Buying a PC for Your Third-World Adventure

A reader of this blog asked “What PC should I buy that can survive the erratic electricity of a third-world residency?” The answer, of course, is “It depends how much you want to spend.” But having reliable computing in a less-developed setting need not break the bank.

Assumptions

You’re an average, modern computer user with professional (i.e., office), social, and personal computing needs preparing to reside outside a first-world power grid. You could be in the mountains of Columbia or Colorado, or, like me, at the end of a one-kilometer driveway. You need to be able to use your PC at any time, but not necessarily all the time. You have a budget.

My previous stories on this subject are here. Your problem is spotty power that can come and go at any moment, day or night, and be off for hours. Your collateral problem is poor power with spikes, low and high voltage, surges, and intermittent on/off cycles. These can and will destroy the unprotected PC power supply in short order.

Strategy

The strategy is to put as much inexpensive stored electricity (i.e., batteries) in front of the computer’s power supply as practical. Duh! The easiest implementation is to use a laptop, which comes with a built-in battery. Modern laptops have hours of self-contained power while you wait for the power grid, backup generator, or tomorrow’s sun to renew your power supply.

Still easy but more expensive choices are a desktop all-in-one (such as an Apple iMac) or a regular desktop. In both the desktop cases cases, you’ll want an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) which stores AC grid power in a battery and delivers it to your electronic devices.

With those assumptions and strategy in mind, here is a prioritized list of what to buy and why to buy it:

The Basics

  • A laptop. Commercial grade (e.g., Dell XPS) has higher build quality than consumer grade (e.g., Dell Inspiron). You get what you pay for. Consider: 17″ screen-size as desktop replacement; SSD for reliability and speed. Your choice: Windows, Mac, even Chromebook.
  • A high-quality surge protector to filter as much electrical grief as possible. Mandatory unless you use a UPS.
  • A bigger and/or backup laptop battery. Greater off-grid time. More efficient than a UPS. Lowest cost when bought bundled with a new laptop.

The Upgrades

  • A powerful UPS, where power is measured in volt-amps. Over 1,000VA is better. Below 500VA is probably pointless with a laptop. The UPS has receptacles for other electrical necessities, so it becomes your electrical hub. Also, all UPS systems have power quality circuitry so your PC will always get clean power. Also, PC applications and a USB connection to the UPS can automatically and safely shut any PC down before the UPS itself exhausts its batteries.
  • A portable hard drive storage device to back up your PC. If this were me, it would rank in the Basics as a “must have”. The portable hard drives require no electrical power beyond a USB cable. With electricity (from your UPS), there are faster/greater capacity options.
  • A USB 3.0 Hub for greater I/O connectivity. Your laptop or all-in-one will never have enough USB ports for the printers, backup storage, Bluetooth speakers, and mobile devices that need charging. Your choices are four or seven ports. Go with the powered seven-port hub. After all, everyone in your house (office) will want to leech off your clean power. Plan accordingly.

The Options

Here’s where the budget goes out the window, but your level of electricity paranoia is nobody else’s business:

  • A secondary monitor scales your laptop’s screen to desktop size or becomes a second screen with more real estate.
  • Backup generator sized to your home electricity load. Best purchased locally as you will require service eventually. Requires (clean) gasoline.
  • Solar power generator requires solar panels, an AC inverter, and distribution hub. It can have its own battery for storage or use the UPS already in our specs. The money problem is a 300-400 watt solar installation can easily cost as much or more than our laptop computing device.
  • The ultimate upgrade for this scenario is a Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid car with internal 7.4 kWh batteries, 2 AC power outlets, USB charging, and 12-volt power. You can also drive it. $31,770 and up.

Is a Tablet an Alternative?

A tablet or a laptop/tablet (i.e., a two-in-one) is worth considering. Portable, mobile, self-contained cellular network option. Some have a desktop operating system. The keyboard and mouse can use easily rechargeable AA batteries. Device operating life often exceeds eight hours. Rechargeable from a small solar panel. Connects to Bluetooth peripherals and to a video monitor/TV via an HDMI cable.

Minimalist computing dramatically simplifies backup power requirements.

Consolidated electronics such as a tablet connected to the LCD monitor also used as a TV makes planning easier and redundancy less necessary.

The Network

Getting on the Internet has its own set of problems and costs. You’ll need local knowledge to make cost-effective decisions.

Assuming a controllable data budget, the easiest Internet on-ramp is to use your smartphone as a hotspot and connect your laptop via Bluetooth. You won’t find unlimited data plans in the third world, so this approach needs careful usage-based planning.

A conventional desktop or laptop setup will require a network access device(s) to the cable, wireless broadband, or satellite network. Plan to power-protect these devices too by plugging them into your UPS. However, that limits PC placement to being close to the network access point.

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Note: the products linked in this blog post are not endorsed by the author. The author has no financial ties to any product mentioned in this blog post.

