I use an old laptop working for a charity – shall I buy my own hardware? – The Guardian

I work for a charity and they do not upgrade equipment very often: I am using a 10-year-old laptop and a seven-year-old BlackBerry. I feel this old tech is slowing me down and affecting my work, so I am thinking of buying my own hardware. I own an iPhone, and I could dedicate this to work. I also have a Windows 8 laptop at home.

The iPhone won’t easily upload photos to a laptop unless I buy more iCloud storage, which I am loath to do when I have ample storage on the laptop.

Do I have to get a Windows phone to work best with Microsoft Office, Outlook and my laptop? The future is looking like mix-and-match brands don’t like each other! Mon

It’s a false economy to skimp on laptops because they can easily waste far more time than they are worth. If you work 250 days per year, then a £400 computer costs 40p per day, or 5p per hour, if spread over four years. For a worker paid £10 per hour, 5p is equivalent to 18 seconds. I’m pretty sure that an hour with a stopwatch – your iPhone has one – will show that your old PC is costing your employer more than 18 seconds per hour in lost productivity. Just accessing two or three web pages could do it, without even a crash/reboot.

You don’t mention the spec of your PC, but the typical 2005 laptop had 512MB or 1GB of memory, a 40GB or 80GB hard drive and ran Windows XP. You shouldn’t be running XP now, because it’s no longer supported and is therefore a security risk. I dread to think what it’s like running Windows 7.

I can understand the frustration that would drive you to use your own equipment – I’ve done it myself. However, you don’t have to buy an expensive new laptop. There are plenty of companies that refurbish business-class laptops, and some cater to charities. In fact, Microsoft UK has a Charity Support site, and runs a Microsoft Refurbisher programme to help companies provide legitimate versions of Microsoft software at low prices.

Some registered charities get free Microsoft software. Others can get Windows upgrades for £10, and copies of Microsoft Office for £20 or Microsoft Office Professional Plus for £28 (these prices exclude VAT) from TT Exchange. Technology Trust also provides Adobe, Google and other software and advice, as well as running the Microsoft Software Donation Programme for UK charities.

Microsoft’s Office 365 Nonprofit scheme provides the Business Premium version to qualifying charities for £1.30 per month. This lets you download full versions of the latest Office programs for PC and Mac. It also includes a 50GB mailbox, a terabyte of cloud storage and other features.

Refurbished PCs

Microsoft lists roughly a thousand companies in its database of registered refurbishers – search here for United Kingdom – so you might want to look for a local supplier. IT For Charities has a list of about a hundred suppliers. Alternatively, a quick search will find plenty of options, including Tier1online and Laptops Direct. Prices typically range from £100 to £300, but can be more or less, depending on age and condition. Even a £45 laptop might be an improvement on what you have now.

A lot of refurbished laptops are Lenovo ThinkPads, because these were often the first choice for large enterprises buying – and then replacing – thousands of machines at a time. There are also plenty of Dell and HP laptops around, but I’d suggest buying a ThinkPad as they are generally robust and very familiar to refurbishers and repairers.

In particular, the ThinkPad X220 is a good choice, if you can get one with an Intel Core i5 or i7 processor and 4GB or 8GB of memory at an affordable price. In 2011, Trusted Reviews described it as “chunky”, which is fair enough, but still gave it 9 out of 10. These machines are as fast as most current laptops, sometimes faster, and they have much better keyboards. (See Which ThinkPad laptops have the best keyboards?)

The ThinkPad T Series and W Series laptops are good alternatives, but even chunkier and less portable than the X Series. There are plenty of T420 and T430 laptops around and they’re decent value. In all cases, check the list at Notebookcheck’s Comparison of Mobile Processors (CPU Benchmarks) and aim for a fast processor. I think you’ll be surprised at the difference.

Phones and photos

Microsoft has just launched three new Lumia smartphones running Windows 10, including a Lumia 550, which is on pre-order at just £89.99. However, there’s no reason why you can’t use your Apple iPhone. You may think that “mix-and-match brands don’t like each other,” but Microsoft is an exception. It offers dozens of apps for iPhones, iPads and Android devices, including the main Office apps.

You mention that you have a problem with iCloud, but you don’t have to use it. You can install apps that will upload your photos to Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox, Google, or Flickr instead. You already have OneDrive – it is part of the Microsoft account that you use with Windows 8 – so you could easily use that. Either way, it costs nothing to open another account at Outlook.com, or – for the free terabyte of storage space – at Flickr.

When you install OneDrive on your iPhone, you can set it to back up your photos automatically (this also gets you an extra 3GB of storage, unless it’s changed recently). In the Settings menu, make sure that Camera Backup is set to On, and that Photo Downloads is set to Original, not to Resized. If you synchronise OneDrive on your PC, all your mobile phone photos will be copied to your PC, much like Apple’s system. You’ll also be able to access your OneDrive photos online from any PC or Mac, or an Android phone or tablet, via an app or a web browser.

Although Apple rarely supports anybody else’s devices, there is actually an iCloud for Windows program. This should automatically copy new photos to your Windows PC, and it will offer you the option to download all your iCloud photos, by year. It’s a very good idea to do this before making any changes to your current system. In fact, don’t just download all your photos, back them up to CD or DVD and/or an external hard drive, and test that your backups work. Only after you’ve done that should you think about messing with the iCloud settings.

Have you got another question for Jack? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com


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