Low cost terminal/pc?
May 28, 2008 4:24 PM   Subscribe

Recommend me a low cost terminal/pc/laptop/whatever with an ethernet adapter and a way to access the web.

I'm working on a project that sends work orders to different people. Most of our these people have a PC with internet access which they use to a webpage where they track their orders.

Now, we are about to add at least 50 more people to our system, none of which has a PC. And, since we must provide them with a way to access the order tracking software, we can't afford to buy PCs to each and everyone of them.

Each product order is basically text, averaging less than 1Kb of data. When someone receives an order they must confirm it. They also must be able to type a message back.

This means that the device that receives the orders must have a keyboard, a screen, an ethernet adapter and some way to access data (either a browser, a telnet client, wap browser).

One option is to deliver the orders via SMS messages, but it could become expensive (in my country sms are not cheap), its not reliable (a message could take 10 minutes to arrive, to late for our needs and replying to an order could take forever.

It doesn't have to be a PC or laptop. I'm looking for any kind of device that can help me achieve this task.

Ideally, each device must cost less than $200USD.
posted by edmz to Technology (15 answers total)
Are the orders your sending out simple? How about the messages they have to type back? And are regular voice phone calls dependable where you are? You could use a computer to call people on your network and play the order as an audio message, though complexity might rule this out.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:41 PM on May 28, 2008

Response by poster: The orders are simple, just a bunch of small tasks and/or items to ship and, maybe, special instructions (regularly one paragraph of text). People acknowledge the order, act on it and wait for the next one. Usually, the same person that receives an order does all the work.

Thus, phone calls are not an option basically because in some cases, people receive 6 orders in the lapse of 2 minutes (this is something that happens maybe 5 times a day). Either, we need more people answering the phones (and more lines, which cost USD $120 per line + $30USD per month) or someone that can transcribe pretty fast. Plus, phone lines might be busy because people are transcribing are still transcribing and order and thus delaying other work orders.
posted by edmz at 4:54 PM on May 28, 2008

Sounds like what you're looking for is what's called a Thin Client. Sort of a computer-without-any-insides device, because the real computing work is done on a server elsewhere. These can be had for $200, but require 1) a server at headquarters for them to connect to that can provide them with a "desktop" or whatever specific interface is needed and 2) a stable internet or Ethernet connection to that server. Oh, and while some will come with a keyboard and mouse, they don't come with a monitor - you'll have to provide your own.
I just helped someone with this: instead of a central file server and 20 full PCs for staff, they got a slightly more powerful server with Windows Terminal Services installed to act as a "shared central computer", and 20 thin clients for staff. Spent 1/5 the money. If they get 5 more people, they get 5 more thin clients; if they get 20 more people, they get a 2nd central server. It also means that instead of having to support, protect, and fix 20-40 PCs, there is just one or two servers to maintain since everything is centrally managed from the server - the thin client only delivers a connection to it and is easily replaced. (In my example, the thin clients are considered disposable - they had a lot of computer theft - if someone steals their thin client, it's basically a useless box and replaced for $200 as compared to a $1500 PC that contains company information, licensed software, etc.)

It's not clear what your operation is (are the new people in an office, or spread all over?), but is this something that could be done with telephones and Fax machines much more cheaply?
posted by bartleby at 5:02 PM on May 28, 2008

Response by poster: bartleby,

faxes are a good option, except for the fact that there is no easy way to "reply" to them to acknowledge a work order has been received. That means, we don't have an idea if someone is already working on it unless they call back, which defies the purpose of using a fax.

