Avoid the Trash Heap: Great Uses for Old PCs
Ancient laptops and desktops might seem ready for the scrap heap, but there’s life in them yet.
2010 was a big year for desktop and laptop PCs, but not in a good way. For the first time, smartphones outsold PCs, according to IDC, a trend that continues to this day. This means that you might own a soon-to-be-over-the-hill personal computer. Maybe you want to junk it, because it’s slow and frustrating and has made you want to pitch it out a window.
We’re here to tell you no, don’t do that. If that laptop or desktop is from the last 10 years, you’d be surprised by just how much life you can get out of it. You may need to do some light upgrades here and there; more RAM and a big new hard drive may benefit some of these projects. But all you need in most cases is separate access to the Web and the ability to get software written to a USB flash drive or a CD/DVD to install on that old junker.
Try a New, Lighter OS
You like to try new things? Nothing will seem newer than a freshly installed operating system on your old PC — even a downright elderly computer will feel brand new. Most alternative operating systems (translation: not Windows or MacOS) are based on Linux, which comes in a variety of options called “distros.” Popular examples include Ubuntu, elementary OS, and PinguyOS. You’ll find interfaces similar to Windows, and they come with a ton of included software packages. They work pretty great on PCs with 4GB of RAM or more. If you want to hand the laptop off to the kids, there are distros designed for toddlers, like Qimo (recently retired, but still available), DouDou, Sugar, and Edubuntu.
You might want to try creating your own version of a Chromebook — a computer that’s essentially running Google’s Chrome browser as the OS. Sadly, Google doesn’t give Chrome OS away, or even sell it. There is, however, the “open source” (but still Google-controlled) Chromium OS project based on the same code. Even that’s not simple to download and install. Consumers are told to buy a Chromebook laptop. But you can download Chromium OS from ArnoldTheBat. Here’s a video to help you through the whole process.
Another Chromebook software provider making the rounds now is Neverware with CloudReady, which is free for individual use.
If you want to repurpose that machine into a gaming rig, try SteamOS. It’s a version of Linux built exclusively to run games purchased and download from Steam. Be aware that because it’s Linux-based, not every Steam game is going to run on it. Plus, your PC has to support certain hardware to run SteamOS: Intel or AMD 64-bit processor, 4GB RAM, 250GB hard drive, and Intel, Nvidia, or AMD graphics, at minimum.
Make a NAS/Home Server
Network-attached storage — a server for your home or small business network, used for storing files that you share with all the PCs on the network — are big. Wereview lots of them (here are the 10 best) with prices from a pittance to the hundreds. If you’ve got an old PC with lots of storage drive space, you don’t need to buy a NAS: make one.
FreeNAS is a software program for doing just that. It’s accessible by any OS on your network — Windows, MacOS, Linux, you name it. That’s a perfect way to make a shared backup of your computers. FreeNAS will also stream media to mobile OSes like iOS and Android phones. You control which users get access. You need at least 8GB RAM to run it properly.
Tonido is a different kind of storage — it turns your PC into a NAS that’s more about remote access. In other words, make your own private cloud. Your PC becomes a website for accessing files from anywhere, on any device. Do it at home over DLNA to stream media, or remotely from a smartphone browser (there are Tonido apps for iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows Phone, and even BlackBerry. Tonido also offers file syncing across computers (up to 2GB of data). They say to put it on your primary use computer, but if you put it on an old secondary computer, it’s instantly part of your backup routine. Note that it’s not an operating system in and of itself — you’ll still need Windows, Mac, or a version of Linux running on the PC to use Tonido.
Make an Anonymous PC
Everyone’s worried about privacy in a post-Snowden world. There are many tools for making your working computer into a more anonymous tool for surfing the Web, but if you’ve got a long-in-the-tooth PC that needs new life, turn it into a dedicated privacy PC with The Amnesic Incognito Live System, or TAILS. It’s based on a Linux offshoot called Debian. TAILS can run off a USB flash drive, SD card, or DVD to take it with you. While running, it routes all your Internet traffic and requests though the TOR Project. All the integrated applications with TAILS come pre-configured for security, including the office suite, IM client, email software, and of course the Web browser.
Serve Up Some Media
On a home network, there are plenty of devices and many are hungry for media to play. Even if you’re a streaming service addict, you might have hours of music, podcasts, movies, or TV shows and need a way to watch them on other PCs, game consoles, or mobile devices. For that, you need a media server. Note, all of these work with another operating system, so to get the best performance, you’ll want to put them on a system with a clean OS install and make the device dedicated to playing audio and video.
Software like Kodi (formerly the XBMC media center) will take care of that. You can install the server software on any device running Linux, Windows, Mac OS, jailbroken iOS devices, or rooted Android devices; there are “remote control” apps for iOS or Android users not willing to go for broke(n). There’s even an app for Kodi for playback on the Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick.
