Three reasons to buy an old computer

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. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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.

Otherwise. …

  1. 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. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. 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. ๐Ÿ˜ฏ

  3. 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. ๐Ÿ˜ )

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.

15 thoughts on “Three reasons to buy an old computer

  1. Sam Weston

    I’ve got quite a few Pentium III era desktop boxes that have been given to me. One is currently serving as a firewall/traffic shaper/captive portal running pfSense for lan parties and general geeky fun. The others I just keep for random projects and parts as I really don’t find a 500mhz celeron with 128mb ram a workable desktop pc…i’m too used to my dual core I guess. I am however very against throwing them in landfill as most of my collection would have been.

  2. johnraff

    This box had only 128MB of RAM (w. 450 MHz P3) till I found a couple of second hand sticks three months ago to bring it up to 500. Of course the improvement was dramatic, but even then the system (Xubuntu 7.10) was usable after a fashion. I was using it after all…

  3. JoshMiller

    On the Linux issue. One possible issue with older machines may be bios age. Depending on how much work you are capable of doing to install the OS. I have had a couple of older laptops that wouldn’t easily load several Linux distros because I kept getting error messages about the BIOS being too old.

  4. fullmetalgerbil

    My first desktop was a 233MHz Pentium I bought at a thrift store in 2006-unfortunately I didn’t start using Linux until 07 after I had upgraded (meaning dumpster dived) to a 866 and then a 1Ghz otherwize I think I’d still be using that old 233.
    I swear by old computers, mostly because they’re more economical, but really too it’s good not to let perfectly usable old machines wind up in the landfill and besides, for my everyday basic use what the heck do I need a quad core for anyways? My current machine is a 2.96 GHz Celeron D that’s around six to eight years old and I plan on using it till the bolts fall off and it gives up the ghost-then I’ll go rescue another discarded machine, slap Linux on it and it’ll run faster than a brand new box with Windows.
    And I’ll feel good for recycling/reusing since it takes something like eight tons in raw materials and loads of natural resources for the manufacturing process of making just one brand new computer.

  5. JoshMiller

    I’ve been meaning to do a post about not dumping old and “dead” PCs. Not that most people will end up reading it. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve seen people suggest they need a new PC when their machine just needed cleaned up/reinstalled.

    I’d hate to know the number of perfectly usable PCs in junkyards.

  6. jaber

    My dad has a really-really old custom build VIA C3 800 MHz PC for home file server and torrent slave, turned on 24/7. Occasionaly hangs even with Xorg off. I may hate it, but it still run :).

    Anyway, if you’re considering new PC.
    How about PCs with Intel Atom or plus with NVIDIA Ion?
    Or VIA Nano? You can build one for yourself for about $199. And of course your electic bill won’t skyrocket like crazy with C2Q.

    MSI Wind and Dell Mini use Atom and are 100% compatible with Hackintosh/OSX86. Even WiFi works. So the support probably much better on Linux…

  7. John Bohlke

    I’m currently using a 933 Mhz system that I received from someone that bought a used computer off of eBay. I still enjoy telling people what it does on a normal day: video encoding, web stuff, games, image processing, etc. In Linux the nice command is a very powerful thing. I usually have two video encoding scripts running niced at 15 and it lets me do whatever I wand without any appreciable lack.

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  9. Johannes

    Don’t forget an important reason for buying an older computer: ecology!
    Producing high tech has huge ecological repercussions, using “older tech” indeed has an ecological meaning.
    All the best,

  10. steve


    Thanks to this site I have a file server using nfs which uses a massive 401MB on disk and 50MB of RAM on a 500MHz AMD (from 1998 which was found on the roadside) with 64MB RAM installed. I’m using debian 5 on the server and testing on this laptop/client and it is all running wirelessly using rt73usb hardware. The server sits in my garage with a 500GB external sata drive which acts as bulk storage. Daily backups have never been so easy and all those USB sticks I used to use for transferring backups are being put to more useful tasks :o)

    Without hearing the stories here I wouldn’t have believed it was possible, so thanks again :o)

  11. Nathan Grubb

    Reading these posts of yours, I really want to setup an old computer to do something — anything. I did have a 2 GHz Celeron server with 256 megs of RAM but that died in a thunderstorm, sadly.

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  13. Jash

    Well, I agree with the concept. Up until recently I had an old 600Mhz Pentium 3. It worked wonderfully with linux but hardly at all with Windows XP and above. Even with GNOME and everything installed, it only consumed 75MB of RAM out of the 512 that was in it. However, the gamer in me needed an upgrade. I sold that machine and got a Dell with an Athlon 64 X2. Then, I donated that Dell to my family to build a QUIET new phenom ii x3 machine with the fourth core unlocked. The secret is in a quiet power supply/CPU cooler.

    All of the machines are still in use today. There’s nothing NOT green about giving machines to others, and when I bzip large files or do audio/video realtime processing, there is no lag. Nothing wrong with a new PC!

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