11 uses for an old PC

Just because you bought a new PC doesn't mean you have to throw away the old one.

You've finally gone and bought a new PC. It has a boatload of memory, lots of cores, and a fast, modern graphics card. But now your old computer sits in a corner, and although you know it's just a machine, it seems to be sulking like a puppy that missed its morning biscuit. It's weird, but you feel guilty with the whole idea of throwing it out.

After all, it's perfectly functional. When you first bought it, it was near state-of-the-art. If your new PC replaces one that's really on its last legs, by all means, take it to a reputable electronics recycler. But it's amazing how many users ditch perfectly good machines when they pick up a shiny new system.

You can do plenty of things with an old PC besides sending it to the recycling heap. Let's take a look at a few ways you might put that old system to work.

1. Convert It Into a NAS or Home Server

If you're running a home network and have multiple users -- you, your spouse, your kids -- reuse as network-attached storage or even as an actual server may be just the ticket for an old system.

However, it's not just a matter of plugging an old PC into a network connection and starting it up. Most desktop systems aren't configured to be effective servers or storage systems. For one thing, they probably use too much power. You'll want to set BIOS power management to run cooling fans in quiet mode, if that option exists. You'll also need to set up the operating system so that it doesn't shut down at inconvenient times, yet run in a low power state when it's not being actively used.

Bear in mind that you'll probably want to run your server "headless" (that is, without a monitor), and sans keyboard and mouse as well. While you'll need a display and input devices for the initial setup, make sure the system will work properly without them. Having a scheduled reboot hang because the system halted during startup (it couldn't find a keyboard, perhaps) is annoying, to say the least.

Also, the operating system is likely not well suited for storage applications, particularly for multiple users. While Windows XP, Vista, or Windows 7 can function well as a storage repository for a couple of users, you'll want to take the time to create user accounts for each person who might need access. In some cases, you may want to set storage quotas.

A better solution would be to install a proper network operating system. One choice is Windows Home Server. However, that will cost you somewhat north of $100, and WHS may prefer newer hardware. An alternative is FreeNAS.

FreeNAS is open-source software designed to turn a PC into a network-attached storage device. It's based on FreeBSD, a UNIX variant. If you're uncertain whether you want to commit to an unfamiliar OS, FreeNAS can be downloaded as a LiveCD version. This is an ISO file which, when burned to a CD, will boot off an optical drive and run completely from memory. You can keep your old OS on the hard drive until you determine if FreeNAS is suited to your needs.

2. Donate It to a Local School

If your PC isn't too archaic, consider donating it to a local school or daycare center. Worst case, it could go to the high school computer lab (most schools have one) and be used as a test bed, to take apart and reassemble. Alternatively, the school district computer services group might use it for parts, though it's been my experience that many school district IT groups tend to shy away from used gear, given the unknown pedigree or wear of older hardware.

If you donate it to a daycare or child development center, consider buying some low-cost educational software packages and preinstalling them before handing the system over. Also, as with selling a system, you'll want to remove all software that you've reinstalled on your new PC. And make sure to include all license information for the software you're preinstalling on the old system.

3. Turn It Into an Experimental Box

You've heard about this Linux thing, and maybe you'd like to give it a whirl. But the thought of trying to create a dual-boot system on your primary PC leaves you a little green around the gills. Now you can experiment to your heart's content on your old box.

Check out Ubuntu, the sexy Linux distro that geeks love to, well, love. The neat thing about Linux is all the built-in support for older hardware, so installation is usually easy. In fact, installing Ubuntu is sometimes simpler than installing Windows. And there's a wealth of free software for Linux just waiting to be tried out.

If you think you've got the tech savvy and a bent for tinkering, you might try creating a Hackintosh -- a PC that can run MacOS X. It can be done, but it does take a fair amount of effort. The main hackintosh site is a good place to start, but expect a long and somewhat bumpy trip. Oh, and you'll have to pony up a few bucks for a legal copy of MacOS X.

In addition, a number of true UNIX-based operating systems are available, ranging from FreeBSD or PC-BSD (based on the Berkeley UNIX version) to OpenSolaris, based on the Sun Microsystems version of UNIX.

4. Give It to a Relative

I do this all the time. My brother-in-law has modest computing needs. So I'll often just hand over one of my two-year old PCs, though I'll usually drop in a midrange or entry-level graphics card.

I don't generally recommend doing this with your kids, though -- at least, not if your kids are like mine. They often need as much or more PC horsepower than I use on a regular basis (outside of gaming and photography, anyway). My older daughter is a dedicated photographer, and makes heavy use of Photoshop, while my younger daughter has become a pretty hard-core gamer (she recently asked for a copy of Borderlands for her birthday).

Giving a system to family members can be fraught with peril, though. That's because you are now the go-to person for tech support. So you've been warned: Give a PC to a friend or relative, and you're now on call. Don't worry, though -- we've got you covered in "How to Fix Your Family's PC Problems."

One thing you'll definitely want to do is completely erase the hard drive and reinstall the OS from scratch. If it's an off-the-shelf system from a major manufacturer, restoring it to its original condition from the restore partition or restore disc accomplishes the same thing.

