a cheap laptop that doesn't need to do much but isn't junk
September 28, 2020 9:47 AM   Subscribe

Pretty much what it says on the tin. I have some job prospects for work as a therapist. As I see it, this will require 1) a computer whose internet connection does not constantly conk out as my Dell laptop's does and 2) some space on the machine itself to keep notes, which I think it might be unethical to keep in the cloud. (I'm still feeling out all these issues.) I would love to spend under $500 on this. I am average Gen X non tech person levels of tech savvy, which is to say I am on the internet all the time but I read specs on a laptop description and don't know what a lot of them mean. Suggestions? Thanks in advance. People who do similar work, feel more than free to chime in with stuff I'm not thinking of.
posted by less of course to Technology (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

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posted by bbqturtle at 9:48 AM on September 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

You might be able to prolong the Dell Laptop by adding a USB wifi or ethernet adapter -- both are cheap, $10-20 typically. Network hardware breaks; that's a fact of life.

Encrypted cloud options are available, and may be a good way to go. Laptop hard-drives break too! What you want is encryption where you get to set up (and save, in several secure places) the key.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:02 AM on September 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I routinely recommend a used Lenovo Thinkpad, many models, tons of them around because big companies lease them, return after 2 - 3 years, they get bought by resellers and land on ebay or newegg. professional-quality laptops are vastly better made, use better components, are repairable and upgradeable. I am on a Thinkpad T440, got it used a month ago for @260.

Re: Dell with poor Internet connection - The network card in it may be dying; easy repair. Or buy a USB network card.

I'd store data on an external drive that could be secured someplace with a lock, as you would with paper files. Documents take very little space, a USB jump drive would work. Also, drives can and should be encrypted.
posted by theora55 at 10:07 AM on September 28, 2020 [8 favorites]

I recommend against USB flash drives for vital document storage unless the drive is kept long term in a safe. They are small, easily lost, easily broken, and easily corrupted. USB drives are made for convenient storage and transfer, not important storage.

External encrypted hard drive is my recommendation, with cloud backup.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:30 AM on September 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

Recent Ars Technica article: Battle of the $350 laptops
posted by ShooBoo at 10:53 AM on September 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

Seconding the Lenovo Thinkpad - same one that @Theora55 mentions. My local high school fixes and updates Thinkpads and sell them. I got mine for $125 in February and it's been amazing to use. I scored a free monitor, keyboard and mouse on a local Buy Nothing group, and I've got a nearly perfect work from home set up.
posted by HeyAllie at 11:00 AM on September 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

It's not a terrible idea to have a USB wifi whosit around in case that turns out to be the issue, but I'll just second the idea of buying a moderate-build refurb Dell or Thinkpad. I've done both this year, I went a little high on the Dell and low on the Thinkpad (through a work buyback, but it was my 3-year-old T570).
posted by Lyn Never at 11:05 AM on September 28, 2020

If you're looking for easy encrypted cross-platform online storage, the 200GB that comes for free with a Keybase account is pretty sweet.

I keep some quite sensitive stuff in my private Keybase folder, and to keep it secure I've set up my Keybase account as follows:

1. Added a paper key to the account (do this under Devices in the Keybase app).

A paper key is just a string of randomly chosen English words (Keybase chooses them) that you're supposed to write down and keep secret; once you have that, you can use it to authorize access to your Keybase account from any other device you own. Normally you'd authorize a new device using one of your existing devices by using the new one to scan a QR code displayed on the old one or vice versa, but if the magic smoke escapes from all your Keybase-attached electronics you can fall back to using a paper key instead.

2. Enable account lockdown mode (do this under Settings/Advanced in the Keybase app). This makes your private stuff inaccessible via the Keybase web interface, whether you're logged in or not; the only way to get at it then is via an authorized device running the Keybase app.

Once your account is in lockdown mode, then if all your authorized devices die and your paper key is lost, then everything private to your Keybase account - chat logs, private files, cryptocurrency wallet, everything - becomes permanently, irrevocably inaccessible. Inaccessible to anybody, including Keybase staff. There is no magic back-door recovery process. You can't even reset the account; if you want to use Keybase again after this, you'll need to create a new Keybase username and start over.

My own Keybase account is in lockdown mode, and I keep a copy of my Keybase paper key inside multiple copies of the KeePass database that I also keep all my other online credentials in. I'm completely happy with the security and robustness of this arrangement.
posted by flabdablet at 11:21 AM on September 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Are you going to be doing remote work? If so, maybe narrow it down to a few models and ask again about those models specifically. I say this because I've been using Zoom on my computer, which is a mostly excellent but old Thinkpad with 6gb ram. Outside of using Zoom I never had problems with it dropping internet connections (large downloads work fine, for example). But I was having a ton of lag and disconnection issues with Zoom, which would display messages about either an unstable internet connection or (occasionally) high CPU usage, even if Zoom was the only program running. Until I started rebooting my computer before Zoom sessions, since which point I've had almost no connection issues. This leads me to think that the issues were related to my hardware rather than an overtaxed connection. So if good performance on Zoom or a similar platform is important to you, it might be worth investigating how well the model you're thinking of buying performs specifically with those platforms.
posted by trig at 12:02 PM on September 28, 2020

Are you in the US? You’ll need to check with your state laws on how to store chart information. Your licensing internship and supervision hours should have covered this in detail.

Even local storage has encryption requirements in most jurisdictions in the us. Some cloud services are okay, but this carries on a state by state basis if you’re in the US. Often your data storage will need to be HIPPA compliant. And you can easily lose your license FAST for not adhering to those standards.

If you’re doing remote work, my therapist wife says to get the largest screen available to you, because apparently therapy on a smaller screen is vastly more difficult; and HD camera helps going the other way for the same reasons.
posted by furnace.heart at 1:40 PM on September 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

I bought my Lenovo Flex 14 (now discontinued) at Costco for exactly $500. It's a great little laptop; it has a touch screen, a stylus, it flips around to be a tablet which is something I've used once or twice. It's underpowered (I just bought an Intel NUC and fitted it out as a desktop) but it really does fine for running Zoom and things. It has some troubles streaming Netflix on Google Meet to my classes, but whatever. So for storage I would think about something with more than 256GB SSD, but RAM-wise (8GB) and processor-wise (Intel i3 maybe 7th generation) this is totally fine.

I would be aware of the computers with 32 or 64GB of storage, those things are more for someone who just wants Netflix and some basic computing abilities. But I do love this. There are also a bunch of other AskMe threads around laptops at this price point.
posted by Snowishberlin at 5:40 PM on September 28, 2020

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