In all the time I’ve been pitching old computers as viable machines, I’ve never taken up the issue of what you can actually do with an old computer.
There are two reasons for that. First, it’s been beaten to death. Every blog in every corner of every Web page has a list of wacky ideas for old computers. Hamster cages. Barbecue grills. Bird nesting boxes. Kitchen clocks. You name it. Search for “old computer” on Ixquick and you get a frothy mess of blogs and know-it-all Web sites giving you ideas.
Second, it’s not my goal to give you ideas for an ancillary machine. It’s my goal to keep you from buying a new computer in the first place, because your old one can do the job just as well, you just have to be open minded about it. So really, I don’t want you to look for ideas for an old computer. I want you to use it like it’s a new one.
All the same, I get e-mails asking for ideas. So I thought I’d pool together some of my own, along with some I culled from elsewhere. Some of these things I’ve done, and some just sound like good ideas. Maybe one will sound good to you too. Enjoy.
First, if you must get rid of it completely. …
Convert to cash. This is kind of a weird suggestion, but before you do anything with your computer, you should see what you have. You might have a piece of junk in your hands, and if it’s some kind of wacky home-grown computer, it probably is junk. But if you have an old IBM Model M keyboard connected to it. … Congratulations: You just made $100 on ebay. Find out what it is, what it’s worth and if you should hold on to it.
Give it to a geek. Provided you’re not a geek already, find one and see if you can foist it on to them. Most geeks can be found … well, actually, most geeks can’t be found outside their dens, except if there’s a fire drill. Ask around and if you can triangulate the location of a geek in his or her natural habitat, see if they want your machine. Most geeks consider gifts to be romantic overtures, but make it clear that it’s just a castaway. You won’t hurt their feelings.
Recycle it. Most big-name sellers have recycle programs now, although some, like Dell, are generally only interested in their own branded machines. (Edit, 2010-01-03: Apparently Dell will take any brand of computer for recycling now. That’s a welcome change. ) I suppose that’s okay, since they’d be picking up some weird stuff if they didn’t draw the line somewhere. Also check around for your local Free Geek group, and remember that sometimes charities will take computers as donations, like cars. Whatever you do, make sure your computer doesn’t end up in a landfill in a third world country. IT crud is somehow making its way into small African nations, dumped into pits and left to decompose. Maybe that doesn’t bother you, but considering that the average CRT has up to 8 lbs. of lead in it, it’s not environmentally — or ethically — conscientious. Let’s not turn the developing world into a garbage pit, friends.
But if you’re willing to keep it around. …
Torrent slave. You probably already know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, read this post and this post, then come back here. It’s a sign of the times that torrent traffic has become so popular. I don’t care if you’ve got a 75Mhz Pentium in the closet: If you can get some version of Linux on there, you’ve got a primo torrent slave.
Jukebox. Here’s one idea that gets thrown around a lot, and that’s because it makes a lot of sense. If it has a sound card, it’s a great jukebox. And if you can get some sort of Linux working on it, you can at least get cplay going, if not some other audio application. Hook it up to your home network and listen to music from one room to another. Is it a laptop? Great, it has a built-in visualiser panel. I used to take a Presario 1020 to work just to play tunes, and it drove the tech staff crazy. Everyone else was jealous.
File server, printer server or NAS. Another old chestnut, but again, there’s a reason for that. Most machines that you find “too slow” for desktop use are acceptably fast as servers or network storage. Take out the GUI and suddenly it’s a speed demon again. Link up a series of machines with NFS and get everybody using the same stuff, and quite easily. Want an idea how to do that in Ubuntu? Look at this.
Web design and development. So long as you’re hooking it up as a file server, you might as well make it into a full-fledged in-house Web server, particularly if you’re into Web design. Test at the local level, before moving your site out into the real world. Build a wiki. And remember that some very, very slow machines work well as Web servers. Like the old 286 Web server.
FTP for fun and profit. Again, so long as you’re setting up a server, put together an FTP site. I used to run a live vsftpd server off a 300Mhz machine with no hard drive, just to transfer large files between me and my brother. He could sign in, drop off his file and I’d copy it elsewhere. Turn it off, and it’s gone. Easy as pie.
Put on a white hat. And so long as you’re creating an off-the-grid server, you might as well learn how to break into it. Cut your teeth in the security field by keeping yourself out of your own machine. And really, does it matter a lot if your old computer is compromised by you?
Do something noble. Talk is cheap, and everyone pretends to be an Internet superhero. But if you want to put your money where your mouth is, if you really want to impress the babes, consider setting up a machine to run as part of the Tor anonymity network. You’ll be helping out people who live under oppressive governments and rely on the system for free and unfettered access to information, and at the same time doing something that might make you feel good about yourself. There are lots of ways to get started with this, the project home page is probably the best place to look first.
