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Don’t Throw That Old Computer Away

With the holidays over, many of you may be sitting at home reading our Website on a new computer. With a new system, web pages load so much quicker, CDs burn faster and games play smoother.

Your old computer may seem like its only use is as a boat anchor now and you’re ready to throw it to the curb. The truth is, while your old computer might not be able to play the latest games or be fast enough for your daily tasks, it still is quite useful.

Besides having slower and older components, most old computers seem so much slower because of all of the junk that has accumulated on the hard drive.

If you’ve had a computer for several years, no doubt you’ve installed and uninstalled many applications and written, copied, moved and deleted many files. A clean install of an operating system will bring that computer back to life. Once you’ve copied your documents and data over to your new computer, wipe that hard drive clean and install a new operating system.

Learn a new operating system

When you’re ready to install a new operating system on that old computer you could just re-install the OS that was on it before. But here’s a great chance to learn something new. If you’ve always wanted to learn how to use Linux, this is a great opportunity to do it. You won’t have to worry about ruining something on your main computer and you can take as long as you want to work on it.

There are many versions of Linux, and most of them offer free downloads. A good place to start is LinuxISO.org, a Website that provides downloads and links to most of the popular Linux distributions. I’ve used Mandrake Linux for a few years now and it is one of the easiest to install and learn. You may also want to take a look at other operating systems like FreeBSD, Slackware or Gentoo. Sun has recently started to offer their Solaris operating system as a free download for developers and educational use. Even Microsoft has a free OS you can try. Their latest server OS, Windows Server 2003 is available for a free six-month trial download.

There are even some Linux ports for Apple hardware. Yellow Dog Linux is a Linux distribution made specifically for a Power PC based Mac. I’ve installed it on a 400MHz Powerbook G3 and it really livened up the system. It has a Mac look to it so it’s very easy for Mac users to learn it.

Turn it into a firewall and/or router

If you think your old computer is just too slow to be used as a desktop or you just have enough workstations, you can turn that old computer into a router and/or firewall. You may already have a SOHO router/firewall but there are a few open-source projects that help you turn that old hardware into a very efficient router.

One such project is called ClarkConnect. I’ve been using ClarkConnect for almost a year now and wouldn’t go back to a SOHO router. It can be installed on a system as old as a Pentium Pro and still be very useful. Not only can ClarkConnect act as a firewall and router for your network, you can use it as a web server, FTP server, file server (for Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems), a media server and many more applications. All you need is two network cards and once the system is installed, you don’t even need a monitor. The entire system can be remotely operated and configured via a web browser on your network. My ClarkConnect server acts as a firewall and router, as well as a file and media server. It’s only a Pentium III with 384MB of RAM, and I’ve never had an issue with speed.

Other popular open-source firewall projects include Coyote Linux, m0n0wall and Smoothwall.

Learn new skills and contribute to an open-source project

There are literally thousands of open-source projects on the net that offer some very useful tools and a great learning opportunity. Projects range from Website scripts to Web-based learning and Web-based databases. A great place to start is by learning about PHP and mySQL. PHP is a server-sided scripting language that is easy to learn and well-suited for Web development. mySQL is an open-source database that powers a large percentage of the Web’s databases. There are many Website scripts created with PHP and mySQL that allow you to easily develop and manage a Website. Some examples are PHP-Nuke, Postnuke, and phpWebsite.

I’m a big fan of online learning and have been following the development of Moodle, a Web-based learning development tool. It is a course management tool that is useful for all types of corporate learning or e-learning.

Serve or play your media

Another great use for an older computer is as a Home Theater PC (HTPC) or a media server.

An HTPC is a computer configured specifically to allow you to play your media (music, movies and images) on regular home-theater components like stereos, TVs and multimedia projectors. Since an HTPC is only being used to play a few file types and that’s it, it can be a stripped down operating system and can be set up to run very efficiently. There are Linux distributions created specifically to be HTPCs, or you can just use a version of Windows.

Many video cards have S-Video out and can easily be hooked up to a TV. An HTPC is basically future-proof and the image and audio quality can rival or be better than that of expensive home-theater components. Websites such as HTPCnews.com and MyHtpc.net can give you more information on how to proceed with an HTPC, or ask around on the forums on Digital Trends. One great program to check out is Snapstream. It is a multimedia front-end that allows you to easily setup an HTPC to record TV and play media.

There is also an open-source media server application that works with all platforms, called VideoLan. VideoLan can be used to stream media to computers or HTPCs throughout your network.

If you don’t need a media player, you could use your old hardware to serve that media to your devices. We’ve compiled an extensive list of “Networked Media Devices” in our forums and there are many similar products to be announced in the next few months. These devices can hook up to your TV and/or audio components and play media that is stored remotely on your network. These devices all come with their own server software that can run on many different platforms.