Plex has most of the same features. The server can install on PCs running Windows, MacOS, Linux, FreeBSD, and even on NAS devices from companies like Synology, Netgear, QNAP, and Drobo, to name a few. The playback software comes for streaming devices like Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Google Chromecast, and most smart TVs, game consoles, and mobile devices.
Spy on People
If that laptop has an integrated webcam — and most of them do — or you’ve got an elderly desktop with a stray webcam you can attach, put that eyeball to use. Reinstall Windows and grab a copy of iSpy. Set the PC up and let it run — you’ll get remote access on the webcam to view whatever’s happening (and if you’ve got a microphone, whatever is said). Use it to monitor the house, employees, babysitters, kids, pets, wildlife, and more. You can covertly or overtly watch the goings-on via a Web page or apps on iOS and Android. It’s free to watch locally (in your own home) with ads; remote viewing will cost you $7.95 a month, more if you set up multiple computers.
Create a Starter PC for Distant Family
This one is for a machine that’s not too old. Everyone has that family member who just can’t handle the tech. Worse, they constantly ask for your help. You may not even live in the same state. Troubleshooting over the phone is for the birds, so what do you do?
Take that old laptop, nuke the drive, and reinstall Windows. Then lock it down so they can’t install any software without your permission. To do so, you’ll need to get Windows 7 Pro or better and create a user account with very limited privileges. Before you send it off, install a remote-control program such as TeamViewer or Splashtop, so you can occasionally take over the PC and do updates and, better yet, show them on their own screen how to perform functions they can’t fathom. When you use their computer remotely, make sure to create restore points for when the PC inevitably gets screwed up.
Fire Up a Hotspot
Nothing is worse than limited wireless network access. So turn that PC into a hotspot for sharing an Internet connection via Wi-Fi. Naturally, you’ll need a PC with Wi-Fi capability, and to be honest this is probably a job better left to a router. But the option exists via Connectify. If you’ve already got a router with Wi-Fi, run Ethernet to the laptop and with Connectify, create a secondary network using the same Internet backhaul connection. (It’s a must even on your main, working laptop, especially if you travel a lot and don’t want to pay extra for Wi-Fi for your tablet or phone, for example.) It’s $35 for lifetime use or $20 a year.
With Windows 10, as with previous versions of Windows, it is possible to change some settings to turn the PC into a hotspot that’s still connected to your home Internet without extra software. Do a search on YouTube and you’ll turn up plenty of videos spelling out the process, like this one.
Contribute CPU Cycles
Even the oldest, crappiest PC has plenty of computing power going unused in its idle moments. Distributed computing projects — where software ties together a huge number of PCs to work on computationally massive problems — can put those cycles to good use. For example, you’ve probably heard of SETI@home (the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence), a distributed computing project that goes back to the 1990s. It was spawned at Berkeley and uses volunteer PCs to analyze signals from space. The software, which allows anyone to contribute to the SETI computation, is called BOINC. It is also the backbone for projects to cure disease, predict the climate, and even to model the universe. Find one you want to back, set up BOINC on that old PC, and let it run in the background, helping others while it doesn’t help you.
Turn that PC Up to 11
This is for a select few, the proud, the string-strummers. Turn that ready-to-be-abandoned PC into a guitar amplifier. You’ll need a special cable to hook the guitar up to the PC via a USB port (try Ubisoft’s Rocksmith Real Tone Cable) and a downloaded copy of Guitar Rig 5, an amplifier modeling program. It comes in a free version with 17 cabinet emulations, or you can pay $199 for the big guns that do it all. It’s available for MacOS or Windows.
Make a Tablet
Do you have some mad DIY skills? One of the favorite projects of the tech set with a down-on-its-luck laptop is to take it apart and convert it — into a “tablet.” Check the website Instructables, and you’ll find many step-by-step instructions on how to pull it off, including one that will turn any screen into a touch screen. Honestly, it’s probably cheaper and definitely easier to just buy a tablet. But where’s the fun in that?
Even if you can’t find a useful way to put the PC to use, consider cannibalizing it for something else. You’ll see some interesting ideas on Pinterest under the “computer repurposed” heading.
Save it for Skype
A laptop or desktop can be dedicated to one function that even the weakest PC can probably do well with a fresh operating-system install. For example, if you’re big into video conferencing with the family but haven’t yet updated to an Xbox One so you can chat on the big, big screen in the house, consider dedicating your old PC to Skyping on the small screen. A fresh install of a Linux OS (Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, or OpenSUSE specifically) and Skype for Linux will give you instant access to everyone’s fresh face. It’s also an option for a PC with Windows or MacOS (Snow Leopard or higher). With Windows 10, you could even use the “kiosk mode” to ensure that only one app — Skype — is allowed to run, though it’ll have to be the Windows Store App version of Skype.
If you’ve got an old Mac, you can set up for Skype and have the option to use Facetime to talk to people on iOS devices.