5. Dedicate It to Distributed Computing

Want to do a little good for humanity? How about dedicating your old PC to one of the various public distributed computing projects?

The best known is probably Folding@Home. Folding@Home uses computing resources from all over the world to help study protein folding, an essential element to understanding how many diseases operate. If your old PC has a fairly new graphics card, that hardware can often pitch in as well, and offer up even more computing resources. Other distributed computing ventures include:

* SETI@Home, where you can participate in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

* The Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, which is dedicated to finding new Mersene Prime Numbers.

* Plus many more based on the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing.

* Check out "12 Worthy Causes Seek Your Spare PC Cycles" for more.

6. Use It as a Dedicated Game Server

Do you have a favorite multiplayer game? If so, check and see if it's a game where you can host a server on a local computer -- you might consider making your old system a dedicated game server. Most multiplayer games capable of playing online often support dedicated servers. I ran a Civilization 4 "pitboss" server for a few months, and Desktops Editor Nate Ralph is in the process of setting up a PCWorld Minecraft server.

The neat thing about many of these dedicated game servers is how little system horsepower they actually need. I ran a Freelancer server on an old Pentium 4 laptop system, at times supporting eight simultaneous users, with no performance issues.

7. Use It for Old-School Gaming

Related to the idea of using an older system as a dedicated game server, consider repurposing that box for old school gaming. You can go as nuts as you want. For example, install Windows 98, so you can run those older Windows 95 and DOS games, if you have a bunch around. Note that this isn't as necessary as it used to be. Online services like Steam and Impulse are offering older games that have been rewritten to work under newer operating systems, and DOSBox lets you emulate a legacy DOS environment to get your classic gaming fix.

Perhaps the most complete site for older PC games is Good Old Games. GoG, as it's often called, offers a large number of older titles, all of which work fine under newer operating systems. So if you've always wanted to go back and play Planescape: Torment, now is your chance.

If you want to go really old school, install MAME (multiple arcade machine emulator) software. That will allow you to play arcade games and games written for older game consoles, provided you have access to the ROMs and other related files to run the games. MAME can become a gigantic time sink (albeit a very fun one), so you've been warned!

8. Make It a Secondary Computing Server

If you're a content creator using a title like 3dsmax, Adobe After Effects or Sony Vegas, having another PC to help with distributed rendering chores can greatly speed up final renders for complex projects.

Each application handles distributed rendering a little differently, so you'll need to consult your documentation. But typically, you'll install a lightweight application on the secondary rendering system, which will take data and commands from the primary system and then return results when done. The main application on your production system, or a separate manger app, manages the rendering across multiple networked systems.

9. Set It Up as a Light-Duty 'Living Room' PC

We have a small PC in our living room that's often used for quick Web surfing and to check e-mail. Occasionally, our kids will come down and do homework on the communal PC when they get tired of being cooped up in their rooms. This can work particularly well if you have networked storage somewhere in the house, so people can get to their files whether they're on a personal system or a communal one.

If you do have this type of communal PC, your first inclination might be to create separate accounts for each person. I've found this isn't really necessary. Since it's communal, no one really keeps private information on it.

The flip side is that you'll want security software that's as bullet-proof as possible. Since you have multiple users on one system, eventually someone, sometime, will hit a Web site that may attempt to download a Trojan horse or other malware.

10. Salvage It!

If you have a do-it-yourself bent and build your own systems, you may reduce the cost of your new system by salvaging parts from the old one. Good candidates for salvage include the case (if it's not a proprietary, prebuilt system), the optical drive, the power supply, and, sometimes, the memory modules.

Depending on how much you actually reuse, the distinction between new system and one that's simply been upgraded is a hazy one. If you replace the motherboard, CPU, memory, and primary hard drive, but keep the case, power supply, optical drive, and graphics card, is that a new system, or one that's been upgraded?

That will still leave you with a few old parts. Which brings us to our final point.

11. Sell It

Somewhere on eBay, someone is looking for a computer. They may not be able to afford a new PC, or are looking for a second PC for the family. Your old PC, at the right price, may be just what they need. Assuming it all goes smoothly, everyone wins: You unload your old hardware, which finds a good home with a new user who can appreciate it.

However, it's not as simple as selling it at a garage sale. For one thing, scammers cruise both Craigslist and eBay, looking to convince unwary buyers to take deposits that mysteriously vanish when you try to cash them. Always be suspicious of anyone who wants to use Western Union and has an overseas address.

My general rule of thumb is to stick to selling locally (if it's Craigslist) and only in the United States, if its eBay (since I live in the U.S.). Also, using an escrow site like Paypal (required for eBay anyway), gives you a sense of security, though clever scammers still manage to take advantage of Paypal. Read "How To Sell Your PC and Other Gadgets" for more tips on selling your old tech gear.

As we've seen, an old computer can have many uses, particularly if it's still in good working condition. And not all uses for a PC require quad-core systems with high-end graphics. So if that old system is sitting in a closet somewhere, dig it out and put it to use. Who knows? It might be your PC that identifies the signal that's the first sign of intelligent life outside our planet.

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