You don’t even need a wired network because many of these products, such as the Slim Devices Squeezebox and the Creative Sound Blaster Wireless Music player, support wireless networks.

Make a dedicated media station

You may do more than just view and listen to media. You may want to create media. An old computer can be quite useful for this too.

If you have a collection of home videos that you’ve been meaning to digitize and put on DVD, this is the perfect opportunity for that. Many people procrastinate doing this because it can be so time consuming, and can tie up your computer for hours. With a spare computer, you can let it rip, edit, compile and burn your videos without worrying how long it takes. So it may take a few hours longer than your main system – you can let it run overnight and not worry about it. You can capture, edit and burn videos with many Linux, Windows and Mac applications.

You can do the same with music. If you have a large collection of CDs and would like to burn them to MP3, you can turn this old PC into a dedicated ripping machine. So what if it takes a few minutes longer per CD than your main rig? I’m a big fan of the EAC (Exact Audio Copy) and LAME encoder tandem.

The Linux equivalents table is a great Web resource for finding open-source solutions for all computing projects.

Create a retro arcade

Another popular project that can utilize your old computer is MAME – the Multiple Machine Arcade Emulator. MAME is a project that emulates old arcade games for use on PC hardware. There are arcade emulators for most operating systems too.

If you look hard enough, you’ll find that there are over 3000 real arcade games emulated for MAME. Even an old 486 processor can play some MAME games. The MAME Website states that a Pentium III or Celeron 700MHz can play at least half of the emulated games.

Beware though, MAME can be a very time-consuming and obsessive project. I built my own MAME cabinet last summer and it took quite a few weekends – but was well worth the effort. A MAME cabinet is an old arcade cabinet gutted and fitted with PC hardware. You can get products called “keyboard encoders” such as the I-Pac that you can use to hook a regular computer up to real arcade controls, such as the arcade parts sold by Happ Controls. A great place to start, besides the MAME site, is ArcadeControls.com. Take a look at their project pages for inspiration. There are some incredible arcade projects out there and a lot of dedicated people willing to help.

Make a game server

If you play online games, or want to, finding a good server that you and your friends can enjoy is sometimes tough. An old PC and your broadband connection can be used to host a small online game. Many games such as the Medal of Honor series and Call of Duty can be run on systems as slow as a Pentium III 700MHz. Your broadband upload speed is the bottleneck in such a server, and while such as setup wouldn’t support too many players, if you have a small group of local friends, it would certainly be good enough for serving games.

Not only will running a game server allow you to control what games and maps you play, it can be a lot of fun and great experience. If you have a router, you can invite friends over to play in a LAN party, or you can host over the Internet.

Contribute to a distributed computing project

Distributed computing is the use of “idle CPU cycles” from the computers of volunteers all over the world, working to solve a common problem. There are many distributed computing projects around the world working towards many different goals.

One of the most popular is “Folding@Home” Website is  that the “process of protein folding, while critical and fundamental to virtually all of biology, remains a mystery. Moreover, perhaps not surprisingly, when proteins do not fold correctly (i.e. "misfold"), there can be serious effects, including many well known diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Mad Cow (BSE), CJD, ALS, and Parkinson’s disease.”

Another popular project is “SETI@Home” which uses distributed computing to analyze radio telescope data to help in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. SETI@Home has had over 4.8 million users. The donated CPU cycles have so far equated to over 1.78 million years of CPU time.

To find out about other DC projects, check out the sites Grid.org and Distributed.net or look at all of the projects on the aspenleaf.com list.

Take it apart and learn how to build a computer

If you have never built a computer or installed components, your old rig is a great place to learn. You can work on it without the fear of ruining your main workstation. If you take common precautions, you really can’t ruin anything anyway.

Once you take it apart, those parts may be useful for someone else. If you want to try selling the parts, you’ll usually get more money if you sell part by part instead of the whole computer. Put a few items on eBay and see how it works out. You might be able to buy something else of value to you from the proceeds of your eBay sale.

Whatever you do, don’t throw it away

If you still don’t think there is anything useful to do with your old computer after reading this article, please don’t just throw it away. It still may be useful to someone and even if not, there are parts of computers that really shouldn’t be just thrown in a landfill.

Hewlett-Packard has a good hardware recycling program that will take old computers and recycle them in a manner that is safe for the environment. There is a substantial list of recylcers at the PEP National Directory of Computer Recycling Programs and the CRC (Computer Recycling Center) is also a great place to start. There are also usually local school programs that are looking for donated computer hardware.

This article is only the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of other projects and uses just waiting for your hardware to be used for. Now what are you waiting for? Get out there and put that old hardware to use!

We’d like to hear what you think about these projects and are always looking for more useful projects on the Web. If you have any comments or suggestions for other uses, please send us an email or post in our forums.