Your old computer, born again

Turn your old machines into media servers, e-mail stations and nodes to help with scientific research

8. Try home automation using Hawking Tech gear

Home automation is another computing activity that does not need a powerful desktop or notebook computer. For the most part, you would be using a computer as a video surveillance system but you'd also be using it to automate other functions, such as turning lights on and off.

I used the Hawking Technologies HomeRemote Pro system with an older home-built desktop system running an AMD Athlon 64 processor with 3GB of RAM. The Hawking kit comes with a router that was easy to set up, a security camera that connects to the router over a wireless network and optional modules you can use for controlling lights and home appliances.

I went with the basic security kit with just the video cameras instead of the optional light and appliance modules. Hawking provides a security application I installed on the desktop. The advantage here is that this system can reside anywhere -- even in a hallway or a bedroom -- and show you a security feed without any other apps running.

After setup, I was able to see a video stream from a front door security camera (the Hawking HRPC1) and even view a night vision feed from a second camera (the HRPC2). The main advantage of using this Hawking system is that it can be expanded into many other areas of home automation -- you can configure the system to work with inside and outside lights, for example, and set it to turn off the lights when you go to bed. You can also tap in remotely to check on the security camera feeds or turn off lights.

I was impressed with how the security app ran for home surveillance -- I never had any crashes, and it was great to have the system running in a side room in my house so I could just glance at the PC to see who was at the front door.

9. Run a dedicated gaming server on any old desktop

Gaming servers -- which run in your home for local multiplayer matches or run on the Internet for anyone to use -- do not require a superfast gaming system. In fact, you don't even need a good graphics card or a lot of RAM, although, as more people connect, it does help if the processor is fast enough to keep up with demand.

The best way to find out if your older system will work as a dedicated gaming server is to check with the game developer (if the server is a commercial product) or ask that question on the forums for the dedicated server software (if the game is a noncommercial product).

For this upgrade, I used my AMD Athlon 64 home-built system -- the one that also became a Netflix movie machine. To test a dedicated server, I used the Valve Software Steam service and the game Left 4 Dead 2. This game server runs right in the Steam client. The server software is easy to use because it allows you to specify how many people can connect and then monitor who is connected -- so you can kick people off the server if they are harassing others or otherwise misbehaving.

In terms of setting it all up, when you first install Steam, the software will prompt you to install a few extra components. After the install is complete, click the Tools tab to see the dedicated servers. In this example, just right-click the Left 4 Dead 2 server to install it.

Once installed, you can name your server and select whether it's a local server or if it runs on the Internet. I was impressed with how well Left 4 Dead ran on my older PC. As with many of the other upgrades I performed, the multiplayer performance was dependent more on my network and the speed of the client machines than on the server itself.

Whichever project you choose -- or if you conceive one of your own -- have fun, secure in the knowledge that your old system can keep living on in another form and that you're not clogging up the landfills with even more e-waste.

John Brandon is a veteran of the computing industry, having worked as an IT manager for 10 years and as a tech journalist for another 10. He has written more than 2,500 feature articles and is a regular contributor to Computerworld.

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