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Entry level computer choices

28 November 2019

"The graphics driver is not responding"...

Damn!

My trusty old Toshiba laptop is dying a slow and painful death. It seems that the summer heat is taking its toll and now, after just a few minutes operation, it locks up for a few seconds then crashes, telling me that the graphics driver has stopped responding.

Chances are it's a BGA (ball grid array) integrated circuit that has suffered thermally induced stress fractures of the delicate soldering joints that connect its myriad of pads to the PCB to which it is mounted. This is a not an uncommon fault in modern electronic devices and although there's a chance of repair, I'm really past getting that deeply into "the guts" of it.

BGA devices became necessary when VLSI (very large scale integration) began producing integrated circuits of immense size and complexity. In days of old, when ICs were much simpler devices, a row of pins on two or all four sides of a device were sufficient to allow all the necessary power supplies and signal lines to be connected to the outside world. Today however, that's not enough for the more sophisticated chips.

Very complex chips now have a massive array of "pads" on their underside and these pads line up with matching areas on the circuit board so as to provide, in some cases, many hundreds of paths for power and signals.

Such a concept has only been made possible by the use of new fabrication techniques such as reflow soldering.

Unfortunately, the area of the pads is often so small and the temperature at which some of these chips run is so high that repeated thermal cycling, which creates expansion and contraction of the device itself, eventually fractures the fine solder connections between chip and board.

Sometimes "reflowing" will fix the problem but without the right gear, reflowing can also melt other important components nearby on the board.

So, as I said, I'm not going there -- I think I'll just get a new device. This however, raises the question... which device?

I'm looking for something that will provide web-access, run some apps (many of them inside the Chrome browser) and act as an info-repository, effectively letting me keep manuals and other info at my fingertips when at the workshop. It should also have good connectivity and support for flashing firmware to microcontrollers (ie: good USB connectivity and driver support for the STM32 device driver).

Unfortunately, a decent (or even half-decent) laptop is well beyond my budget right now so I'm really looking at either taking a punt on an older second-hand laptop or perhaps trying to find a Chromebook or tablet that might just do the job.

Chromebooks are quite cheap and relatively ergonomic -- however they do lack some of the functionality I'm looking for. Being unable to run x86 applications is a real hit -- although I guess I could cobble together a semi-working desktop PC out of bits for that purpose.

Tablets have some advantage, especially since a few of the apps I do regularly use run under Android and my Mexican (el-cheapo) smartphone is full to the brim, requiring me to delete an old app before I can load a new one.

Maybe there'll be some decent Black Friday or Cyber Monday sales in the coming week that will help me make up my mind but I figured I'd throw this one out for readers to comment on.

Assuming I have up to $1K to spend (but want to spend a lot less), what would you throw money at in order to get a practical, useful, portable computing environment that would run the Chrome browser (with apps) and preferably some X86 programs under Win10 or Linux?

The floor is yours... to the comments with you!

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