Run a media server. This is a bit esoteric, but there are utilities and distributions aimed specifically at hoarding files of any type, organizing them and — best of all — giving you access to them through a networked Web page. In other words, you don’t have to set up anything except install the package, start the process and then point your browser at the machine. Instant and painless. For ideas, check out gmediaserver, mediatomb, ushare and some others. And don’t forget: If you have a console gaming system, this is the perfect idea.
Local repository. This works especially well if you have two or three machines running the same distro, although there’s no reason why you can’t mix and match too. Instead of updating each machine over a network, set up one machine to synchronize itself with the repositories, then relay your updates to the next ring of machines, from within your own network. You’ll cut your bandwidth demands at a factor proportional to the number of machines you have. And a network administrator somewhere on the planet will sing your praises.
Automatic compiler. This is similar to the last one, in that if you use a distro that builds from source, it should be simple matter to synchronize with a distant repository, then automatically update. From there, serve the updated packages to other machines on your network. And what does it matter if the machine is slow and takes longer to build? If it’s living in the closet, no one will notice. For ideas on this one and the previous one, take a look at this.
Guinea pig. If the server industry doesn’t enthuse you, consider other ways to use your computer as a test subject. Take it apart. Put it back together. Find a tutorial on computers and experiment with it. Overclock it. What’s this button do? Consider the last great act of your old computer to be teaching you about computers. It’s also good to keep a spare desktop around for testing used parts. If you have one that’s fairly flexible, you can use it to troubleshoot hardware problems.
Cannibalize it. Better than throwing it away is to put some of the parts into another machine. Why have only one hard drive, when two are twice as nice? Got an extra CDROM? Put it into another machine and copy-on-the-fly. Double up on memory, if it’s compatible. It might make things faster, too. (Of course, it might not.)
Upgrade it. Take this one with a grain of salt. If you’re computer is junk, then parts are probably going to be cheap. If it’s still a little valuable, then parts might be a little more money. If it’s really old, upgrading is going to be ridiculously expensive. There’s a funny price curve attached to computer parts. It starts high, falls after a few years, bottoms out after about six, then suddenly spikes again around 10. So depending on how old it is, you might be putting more money into it than it’s worth.
Firewall. Ah, yes, the old firewall suggestion. Yes, it’s possible, and there are Linux distros that are made specifically for this purpose. To be honest, I don’t know of anyone — I mean personally — who dedicates an entire outdated PC to firewall duty. It’s too easy to get a $50 router with a 24V AC adapter, cross your fingers and hope it keeps the bad guys out. However, it’s a great learning experience and a good use for an outdated machine. Consider it.
Cluster it. Get two or three or ten of the things, rig them all up together and start crunching numbers. OpenMosix is designed just for that purpose. Now before you start buying pallets of Pentium II machines off PublicSurplus.com, remember that clusters don’t always behave like a single computer. In other words, ten 166Mhz machines are not necessarily as fast as one 1.6Ghz machine, except under certain circumstances. And really, if you daisy-chain ten Pentium Pro machines together in hopes of playing Frozen Bubble on the collection, your electricity bill is going to be horrific.
Give it to the kids. Oh yeah. That one. Yes, I’m sure your kids really want to play Snowfight on your old 233Mhz laptop. Let’s face it: All the “kids” I know are too busy with Star Wars Galaxies, and your old Pentium II ain’t going to cut it. And don’t give it to your teenager to “do their homework on.” Your teenager knows junk when he sees it, and a “gift” like that is just going to trigger another episode of angst. Unless, of course, your teenager is a geek, in which case he or she has probably already commandeered your old computer. So yes, you could try to give it to your kids, but don’t be surprised if they use it for a bookend.
Use it for a bookend. No, let’s skip that one.
Gaming hub/LAN party server. I can’t speak to the effectiveness of this one, but I’ll mention it because I’ve seen it listed elsewhere as an option. I think it might depend on the game, the number of players, the hardware, the speed of the network, and so forth. It sounds like a possibility to me, though. I leave it to you to find out how well it works.
Your own personal Internet radio station. I had a friend who ran a streaming audio server off his home network, then could access the stream and listen to his own music collection while at work. It was an exceedingly cool setup, and if it wasn’t for his rather bizarre taste in music, I might still be tuning into it. It’s supposedly easy to set up (warning: that’s an old thread), but I’ve not done this either.
