The new hamfest: Repurposing home equipment during coronavirus


So you can’t get a new laptop. What do you have lying around the house?

While we waited for the electronics to come in the mail, often from China, many of us turned to old equipment we had on the shelf or in the attic, in an attempt to dust them off and reuse them. I spoke with Carl Canales, the owner of A-Tec Computers in Allegan, MI, on what he was seeing people do with what they had, the state of the supply chain, and where the intersection of business and personal computer use in the era of COVID-19.

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From his vantage point in retail, Canales experienced the same things the rest of us did—the complete sell-out of webcams, headsets, then laptops, and now power-supplies. As the factories have come back online and the container ships are reaching the United States, supplies have been restored. Still, eliminating the backlog of orders will take a little more time.

The major issue is an increase in demand for laptops. In April, Canales saw six-times the usual demand for laptops, which wiped out his stock, including refurbishing. Then again, refurbishing was another problem, as the SSD hard drives he would use to bring old devices back to life were also out of stock. As of May 8, Canales can order laptops again from the warehouse, but the stock and selection are at a third of the usual levels, where shipping will take twice as long.

SEE: Top 100+ tips for telecommuters and managers (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Expect shipping delays

Canales and I have both experienced slow delivery; items in the process of being stocked expected for two-day delivery are now taking five days. With opportunities for retail limited, Amazon has placed priority on household staples, medical supplies, and other high-demand products. For the first time in recent memory, delivery dates for Amazon orders are slipping, making at-home projects even more appealing.

Let’s talk about making do with what we have.

Time for pet projects

During the coronavirus pandemic, I am taking care of my daughter while I have to work. Try as I might to work after bedtime or during (limited) screen time, invariably I need to take a meeting or cook a meal while she wants to play outside or somewhere in the house I cannot see her. 

Then I realize: All my laptops have a webcam.

Instead of giving a laptop to her and trying to  make Skype calls, I can simply set up a permanent, always-on call on the laptop, which is always plugged in. When I need a nanny cam (for lack of a better term), I carry the computer to wherever my daughter will be, set it up, and we instantly have videoconference anywhere in the house—or outside as long as it is not raining.

For this task I first try to borrow a couple of used “Netbook” HP Pavilions from Canales. These are ideal as they are cheap, light, and have good battery. On one I keep the original Windows 8, while on the second I install Linux Mint. The Windows 8 machine is really too slow for any work; I end up pressing tab instead of trying to use the mouse because of the delay. 

The Mint machine doesn’t support Skype. I make a brief attempt at searching for video chat software (Note: be very careful what keywords you use. Mint has Yahoo installed as the default search and it may guess wrong about who you want to video chat with). I decided to try Google Hangouts over a browser, now called Google Meet. This actually works in the Mint-default Firefox browser, and even sends the webcam to my laptop … but I cannot see my screen on the netbook.

My next attempt is to try an old Lenovo Thinkpad I have lying around, which works like a champ. It is, however, heavy and actually has some value—not the kind of thing to leave out in the yard. I make one more attempt with the Mint machine, installing Google’s Chrome browser, but it is not to be. I may need a slightly less underpowered laptop that no one else wants.

Create a window through concrete block

As it turns out, Canales is working on a similar project. Missing his old window to the outside of his new house, he plans to plug in a TRENDnet camera to the outside of his house, then point a monitor at it that is mounted like a flatscreen TV, creating a “Portal” effect.

So there are two small from-home projects you can probably do, creating either a view of the world or a child-supervision system, with repurposed equipment you may have lying around. One of the tablets you got for a penny with your wireless cell provider might work even better. What projects are you doing during your stay-home time? Leave your ideas in the comments.

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