Windows on the cheap: refurb what I have, or buy low-end laptop/desktop
March 29, 2021 12:22 PM   Subscribe

I need real hardware running Windows 10, but I've just lost my job so don't have much money. Should I refurb my elderly but still passable laptop (Samsung Series 7: i7-3635QM, 12 GB RAM, 1600x900 display) with a new SSD and a Windows 10 licence, or buy a low-end laptop or SFF desktop (like this ThinkCentre M83 package for CA$370)?

The laptop was quite nifty in its day, but it is 8 years old. The display and system are still good, but I've worn the keytops mostly off. I'd previously bought a cheap Windows licence for a VM via one of the legitimish resellers on Reddit, but that disk died and the licence now won't work past Windows 8. Are there still places that do these licences for reasonable amounts? I have a Office 365 family subscription, so I'm okay for office apps.

This machine won't be going anywhere, so that's why an SFF desktop may not be a terrible thing. I'm not needing a ton of speed, but I do need more than the super low-end Atoms and such.

(Please understand that I need real Windows running on real hardware: no VM, chromebook or Linux suggestions, please. I'll be testing USB devices and running software that's Windows-only. I have lots of Linux boxes for Linux things, and I know this needs to be separate.)
posted by scruss to Computers & Internet (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Check out refurbished Lenovo ThinkPads on, they should have something in your price range
posted by ananci at 12:44 PM on March 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

If your current laptop is running off of a conventional spinning drive, then you should see a substantial improvement in performance if you upgrade to an SSD. 12GB of RAM is plenty for most tasks, so I wouldn't worry about adding more memory. If I were facing this situation, I would upgrade the existing laptop rather than getting a new computer. An SSD will cost you a lot less than $370 (the cost of the ThinkCentre computer you mentioned). On the other hand, you'll also have to buy a license for Windows 10, and I can't really help you with your questions on that topic.
posted by alex1965 at 12:48 PM on March 29, 2021

How much do you care about performance for what you'll be doing on it? I think that laptop would tick over just fine running Windows 10 if you swapped an SSD into it.

The ThinkCentre M83 is only one processor generation later, unlikely to be much difference in practice considering that the laptop is at the i7 end of the range. And not a lot of workloads are CPU-bound these days.

So I think putting an SSD in the laptop is probably the cheaper way to a similar result.
posted by automatronic at 1:00 PM on March 29, 2021

If your laptop is already running Windows, you should be able to upgrade it to Windows 10 at no charge. I upgraded my desktop (a 3770k, about as old as your laptop) from Windows 7 well after the notional cut off date without any trouble, though it was a long while ago now. If you're reusing a license you sometimes have to call the automated system. Regardless, there are still cheap licenses available if you can't get it to work.
posted by wierdo at 1:00 PM on March 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

Seconding that if you want this done on the cheap and your laptop is already running Win7 or 8, upgrade your laptop to Windows 10 for free first, then upgrade to an SSD. You should be able to do a fresh install after the upgrade without difficulty, but at worst you should be able to image the drive onto the SSD and have that work.
posted by Aleyn at 1:21 PM on March 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

I replaced my dead 10-year-old laptop with the best refurbed ThinkPad I could afford, and I have not been disappointed.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:21 PM on March 29, 2021

Response by poster:

They don't seem to exist in Canada. Cross-border shipping is evergiven slow right now.

I think the laptop may already have an SSD (it's got one of those auxiliary 16 GB solid-state booster drives that were so in vogue in 2013 as well as the main drive) but a new one might be a plan. The software licence might be my biggest question. The thing may have a licence sticker on it somewhere, but that'll probably stop at Windows 8. Retail is CA $175 for Windows 10, which is a lot.

Laptop is not running Windows, it's running Ubuntu. It needs to run Windows 10. The free upgrade from 8 ended a couple of years ago.
posted by scruss at 1:25 PM on March 29, 2021

The free upgrade still works; the only thing that changed after the date came and went is that the upgrade tool stopped being delivered via Windows update.
posted by Aleyn at 1:35 PM on March 29, 2021

Best answer: Ah, just missed that you're running Ubuntu. If it came with Win8, then you should be able to install Win8 on it and the license will be embedded in the firmware. Then you can do the upgrade to Win10.
posted by Aleyn at 1:38 PM on March 29, 2021

As Aleyn notes the free upgrade to Win10 still works and an SSD will make that a perfectly acceptable machine.
posted by mhoye at 1:50 PM on March 29, 2021

FWIW, the CPU benchmarks on your existing machine and the upgrade you're looking at are virtually identical:

