PC Refurbishment Project: ThinkStation E31

Ever since I ran across The Cheapskate’s Guide to Computers I’ve been keeping an eye out for an old laptop to refurbish. I thought it would be a fun project, and I like the idea of hardware that you can upgrade yourself. My Surface Pro is fabulous, but it’s essentially junkware if any of the components die. You can’t repair it; you can only toss it.

P and I were out for a walk when we ran across a sandwich board advertising a business’s garage sale. They had a dusty old Thinkstation E31 at the make us an offer table. They couldn’t tell me if it worked or not so I made them a lowball offer, expecting to be bid up. To my surprise, they said sure, $30 was fine.

On the way home, P said: You robbed them.

To which I replied: It’s not my fault they don’t know how to negotiate.

And right there you can see the differences in our personalities. 😂

Still, perhaps I robbed them. The machine was in better condition than I expected. The machine is a “small form factor” business desktop circa 2013, running a Xeon i5 processor, with an integrated Intel graphics chip. it came with 10 gigabytes of memory and a massive 2T hard drive. It also has a charmingly retro “29-in-1 Card Reader” of which the SD reader is the only one likely to be useful today. Plus a DVD RW drive.

When we first booted up the hard drive, it sounded like pennies in a garbage disposal. Yikes! The electronics were coated in a layer of sticky dust, and the thermal paste (a substance that goes between the hot CPU and the heat sink to transfer heat off the chip and into the air) had eroded into a gritty smear. From the software left on the machine, my hunch is that the previous owners were using it for graphics-intensive work and the poor thing was probably overheating and shutting down. Either that or they’d upgraded to something newer.

Given that the hard drive was so big, and the processor was decent, I decided to clean up the machine and use it as a personal desktop/gaming PC. Here’s where the internet came in handy. I was able to pull down the original manuals for the PC, look up forum posts where others had tried to refurbish the same model, and read about what the processor and graphics chip was and was not capable of. I knew I wouldn’t be running super resource-intensive games on an 8 year old desktop, but that’s fine because I don’t play those kinds of games anyway.

The Refurbishment Process Went Like:

  • Open Case & Write Down Components/Model #s
  • Research Computer & Components Online
  • Clean with Compressed Air. Apply Fresh Thermal Paste.
  • Boot! (Whew! It worked!)
  • Scan Hard Drive for Damage (It was indeed loud, but fortunately no disk errors)
  • Format Drive & Install Desired OS from a USB Stick (We dual booted Win/Linux Manjaro)

P upgraded the CPU Bios for me. I don’t understand all the ins and outs of BIOS, but it gave us better options in the boot menu, something we needed because we dual booted with Linux. (We put two operating systems on the same PC)

Time for Upgrades?

I’d fully expected that I’d need to replace some parts, especially the hard drive, so it was spiffy that I haven’t needed to. But there were two important components missing:

  • A Wireless Card
  • A Graphics Card

I researched wireless cards to find one that played well with both Linux and Windows and installed it. It cost more than the rest of the PC. Ha!

We’d installed Steam, and to my surprise, the integrated graphics chip was sufficient to play Civilization IV on the machine without any noticable lag. P couldn’t get Elder Scrolls to run, not a big surprise. This desktop was created for things like Excel and web browsing, not high FPS video. I looked up compatible video cards online (low profile cards that fit the skinny case, plus not too power-hungry for my 220V power supply), and I was shocked to see that even older, basic graphics cards are running $250-500 right now.

Right! There’s a chip shortage going on! Graphics cards that might have gone for $60 in 2019 are selling for many multiples of that. Rather than overpay, I’ll be content with playing Civ IV and Minecraft for now. After the chip shortage resolves, I’ll upgrade to a nicer video card.

But she’s all done! I’m writing this post on the new PC, right now.

A closeup of Cheri's desktop PC with lego minifigs on top

I’m pleased with how it all turned out! I’ve got a really nice desktop PC running Linux and Windows, with a kickass hard drive and decent processing and it cost me just $79.19 including tax. And P & I had a few hours of fun tinkering along the way.

The moral of the story? Never walk past a garage sale without checking out the dusty box under the table. Once in a while, you might get lucky.