The $83 home made machine is no more.
Yesterday it refused to boot, or power off. Opened it up, reseated memory, disk cables, which improved it a little more if some piteous buzzing and beeping can be called an improvement. I have this distinct feeling it's a motherboard fault - yes I could do some more diagnostics, unplugging disks etc, but given it's general failure to do anything it looks fairly terminal.
At the same time the ppc imac in the study is clearly coming to the end of its useful life - not because it's unreliable or slow, but because as I've moved to using more and more features of the Google ecology I find that the browser version supported by the operating system simply doesn't work that well with Gmail or Google docs. So it's headed to the garage as an extra machine for random extra browsing.
So what to do? Basically go and buy a new cheap laptop as a desktop replacement, in my case a Dell Inspiron 15. 64-bit windows 7 and no option for alternative operating systems so I'm going to be re-assimilated by the evil empire, but on the other hand if you work with computers I guess I should know something about windows 7, and with the option of installing virtual box I can run a linux operating system if I want. Add Firefox, Open Office, AbiWord - for its conversion tools, Zotero, and a coupld of bits and pieces and I should be right, though a decent editor might be a bit more of a problem.
I also reckon I can probably install the latest Ubuntu if Windows 7 turns out to be unbearable.
And there's a message here (isn't there always) - if you recycle old machines you've got to be willing to (a) accept that there's a higher risk of component failure and (b) feature creep killing your machines. However it's still a good strategy - I got two productive years out of these machines, and it cost me $20 - given I've still got the second user Sun monitor I paid $63 for. Makes it worth hanging on to the dead machine in case I happen across another machine to cannibalize and turn into a linux only box - which of course is the rub and why shipping old machines to the third world to be re-used is bad - they need higher support costs and more repairmen to keep them going, even though linux and FOSS saves a bundle on licensing costs.
Likewise as a reasonable number of universities in East Africa and elsewhere make use of the Google ecology to keep their ICT delivery costs down, it means that any old machines donated have to support recent environments, or else they are just valueless boat anchors ...