As a clarification, people that receive orders are scattered in a city. They are not under one roof, nor near each other.
posted by edmz at 5:10 PM on May 28, 2008

oops, should've previewed. No phone/fax. Yes, it sounds like you might want to read through that article I linked to and start shopping for a Thin Client solution. It might go a bit over your $200 per person budget for the initial installation, but it will have a MUCH lower cost both up front and over time than providing and maintaining full PCs for staff.
posted by bartleby at 5:12 PM on May 28, 2008

There's always the $299 Eee PC which definitely meets all of your requirements except price.
posted by zsazsa at 5:22 PM on May 28, 2008

oh, wait- if your workforce is scattered (working from home?), then you'd need to provide them with an Internet connection back to the server at headquarters too? That gets more complicated and costly. Hmm. Well, you could set up the same server, but tell job applicants that they have to supply their own internet connection and/or computer (pizza delivery drivers have to supply their own car, right?) The same thing that would be displayed on a thin client can be served up in a window on any computer (windows, mac, or free linux) and it doesn't matter if their computer is new or old since the processing is still being done back on the server at HQ - the internet connection becomes the important thing. You may be able to recruit more students, as they would have access to computers and internet on their campus?
posted by bartleby at 5:24 PM on May 28, 2008

Second the Eee, it comes with a guarantee as well.
posted by mattoxic at 5:44 PM on May 28, 2008

Ghetto/used desktop systems can be had for pretty cheap (well... not sure about where you are). Throw a knoppix cd in each one, and it'll boot and have ethernet. If something goes wrong, reboot, and the OS reinstalls. If you're really clever, you can even modify the disk image to auto-launch your web page and present a login.

Maintenance is cheap since the OS reinitializes on every boot, no worries about licensing.

Internet access is still required for each person, eating into the budget. Possible a few of the systems won't behave right with linux (unlikely really).
posted by cschneid at 6:56 PM on May 28, 2008

How about qwerty cell phones with a data plan and a WAP browser? This should deal with the time sensitive issue of orders and maybe the high SMS cost.

It seems that you expect the folks who fill the orders to just have internet access. If that's the case then cell phones don't make sense.

The OneLaptopPerChild is $200 . I don't know if it has a ethernet port.

I just saw this press release for a sub $200 laptop here. You can't buy one now so it might be vaporware.
posted by bdc34 at 7:13 PM on May 28, 2008

A two way pager might meet your requirements. Other than that the cheapest way that I can think of is with a cell phone that can handle email or has a browser. Even a cheap Virgin Mobile cell phone would work but the monthly service plan would be expensive.
posted by calumet43 at 9:23 PM on May 28, 2008

I think you should start with the communications aspect, which is going to be your ongoing cost, and which will determine what kind of equipment you can connect. You can certainly get a tiny PC for under us$200 new, but then you still have to supply the monitor and either a DSL or phone modem. I assume your $200 target is for the whole remote system, right?

One idea is to go with cschneid's recycled diskless PC idea, but have the remote terminals accept calls instead of dialing in. E.g., the central office has a queue of orders, and dials out to the remotes' modems to send them. When the order is acknowledged, the remote dials back in (on another line, I guess). Each call can probably be under 30 seconds, especially if you tweak the modem settings to avoid the long negotiation phase and just connect at 2400bps or something.

Another crazy idea, depending on exactly how dispersed your sites are, would be to build your own wifi mesh network.
posted by hattifattener at 9:53 PM on May 28, 2008

You can by used systems for around with a CRT monitor for less than $100. Here's an example.
posted by PueExMachina at 7:29 PM on May 29, 2008

We can't afford to buy PCs to each and everyone of them.

Ideally, each device must cost less than $200USD.

If that is your budget, you certainly can afford to buy a PC for each and every one of them. You can easily get a compaq/hp/dell PIII for under $100 and still afford to buy a new LCD monitor to go with it (that would be silly though..).

Note that since the Windows 2000 era, Microsoft OEM licenses are transferable along with the hardware they were sold with, so you can probably even run legitimate copies of Windows for that price.
posted by Chuckles at 11:51 PM on May 29, 2008

If they don't all have internet access, you could get PCs with modems in them. It wouldn't be that hard to have a PC in the office dial up workers one at a time and upload a tasks, or whatever.

In general, as long as it doesn't have to be easily portable, you really want to be using commodity hardware (a cheap PC). No other solution will be as inexpensive and as powerful. That's why thin clients have never worked.
posted by Chuckles at 11:59 PM on May 29, 2008

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