That probably sounds like a typo, so I’ll repeat it here: I can think of three good reasons to pick up an old computer, instead of buying a new one.
Of course, “old” is a relative term, even outside discussions of technology. What is old to me might be brand new to you, although to be honest, so long as we’re talking about computers, I have a feeling the reverse will be true.
Perspective comes into play too, but for the most part, what a computer can do and what someone wants it to do are sometimes at odds. Nobody — myself included — expects a 100Mhz Pentium Classic to handle Flash videos in Firefox, but a 450Mhz machine. … Well, opinions differ. Some of us think it workable.
Because price is the obvious reason to pick an old machine over a new one … I’m not going to discuss it. It should go without saying that a machine a year or two beyond the cutting edge is going to sell for a price far below a brand-new machine.
- Power draw. You may pooh-pooh old machines as inefficient power-suckers, but the fact remains that a K6-2 desktop system at idle consumes 190W, whereas a shiny new Core 2 Quad Q6600 system pulls twice that. Information courtesy of this page, which appears to be updated from time to time with fresher hardware.
And of course, laptops need even less. My 1Ghz machine has a 90W power supply that I salvaged from an upscale model, whereas the original power supply that came with it was only 60W. My Thinkpads use even lighter power adapters. And the Fujitsu? Beats me. It’s not marked.
- Noise levels. One thing I don’t like about my 1Ghz machine is that the fans (there are two) occasionally kick in. I compare that with my 550Mhz machine, which has a fan … somewhere … I think … because occasionally, on hot days or when the stars are in alignment, I think I can hear it start up.
An older computer is probably quieter than a new machine, particularly when it comes to desktops. That new desktop machine in the office? Sounds like a jet plane taxiing down the runway. The old one? Well, it may not have been usable, but it wasn’t very noisy either.
For what it’s worth, the quietest machine in the house right now is the Pentium. If the screen isn’t backlit, I can’t tell if it’s on. And the quietest machine I ever owned? A bizarre Celeron 400Mhz machine that had no fan in it that I could see — processor, power supply or otherwise. It had a crazy fork-shaped heat sink attached to the CPU, and I don’t think the power supply had a fan in it. I took it home from a recycling shop one day and thought it was defective because I pressed the power button, and heard nothing.
- Linux compatibility. If you’re reading this page, you’re probably concerned in some small fashion with what works in Linux. And it should go almost without saying that older machines, as a general rule, work better with the Penguin than hardware fresh off the boat.
The further you get from bleeding edge, the easier things become with Linux. I nearly pulled my hair out trying to get an errant ATI video card to work with Linux in 2006; two years later, getting accelerated video on that same machine was literally a click-button installation. If you give yourself a small leeway from brand-new, you’ll be better off.
(At this point I feel obligated to mention that very old hardware — like the video subsystem in my 100Mhz Pentium — can be just as problematic as anything new. I have yet to get the framebuffer working beyond 80×25 on that, even if X will comfortably take up the entire 800×600 screen. Why? I don’t know. I’m still working on it. )
That’s probably enough for now. I could wax philosophical and tell you how great you’ll feel for saving a computer from the dumpster, or appeal to your sense of thrift, or your environmental sensibilities. But I’ve done that before, and if you’re not inclined in those directions to start with, it won’t matter what I say.
But keep in mind that there are plus sides to older hardware, in ways you might not have thought of previously. If you’re in the market for a new machine, consider one that’s just new to you.