glues. Some people will ask you if you are into plastic or super? pins? magnets? Others will tell you all about how Citadel paints are the gold standard but you can get the same results with Vallejo but you don't want to cheap out on shades (and [stay away from|always use] P3 metallics!).

reading comparison tests, looking at spec sheets and comparing prices, all that stuff.
This is called list building. There are at least 14 factions in 40K, each of which has its own "codex" of character specs and special rules. For most matchups, you need to field an army keeping the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent in mind. Except in the most casual of settings, "fielding an army" means purchasing, assembling, and painting the models that you want to play with, so you it behooves you to do some of this comparison stuff before you even spend a single dollar for plastic, and certainly before you spend time painting.

And that's just getting your army on the table assuming someone else has done the scenario design, terrain setup, etc. for you.

The problem is that I can't do it as often as I'd like because its too expensive! I need a hobby that's like building computer but is a lot cheaper.

And here's the catch. 40K is not "cheap," but I bet you that in dollars per hour of entertainment, it will come out better than computer building. And Games Workshop is introducing some good "starter" packs to help you get hooked for cheap. You can get a relatively low-risk start by purchasing one of the boxed games (the new Kill Team one isn't a bad place to start for $65) and the Citadel build and paint set for $33. There's a lot of assembly in there, but worst case you'll end up with a fun little 2-player board game (and a desire to never assemble minis again) when you're done.

To be fair though, I consider the strategizing that I do to budget for and select new additions to my army to be part of the fun.

But if you weren't into Space Marines or Tau (remember -- 14 factions) maybe one of the Start Collecting! sets would be good for you. But then you'll need the Big Rule Book, and probably at least one friend who is willing to go down the rabbit hole with you.

Oh, and then there's the 29 years of canon sources of lore that Games Workshop has produced/licensed. You can learn a fair bit for free on Wikia and the like. But your experience will be that much richer if you start getting into the novels, or video games, or fan films.

But basically, I like this hobby because it is multi-faceted. Depending on your level of interest you can spend varying amounts of energy on: min-max spreadsheety army/list building, meta-game tactics planning, artistic/creative modelling and paint design, crafty assembly, research, story-telling (to the extent that you bring role-play/lore based reasoning into your decisions making)... oh, and on top of that you get to play games sometimes.

And that's just assuming you just blindly walk down the 40K path without researching the many other good games out there. They say there is no zealot like a convert, so I apologize for the length of this as I spent the better part of two decades thinking that minis were silly only to slide down the rabbit hole about a year ago so I'm in pretty deep still.
posted by sparklemotion at 1:26 PM on August 31, 2016

A friend of mine picks of old computers and parts for free on Craigslist and Freecycle, then rebuilds them into low spec machines with Linux distros to donate to low income families and students.
posted by ethical_caligula at 2:18 PM on September 10, 2016

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