I recently purchased a lot of second-hand Chromebooks (at a huge discount) that were offloaded by a few school districts. I plan to fix, clean, and resell them individually. My goal is to provide access to functional computing at a reasonable price (well under $100 USD) and keep these devices out of landfills. I’m happy to share more details about this project if anyone’s interested!
This is what I’m struggling with - most of the laptops are damaged in some way. Many are just scratches and sticker goo on the plastic chassis (these can be dealt with easily enough), but unfortunately a large number of them have some combination of the following severe issues:
Corners chipped off
Extremely worn keyboards
Many other issues that you’d expect from ~400 cheap laptops that have been consistently beaten on by middle schoolers
I’m interested in suggestions from the innovative and creative people in this community on how I can address these issues, ideally without having to purchase too many new parts, as the goal of this project is to reduce and reuse.
I really appreciate your input and thoughts on this endeavor!
I have several other issues that I’m trying to solve in an ethical way, but I don’t want to burden this community and by dumping all my problems in a forum thread. Just looking for creative input!
Is it possible/easy to remove the screens and keyboards? I would think one of the ways you could handle broken parts is to mix and match the good parts from the devices with broken parts (i.e. Take the good screen from a device with a broken keyboard, and a good keyboard with a broken screen) to create as many good devices as possible. It may also be possible to lift individual keycaps if you are careful in order to use some of the good parts of broken keyboards.
As for chipped corners, I wonder if you could use tape to seal the outside, and potentially try to fill the spaces with some resin? Obviously do this outside or in a well ventilated room, but if you seal it up right and don’t use too much it might fill some gaps? (note I have no prior experience in this, I just know of the technique and am guessing it could work here.
edit: thought of another idea minutes after posting, but you could also look into 3d printing some little covers to glue over top of the chipped corners.
I also want to say that I love that you’re working on a project like this! It’s great to hear that you’re working to give people computers for cheap, and I wish you the best in your endeavor!
Thanks so much for the response and encouragement! Fortunately, these Chromebooks are fairly easy to tear down and rebuild (aside from the board parts themselves, e.g. soldered RAM and hardwired battery). Mixing and matching is a great idea, I’ll have to go through and inventory them so that I have an idea of how many A-grade devices I can Frankenstein together.
I hadn’t considered using resin for the chipped corners, that’s a really interesting idea and I will absolutely look into it! A friend of mine had the same idea to 3D print parts, but I’m somewhat concerned about feasibility and expense. I’ll definitely look into it though, once I’ve exhausted the A-grade parts I have on hand.
To add onto what Azure said, if you have the space I’d suggest tearing every single device down to the point where it gets too fiddly for you to want to reassemble, and as soon as you take a part out you put it in a bin eg ‘Working Display’ or ‘Damaged keycaps’ and then you take all reasonable parts together and begin reassembling. Once you are down to semi-bad components you could put together laptops with one bad part, eg display is broken but everything else is fine and then list it on a marketplace, you probably will still have some bodies/frames left which you can give to a laptop/computer recycling facility.
That’s an interesting approach. What I was thinking of doing was basically inventorying them in a spreadsheet with fields for the condition of different parts (e.g. cracked screen, cracked chassis), and then using a simple script to figure out which laptops I can combine parts from to create functional devices. My main reasoning for this is that there are a variety of different laptop brands and models included in the lot, so not all the parts will be compatible with all the other parts.
Assuming I can work around this issue, your method sounds simpler but considerably more time-consuming.
I actually do this for a nonprofit and in my experience, Chromebooks are seldom worth it. I’d do as Azure suggested and mix and match parts to get as many good ones as you can and just recycle or sell the rest for parts. Chromebooks are generally so cheap that the repairs, if even possible, cost more than purchasing a working one used, or sometimes even new. To be clear, I’m rehoming my first one now, which was donated new-in-box. The rest have all been recycled.
Edited to apologize for my discouraging post. I of course love the idea, but my experience has just been that Chromebooks have all the repairability of a Mac with none of the power, especially the ones schools seem to be handing out.
Making as many good ones as possible from the parts you have is the best suggestion in my opinion.
There is also a trend called a “slabtop” This involves taking a laptop with a broken screen and removing the upper case creating a thinner device that can connect to any TV or monitor. However this requires an HDMI port or a USB-C port that supports a display(not a given on older cheap hardware)
External keyboards and mice are also a good workaround. especially if you have any with bad batteries and keyboards.
I will say that the Processor, Ram, and especially speed limitations of eMMC storage can be painful on cheap netbooks/chromebooks.
What specific issue(s) do you find yourself running into with Chromebooks? These units actually seem fairly easy to tear down. It’s certainly no Framework, but it’s also not an iPhone
I’d love to hear more about your experience. What devices you’d consider ideal, what your process looks like, etc.
No need for an apology, I appreciate the constructive criticism! This is supplemental income for me, and I got these units extremely cheap (the base cost per unit is <$9), so as far as I can figure, it is financially feasible.
For those who might be interested, I’m also looking into flashing a variety of OSs and software configurations onto the laptops, providing some limited warranty, and many other other value-adds.
I pretty much immediately discarded the idea of installing Windows on these for that reason. While possible, it would be so slow that it’d be effectively useless, and probably kill the thing for good within months. With that said, ChromeOS Flex or a lightweight Linux distro are my go-tos and could extend their life considerably.
The slabtop concept is really interesting to me! Many of them do have damaged screens and I’d pretty much written them off as “for parts”, but if I slabtopify them, they might still have some value.