 

Computing in the Third World: A Success Story

I just got back from my third trip to Haiti, a third-world country hampered by numerous problems. Nevertheless, after two years in operation, our school installation is reporting 100% uptime. Careful planning on electrical infrastructure proved to be worth every penny.

The First Problem is Power

Funny how AC power, which in the U.S. we take so for granted, is completely problematical in the third world. Endemic power problems are the worst threat to achieving widespread computer adoption in the third world.

In Haiti, my recorded observations in two cities posit total AC power grid failures at least once a day, and at random times.  Duration is from several minutes to several hours.  In addition, power spikes and voltage problems are common.  The results to personal computers are predictable: premature failure.
For example, I am involved in a 2008 project that put PCs into a K-12 school and teacher’s college in the city of Jacmel, on the Caribbean.  To overcome the unacceptable mains power problems, our technology team undertook the following infrastructure to support a 20-PC classroom:
– Industrial window air conditioners to cool and dehumidify classroom air
– Roof-mounted solar panels, lead-acid batteries, and an AC inverter
– 35 Kw diesel generator for backup power when solar is not available
– Installed costs including freight and duties were US$35,000; the PCs represent 40% of the total cost.
Side-by-Side Test: Protected Power PCs Keep Running
Five, unprotected, three-year old Dell Dimension computers in another classroom at the same Jacmel school are all dead with motherboard failures.  The capital is not available to replace these computers which failed well before expected useful life end.
The solar-to-battery classroom has 20 PCs that are all operating after tow years of operation that includes a Category 4 hurricane and a devastating earthquake.
PC Education Starts With the Basics
It is common for first-world students to get hands-on PC experience during their K-12 years, and to expect college-level students to have basic computer competency.  In the third world, it is common for even college-level students to have essentially no hands-on PC experience.  Therefore, education needs to start with basics like mouse movement, menus, folders and all the UI concepts needed as a base for application-level experience.
At the Jacmel school, hands-on computer training starts at age 10 with a classroom-hour a week. Teacher training receives extensive computer familiarization. However, the school population has doubled in the two years since the computer room was opened. Up to fifty students at a time now use the twenty PCs, so actual hand-eye skill training are not ideal.
Microsoft Has an Important Place in the Third World
Outside the U.S., it is common in the first and second world to see deliberate moves away from Microsoft operating systems and applications (e.g., EC).  I am quite surprised at the third world demand for Microsoft software.  The key reason is job skill development.  K-12 education is much more aimed at building usable work skills than in the first world, and here Microsoft operating systems and applications are — and buyers expect will continue — thoroughly embedded in business, commerce, and government.
Do Child Laptops have Limited Interest?
I have evaluated EePC, Intel Classmate, and OLPC laptops and extensively discussed the pros and cons with prospective buyers.  Some observations:
– The screen size is only personal; a plurality want desktops with large (19″) LCDs in order to sit two students per PC to maximize equipment utilization.
– Microsoft applications and Windows (see above).
– Concern for theft and loss.  Lack of capital for loss replacement.
– In general, laptops were of lower demand/interest than desktops.
In spite of these objections from Haiti and Brazil, Intel is making slow progress convincing governments to invest in country-wide child laptop deployments. Haiti, which lacks a fully functional government, is a poor candidate for country-wide PC deployments.
Classroom PCs Must Come Without IT Infrastructure
Classroom PCs need the same backup, anti-virus, software update, and other mundane but necessary care and feeding as a small business.  However, the lack of IT personnel skills and availability makes even routine IT infrastructure and management exercises difficult.  In short, a server is not much good if there is no administrator or operator trained and certified to keep the infrastructure running.  Our solution to date is to use LAN-level automated backup products.  I think it is a chicken and egg problem where lack of interest in learning about proper IT infrastructure management is tied to a lack of jobs related to IT infrastructure management.
Conclusion
By focusing 60% of our infrastructure investment on clean, reliable electrical power, our PCs are delivering the uptime needed to meet a demanding 14-hour-per-day usage schedule. The feared infant mortality was averted. The costs of that electrical infrastructure, which took an exorbitant 60% of the overall budget, are projected to support at least a decade of operations. That translates into about two generations of PCs.
The doubling of the school size was not forecast. Nor was the growth through success; adding more student classes to younger grades based on early success and the installation’s reliability. We’ll put in another six PCs this year to lower the students-per-PC ratio. However, the situation will never be ideal.
Looking to the Future
The rapid decline in desktop electrical usage makes it possible, in a couple of years, to think about doubling the number of PCs into an adjacent classroom — without increasing the solar-battery infrastructure. Stretching that existing solar-battery infrastructure is the obvious lever.
Netbooks are another future alternative for the classroom. At another Haiti project, a jobs-creating business was started with a pallet of 24 netbooks costing about $10,000. With wireless LAN and a router, this computer services business was in business in hours. However, unlike the take-it-home approach Intel advocates with the Classmate PC, these netbooks stay on the desks at night.