Remote PIM. No matter how old your machine is, I can almost guarantee that it can handle a slew of console-based information applications, and do it without breaking a sweat. In that case, something like wyrd or alpine or any of a dozen other task and to-do managers are ideal, not to run on your main machine, but to be accessed remotely, through ssh. Put your personal information manager in the closet, let it run all the scheduling and note-taking applications, and access them from a terminal screen on your big rig. Resource demands are minimal for both machines, and you don’t risk losing your address book if you accidentally delete your entire home directory.
Capture cartoons. I’ve heard about setting up a personal video recorder, but it only vaguely interests me since I’m not much of a TV-watcher. There are a variety of TV-in cards you can get, some quite cheap. And just about every model has a howto in the forums, so search around in there until you find some instructions for your card and your release. Let me know if it’s worth trying.
Moving pictures. It’s an odd concept, but one that might appeal to you, particularly for an old laptop with an LCD in good shape: Load up some of your favorite photos, install a program — or a screensaver — that will loop through them, then mount the little devil on a wall or shelf … or in a shop window. Video gamers know what attract mode is — this will do something like it. You can also set one up as a rotating weather map, if you don’t have any family photos you care to advertise.
Emulation station. The beauty of an old machine is that it’s still logarithmically faster than a C-64. Get VICE going, or pick another emulator that reminds you of your younger days. There are Apple ][ emulators, Atari 800 emulators, 68k Mac emulators, Nintendo DS, Sega Genesis, DOS emulators — you name it. But don’t ask me about those other machines. I’m a Chickenhead. You won’t catch me playing anything but Bruce Lee.
Legacy gaming. Along the same lines, you can usually run old Windows titles from within wine, and not have nearly as many complications as trying to install Windows 95 (now with USB support! ). Go into the basement and get out all your old Win98 games, and spin them up again. And if you were ever a Tribes player … you still are. (And by the way, if you can get the new, free releases of Command & Conquer running in Linux, let me know how you did it. It’s not happening for me. )
Movie machine. I’ve watched DivX movies on 300Mhz machines inside X with mplayer, and you can even throw a movie up against the framebuffer of a still-slower computer, and watch movies or DVDs that way. Old laptops are excellent for this; it’s one of the reasons I keep a spare to the side of my bigger machine — so I can watch movies while I moderate.
Internet phone. Another one I’ve heard about, but haven’t done. If your machine can handle Skype or Ekiga or even Google voice chat, you might as well set it up to run solo, and let your big rig relax. Personally I don’t like telephones much more than televisions, so for this one, you’re on your own.
Renderer. If you do 3D work or animation, which requires heavy processing over long periods of time, you might want to relegate the task to the old machine. Granted, a slower CPU might take longer to finish the job, but if that’s all it’s doing, and you don’t mind waiting, then why not? Dump the work on the old machine and you can go back to playing Bruce Lee.
Distro-hop. This is my favorite thing to do with an outdated machine. Get yourself a rewriteable CD, download a few ISOs and try them out on an older box. See how well — or how badly — they perform. Keep a blog of your adventures and let your experience guide and instruct others. And when you feel really daring, start working on Gentoo or Linux From Scratch. That will be not only useful, but educational too.
Search for aliens or fold proteins. A friend used to run a beat-up old laptop from the top of a bookshelf in his basement, running only the BOINC client. Whether you use it to cure cancer or to search for E.T., it’s a great way to donate your processor to a worthy cause.
Finish the band’s first album. Since there are plenty of applications that work as synthesizers, drum machines or for looping effects, you can pursue that musical career you always knew you were destined for, with your old K6-2 as the backup singer. Rehearse, record, release. Just don’t quit your day job yet.
Get all artistic and stuff. After you’ve recorded your opus, strip the machine down and learn how to mod it. Try out paints and LED effects. Throw a water cooling system into your old Packard Bell 486. Make a Lego case for it. Because you know what? Even an ugly 333Mhz Aptiva modded to look like the MCP tower from Tron is WICKED COOL.
Finally, keep using it. I said at the start that I don’t really like the idea of pushing an old computer out the door, just to make space for a new one that happens to work a little faster. I would prefer you took the time and learned how to keep your machine useful, and maybe hold on to it for a few more years. Fact of the matter is, I don’t have a computer that’s younger than seven years old, and I haven’t run into anything that I needed a newer one for. Try out alternative desktops. Lighten the load a little. Set up a strictly GTK1.2 environment. Experiment with so-called “lightweight” distros. Be open-minded and try new applications with lower system demands. Better yet, code some new ones that fit your needs and don’t bog down your machine.
What you do with your computer is up to you. But remember that there are a lot of options available to you, if you’re willing to keep it around. I’d highly recommend that.