So my experience has been that my viability calculation often ends up at a place where I’m shopping for a simple part, even just a charger, and the cost of the part is as much or more than the cost of a working used device, charger included. I imagine that it’s because not only are these things so cheap and therefore ubiquitous, but are quickly obsolete and impossible to resell, leading to very low prices on eBay for the full machine. My general rule is I won’t spend more than $100 or the cost of a working used machine, whichever is lower. Otherwise it just makes more sense for me to keep the unit for parts or sell it for money to upgrade other machines.
The second issue, or maybe it should be the first, is that the devices I’ve gotten have had problems that are expensive to fix anywhere, like broken screens, or other parts that aren’t readily available outside of a parts machine, at which point I again find myself at this cost conundrum because a parts machine is often the same price as a working machine further down the page, so why even bother buying a parts machine? I guess for the larger goal of reduce reuse recycle, but my budget isn’t quite at the point where I can be so principled.
And finally, the units I get are just weak and not upgradeable. I’m giving these to people who don’t have computers and are therefore not very savvy, which counterintuitively means they need more specs than I might. These are the people who mash the Chrome button until the window shows up, not realizing they just launched 20 instances of it, and then complain that the computer is slow. They need a lot more room for error in my opinion than someone who actually knows how to work within the limited resources of a cheap Chromebook from yesteryear.
So yeah, I’m just not a fan of Chromebooks based on what I’ve gotten in. I’ve never owned one myself and I know there are higher end ones that can probably negate most of my complaints, so I think it really all depends what you’ve got, but I have just not had good luck with them at all. In fact based on my experience with what schools are giving out and people are giving away, the cheap Chromebook might be one of the biggest offenders of contributing to e-waste due to how many there are out there and how long they last. I’m just gonna say it. I hate them!
Where do you typically look for parts? These laptops came without chargers (because of course they did), but it seems like they’re available from Alibaba for as little as $4/unit, which is considerably cheaper than buying the same product with an American brand on it. My only consideration is that these chargers are new. If I could find a lot of used compatible chargers, I would prefer that, even if it were more expensive. The costs have stayed relatively low, which gives me a bit of margin to stand on principle
All very interesting points and I truly appreciate your insight. I’d love to have a long-form chat with you sometime about this if you’re willing.
I do most of my parts shopping on eBay, but occasionally random used parts vendors or Newegg marketplace. I try to buy OEM branded chargers just cuz I’ve seen more crappy knock-offs flake out than I’m comfortable with, and it’s not too hard to occasionally find a bunch of Dell chargers for $7 a pop. For the Chromebooks, honestly I probably just didn’t look hard enough, but IIRC it was really the amount of other repairs they needed that got them sent to the recycler. I just started by ordering a single charger to even test them and was like eh…$15 each plus a screen/keyboard/touchpad/etc. when I can get a working one for $25? Outta here!
It really is fun though. I started doing this as a hobby and excuse to tinker with more computers than anyone should ever own. It’s not a very sophisticated operation at all, but I’m more than happy to share my experience with you! I think we’re still in a world where reduce and reuse are far superior to recycle (if it even actually happens), so I’m always happy to see devices being given another chance! The longer we can keep these things powered on means less demand for new crap which, let’s be honest, is largely unnecessary. You don’t need much power to watch YouTube while Word sits in the background with your report you should be working on!
Heck, I just revived my 1st gen i7 Toshiba by giving it a SATA SSD and wow, the darn thing can scoot!
With older chromebooks, you would do well using a much simpler distro and modifying it to look a little better than picking one that looks good out the box. I was able to put Linux on one a few years ago using Crouton but even that wasn’t flawless. Do the laptops have unlocked OS’s?
However, the biggest upgrade you can do to these old machines will be on a hardware level, but it seems that its all soldered, including the ram and storage. I think a really good way to give some of these new life is to chassis and part swap using a “good, better, best” principal. Making one with many small flaws is better than one with only 1 larger flaw. Swapping parts (and keeping note of which came from where) can go a long way with a large fleet, but you’ll probably end up with a heap of “garbage” components that you’ll have to end up dealing with in some way. A lot of parts can be reused, such as putting the speaker modules in 3D-printed housings to make miniature desktop speakers (a crowd favorite and something you can see done similarly here by DIY Perks on YouTube or a similar video here by Jordan Walker, also on YouTube), reuse boards through making little blades with them (similar to the framework Mainboard) assuming the laptops can afford that, and, if they’re cheap enough, reusing the screens. The cheaper it is, the more likely it’s a cheap standard component that’s been documented by the community.
This is something I’ve done a fair bit of research on (I even went as far as to… to… to post on Reddit)
ChromeOS Flex seems like the simplest option, aside from just leaving ChromeOS on the ones that are still supported and will be for at least a few years. My goal is stability, as I am selling these as a product that I guarantee will work for some time.
With that said, I’ve considered many options, including, as you suggest, creating my own distro in a sense. There was previously a project called GalliumOS, a Linux distro with Chrome-specific kernel patches for compatibility and stability. Unfortunately, this project is no longer active, but I figured that it would be theoretically possible to hack their kernel patches into another active and more user-friendly distro like elementaryOS.
I ultimately came to the conclusion that ChromeOS Flex (which was spun out of a third-party project that Google acquired called Cloudready) is essentially that. It has the same UX and stability improvements, except it’s supported by a trillion-dollar company rather than some idiot with a screwdriver and a bad haircut.
I really appreciate the insight and the rest of the information and ideas !I’ll definitely look into all of those.
Can’t argue with that. All I can say is that CloudReady and GalliumOS are dead and ChromeOS Flex remains, so I don’t really have many options.
I also want to say that I love the “use every part of the animal” mindset and ingenuity in this community. Looking past financial or commercial viability and focusing exclusively on sustainability and reuse is how we will change the industry.