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The Importance of Having a Second Computer

Last night I had something happen to my big-box computer with the motherboard that made the computer completely unusable. I’m not going to get into the specifics of it but it was sorta/kinda my fault, sorta/kinda not. In short I’ll say that it was an attempt to upgrade the BIOS from software provided by the motherboard manufacturer, but I failed miserably.

End result: I had to waste $55 and order another motherboard from NewEgg. It’ll be here in a few days. For the time being I’m operating on my tried-and-true Dell Inspiron 6000 laptop built way back in 2005.

I don’t think I can express enough how much of a comforting feeling it is to have a backup computer. Were it not for the laptop I’m typing on right now I’d be dead in the water, meaning I’d have no computer at all. But I can still work and operate normally which allows me to breathe a huge sigh of relief.

If you only use one computer, what would you do if it broke?

Does that make you nervous?

Then maybe you should get a secondary box.

How to get a backup computer on the cheap?

(Note: The Mac stuff is covered also, read on)

New (PC):

You absolutely cannot beat the Dell Outlet Store.

Look at this:

Dell Factory Outlet_1202309580687

Your eyes do not deceive you. A scratch/dent with Vista Basic and an Athlon 64 Dual Core for $209. That’s a complete system mind you save for the fact it has no monitor.

For new you can’t do any better than that. Dell can shuffle those out super-cheap because they’ve got the volume.

Used (PC):

Just about any box will do. If it’s under a 1GHz processor I’d skip using Windows and go with a “light” distro like Puppy Linux. All you have to do is make sure the CD/DVD drive still works in the old box so you can load the OS.

And yes I know there are guys out there who would say “I’d use Windows 98!” If you have it and can use it, go ahead.. but I wouldn’t. Better to use a Linux because Win98 has the security of a wet napkin.

New (Mac):

I don’t recommend buying another brand new Mac if its purpose is to be a backup to your other Mac. You can if you wish but it’s overkill. Mac people already know the new offerings out there so I don’t need to mention them.

Used (Mac):

Apple Store Certified Refurbished: Too expensive. Don’t go that route. Way too much cash for a backup computer.

Instead, find a Mac dealer new you. For example, in Tampa Florida there’s Mac of All Trades. They have way more selection and they’re local. For example, I can get a G3 tower for well under $100 – and that’s just cool (and cheap).

Slow? Yes. But I can throw on a PowerPC-friendly Linux distro and get her up and running easily.

How to configure your backup computer

I don’t make my backup computer an exact clone of my primary big-box PC. Instead I have it configured mainly just to keep communications rolling.

Web Browser

Configure the browser to the latest up-to-date specs. Don’t forget the Flash plugin and Java stuff.


I use Gmail because I can access it from anywhere. If you already used web-based mail you’re all set.

If you don’t, you should configure an e-mail client (like Mozilla Thunderbird) to be ready-to-use when you’re using the backup box.

Instant Messaging

I suggest using messengers that “carry over” your buddy lists so you don’t have to re-add everyone again. Fortunately the vast majority of messaging services already do this, so you don’t have to worry about it.

What you should do is at least get the messenger all set up, be it with Trillian, Pidgin, from-service clients or whatever you choose to use.

Docs, Spreadsheets, etc.

One word: OpenOffice.

Install that.

Other tools you may normally use

If the backup computer is powerful enough I will install some of the more “heavy” apps for graphics, video and audio editing.

However, if it isn’t, I will use software like GIMP and Audacity.

Typically speaking the open source stuff tends to run a bit better on slower computers. I don’t know why; it just does.

It would serve you well to learn software like this just in case you ever have to use it.

So, after configuring.. it just sits and collects dust until I need it?

Essentially, yes. But I would boot it up at least once a month to make sure everything is still working on it.

You may never need your backup box, but that’s not the point.

The point is that if you do need it, it’s there.

It’s totally worth it to build up a cheap box for the better-safe-than-sorry factor.

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11 thoughts on “The Importance of Having a Second Computer”

Mac says:
LIttle late here – bu I couldn’t agree morw. The point of a second box (Mac or PC) isn’t breakneck speed or the latest in hardware bragging rights. It’s about the security of being able to address any issues with your primary box without having to do without all the wonderful things a computer gives you (especially if you’re a freelancer or contractor – crazy important.)

Used computers are indeed perfect second machine candidates.

Lars T says:
Nick, thanks for the suggestion of Acronis. I did my research and it’s one of the best out there. Saved me from a Norton product.
Nick says:
another option would be to invest in some imaging software such as acronis true image. they have options now to restore to different hardware. instead of buying a clunker now when you don’t really need it, just take out how much you’d be willing to spend on one and put it away (i keep the cash wad actually strapped inside the case of my computer). then when the unfortunate event happens you can get the most up-to-date out-of-date clunker your cash stash can afford, instead of one that was 5 years old 5 years ago when you bought it. then just use your latest restore image to restore your computer to your new old hardware
Jase says:
I learnt that lesson the hard way as well back in 2000 when I accidentally overloaded a power supply and caught fire taking the entire computer with it… I now tend to have a few backup PCs around. I also tend to lend them to friends in need.
David M says:
I would be so screwed without a second computer since 99% of the computer help I get is over the internet. Actually, I have 4 working computers in the house, two laptops in the garage that work and two computers at work…so, I think I am covered. :)
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Paul says:
Maybe I’ve got too many? I bought a cheapy awhile back just for a back-up, but now it’s my “main” unit just because it’s quiet. It has PCLOS and XP on it, then my old main PC has XP and an old,old one with PCLOS only all networked together. Now if all of those die, I’ve got a piece of junk sitting in the corner I could use to get my E-mail… And if it dies, I’ll just go back to watching TV!
charles says:
Keeping an older computer around might also be nice for occassionally backing up files. Anthing from your Pictures to your music to family history data or all your documents like resume’, tax records, etc.

Of course you could get a big Flash Drive and back up data on that as well. You can put a lot of documents and photos on a 2 Gig Flash Drive.

If you suffer from Internet withdrawl if you cant chat for longer than 2 hours, then that is all the more reason for a working backup.

Tana says:
I had a similar adventure 1o years ago and I was in the middle of a project. Additionally, I had some stuff for school to write and you can imagine how mad I was. Since then I have almost always had at least 2 computers, so that if one crashes, I am not left in the wild. I think that for everybody who can’t breath without a comp and an Internet connection, a second computer is a must.
B. Ellis says:
I learned my lesson! When the PSU fried on my emachine I was dead in the water. I had to go buy a used clunker to get on the net and find out how to rebuild it (Thanks! PCMech!) Now I keep a spare or two just in case my main box jilts me. Also I can loan the old spare to a customer when I’m repairing their box. People are thrilled they don’t have to be offline while gettting fixed.
Lars T says:
Timely article. My home machine just died, and my wife has been using work laptop for her freelance writing. Luckily, everything was saved via an external hard drive and online backup. I will get a new machine and a cheap backup as well.

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Feb 6, 2008

643 Articles Published