The three primary functions of effective offgrid computing are low power consumption, reliability, and openness. The reasons for the first two are obvious. The reason for openness, is self soveriegnty, and the ability to expand and repair without permission from some outside central power, and interoperability with other open systems. While there are a variety of ways to solve this, these are a few things which have workd for us...
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When you generate your own power, you become much more aware of how much energy things use. When designing our off grid living systems, it became pretty clear to me that we would need to make some changes to our computing habits. For people who live on grid, a laptop that uses "only" 60 watts seems trivial. But when you are off grid, that laptop uses 60 watts PER HOUR. Meaning, that over a 24 hour period, that laptop would require 1440 watt hours. To put that into perspective, the largest battery "generators" (which arent generators at all, this is a made up marketing term) have around 1000 watt hours of storage, or 1kilowatt hour. Meaning, that to run a Macbook Pro for 24 hours, you would need one and a half of these just to power it. As most of these battery units run over $1000, you are looking at $2K just to power your laptop. And then you have to figure out how you are going to charge those batteries every day.
Before we took the plunge and moved off grid, I went through an "old thinkpad" phase, as all self respecting nerds do. The pre 2012 Thinkpads were some of the most durable, repairable, and otherwise perfect laptops ever made. But the race for profit through cheaper manufacturing won out, and the quality degraded over time. I purchased a Thinkpad x200t off of Ebay for $70. This was before they became popular again and more expensive for a variety of reasons. Through experimentation, I noticed the x200t used less power than any other computer I owned. In fact, The x200t uses less power than a Raspberry Pi 4 when its coupled with the external monitor and keyboard required to use it. The x200 and the x200t use an average of 16-20 watts during normal use when running Void Linux. This means for a 24 hour period of constant use, the thinkpad needs about 400 watt hours. Or less than 1/3 the power a Macbook Pro requires. This is doable in an offgrid situation.
After all of the testing and experimentation I did, my personal conclusion is that the best single unit computers (meaning keyboard, screen, and hardware in one unit) for offgrid use are the Thinkpad x200 models, and the Pinebook Pro from Pine64. The Pinebook Pro is even better power wise, but it can be much more difficult to get ahold of these days than an older Thinkpad.
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Why bring up software choices in a post about living off grid? Because I've never encountered someone who does the work to live off grid, who does not have at least some inherent resistance to being controled by governments and corporations. Most of the people Ive met who live this way have a strong desire to make their own decisions, and take charge of their own lives. And with this increased autonomy comes increased responsibility. There is no power company to call, or plumber to hire. You are responsible for all of it. And those who do well in an offgrid lifestyle, thrive in this kind of environment. You have to be a jack or jill of all trades.
This being the case, having a computer that you can repair and control is important and inline with this lifestyle. For this reason I choose Libre or open source operating systems.
Before moving offgrid, I used Void Linux as my primary operating system. Void is a rolling release operating system, meaning updates happen in chunks continually so that there is never a "version upgrade" event. Once its installed, especially if you keep it minimal, you are set for years. But now that we are living offgrid, our internet is not the wide open unlimited pipe that ongrid people enjoy. We have to pay for gigabites of mobile data. So I needed a different solution to downloading software every day. So I switched to OpenBSD. As this is not a post about OpenBSD, I wont go on and on about how great it is. (It is). Ill just say that OpenBSD is very stable, reliable, and secure. Updates occur every 6 months, and are trivial to install. And interesting sidenote... every major operating system in the world uses code from the OpenBSD project. Windows, MacOS, GNU/Linux, Android, and iOS, all use as least some code from solutions created by OpenBSD.
In addition to this primary laptop, I also like to experiment with 9Front, which is a fork of the Plan 9 operating system from Bell Labs. I have a spare hard drive with 9Front installed, which I swap out in the Thinkpad from time to time, as well as a Rasberry Pi which runs 9Front.Between these two operating systems, there isnt much I cant do.
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Because I want to be able to run my own web services, I run two external servers. One is a standard Linux server which runs my Fediverse instance, my email server, my xmpp server, my Searx instance, and other various services. The other is an OpenBSD server through OpenBSD Amsterdam. I love the simplified logic of serving web content through OpenBSD. As well as the security first ethos. OpenBSD currently runs my gemini capsule and my gopher server. I am working on moving everything over to OpenBSD, one service at a time. Though lately, the garden is taking top priority.
I have a dream of eventually running everything off of a single board computer on site, with its own solar input and backup battery. This is not terribly difficult to do. The one difficulty is having an open port to serve the content when you are using mobile data. I have not found a way to do this yet. I am researching weather or not this is possible with Starlink. If it is, I many go that route. Not to mention enjoy the added benefit of still having internet access in the event of a complete grid outage with Starlink.
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