...on both single-threaded and multi-threaded benchmarks, so you're not going to see an increase of speed from that. Which is just to say that everybody else is right that you should just buy an SSD if you want to save money and get better performance.
posted by clawsoon at 2:13 PM on March 29, 2021

Running Windows 10 without a license is still working for me. I have a product key sitting right on my desk that I've just never bothered to use because I'm only using the Windows 10 box for occasional gaming and the only side effect is a transparent watermark on the screen. (I don't even notice it any more.) Wouldn't do something like that on my primary computer but as a temporary solution I bet you'd find it quite workable.
posted by commander_fancypants at 3:01 PM on March 29, 2021

I'll chime in to say I upgraded an 8 year old laptop from the booster SSD thingy to a full-on SSD and it made a huge improvement. I still use it as a media machine with Win10.
posted by Dmenet at 3:01 PM on March 29, 2021

Best answer: As mentioned above, if the laptop came with a Windows 8 license, the key for it is stored in the system firmware, so you don't need a legible sticker.

It's actually in the ACPI tables, so you can read it out from your Linux install with e.g:

$ sudo cat /sys/firmware/acpi/tables/MSDM | strings
posted by automatronic at 6:13 PM on March 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks! I couldn't find the string in the firmware, so I bought a new licence from the legitimish guy I bought Win8 from before
posted by scruss at 6:31 PM on March 29, 2021

I bought used thinkpads for my daughters for school for around 300 (covid inflated and I didn’t really wait for a good deal to come around, they can be found for cheaper). Totally works for any normal web/office/school work. T460s is the model I chose, but there are plenty of sites with information on used thinkpads.
posted by escher at 9:07 PM on March 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

I keep a vlmcsd running in my router, so whenever I want MS activation to get out of my way to let me test stuff for other people I can just use a KMS client key. Works well.

Testing stuff for other people has been my only use case for that company's products for twenty years now.
posted by flabdablet at 10:28 PM on March 29, 2021

I think the laptop may already have an SSD (it's got one of those auxiliary 16 GB solid-state booster drives that were so in vogue in 2013 as well as the main drive)

My impression is that the speed benefits come from running the operating system and applications from the SSD. So if that's not your setup now, you could try switching the drives and installing Windows and all your programs on it (or cloning the former main drive to the SSD) and see if that makes things any faster.

How much speed do you need, though? Is your current setup actually underperforming?
posted by trig at 1:46 AM on March 30, 2021

I just did the upgrade Aleyn posted above and it worked fine.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:15 PM on March 30, 2021

If you're still considering a used Thinkpad, this reddit post, though old, may have suggestions.
posted by blob at 7:02 PM on March 30, 2021

Response by poster: Put a new SSD in it last night, downloaded the Windows 8 install DVD image, and after several hours of "This will take a couple of minutes", I now have a Windows 10 system on the Samsung. I'm glad I booted it once into Windows when I got it, as the activation key had been lurking in the BIOS just as automatronic said it would be. At no time did I ever have to enter the activation key.

The system's a Windows 10 Home installation, even though I think the original licence was Windows 8 Professional. I don't think it's as big a difference as it used to be, though.

Thanks all for the help.
posted by scruss at 7:50 AM on April 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm glad I booted it once into Windows when I got it, as the activation key had been lurking in the BIOS just as automatronic said it would be.

Pretty sure the OEMs preinstall those, so whether or not you ever boot the OS they were initially supposed to activate shouldn't matter.

I am surprised to hear of a key for a Professional variant working to licence an instance of Home, though.

Also, I would personally expect fewer gotchas down the track by starting with a clean installation of 10 from a 10 installer ISO than I'd get by starting with 8 and letting it upgrade in place.

As far as I know, the first run of 10 will upgrade any existing 7 or 8 key found in firmware to a 10 key; subsequent clean installs of 10 will just pick that up and run with it automatically.
posted by flabdablet at 12:36 AM on April 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: There may be gotchas on the 8 → 10 path, but Win 8 was booted just once after installation and only used to install the 10 upgrade. So there's not much historic app fluff cluttering the place and gumming up the works.

Like all non-new machines, it absolutely sucks for video calls: crappy 0.9 mp camera plus none of the right kind of video acceleration.
posted by scruss at 8:15 AM on April 3, 2021

there's not much historic app fluff cluttering the place and gumming up the works.

Not once you've got rid of WINDOWS.OLD, at any rate.

Even so, I still think none has less potential for causing trouble than not much.
posted by flabdablet at 1:14 PM on April 3, 2021

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