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5 ways to recycle or revitalize your old computer

Christmas is coming, and you’re about to have a ton of time off. Some of that time will be spent energetically tearing apart beautifully-wrapped gifts, and eating food is certainly next on the list of priorities. Obviously you have to play with your new gifts (or put on your new socks), but after that… after the postprandial sofa-surfing grunts and burps and farts… well, there isn’t a whole lot you can do.

The other big thing about Christmas is the amount of waste it produces. Wrapping paper, cards, ribbons, the plastic packaging of the presents themselves… there’s an awful lot of trash on Christmas Day. Then, of course, you need to throw out all of the things that have been replaced by new gifts: old kitchen appliances, clothes, televisions, printers and, most importantly, computers. A new laptop or desktop is incredibly cheap nowadays, particularly on pay as you go mobile broadband, which makes them very popular gifts.

But shouldn’t we do something with the old stuff, rather than just throwing it out? Of course, you could Freecycle, or give your clothes to charity — but hold onto those old computers! You’d be surprised with how many cool things you can do with an old desktop or laptop computer. You could finally learn how to use Linux, or set up a media center PC so that you can watch downloaded movies on your TV. You could create a locked-down box for your kids to surf the Web on, or a network-attached storage server for your backups. There’s almost no end to the list of neat things you can do with an old PC!

Tux, the Linux mascot 1. Format the hard drive and install Linux

Every computer, as it grows older, aspires to one day be a Linux box — Linux puts a bounce in the step of any computer, no matter how old it is. It’s like the retirement home of PCs. If you’ve got an older (pre-2005) computer on your hands, it would be ideal for more menial tasks, like downloading torrents. Newer processors are quite capable of doing fancy things, like transcoding HD video in real time (more about that later) and streaming it to your TV.

As for which Linux distro you should install, you can’t go far wrong with Ubuntu. The Desktop version is a good starting point if you’ve never used Linux before, but there’s also a Server build if you’re feeling adventurous, or if you’re a developer. Ubuntu is probably the most universal as far as hardware support goes, too, which hopefully means you won’t have to spend hours hacking your Wi-Fi card into submission…

Once you’ve got Ubuntu installed, get reading the documentation. You’ll be surprised at how ‘familiar’ Ubuntu feels, but at the same time, don’t expect to become a Linux pro without a lot of experience.

2. Convert your desktop or laptop into a media center/home theater PC

Samsung Plasma TV

You have two options when making a media center PC: either you make a complete system that outputs video via VGA or DVI and plugs straight into the TV, or, if you have a newer TV that has an Ethernet (LAN) socket, you stream video over your local network using DLNA.

In most cases, it’s easier to have a computer close to your TV, and connected directly via VGA or DVI. Most people don’t want a computer in their living room, though, especially if it’s ugly or noisy. The next best option, then, is to hide your media center PC in a cupboard somewhere, and run a long cable to the TV. A 10 meter DVI cable isn’t cheap (about $40), but it’s a small price to pay to remove the sound of whirring computer fans from the living room.

The other alternative, DLNA — hooking your media center PC up to the home network — is more advanced, but also much more powerful. There are good, free options for both Windows (TVersity) and Linux (uShare). Your media center PC could also double up as your BitTorrent box — so all of your downloaded TV shows and movies are automatically in the right place and ready to stream.

It’s worth noting that you could just use your own, new computer to stream video to your TV — you don’t have to use a separate computer. Also, if you don’t have a new TV that supports DLNA, but you do have an Xbox 360 or PS3, you can stream to your console, which will then output to your TV!

3. Make a bullet-proof Web surfing box for your kids, a loved one, or for yourself

If you only have one computer at home, or a computer that’s shared by a few people, it will have the tendency to get very messy very quickly. If you have kids, or someone in your family that doesn’t quite understand ‘safe surfing’, it won’t be long before the computer attracts its very first malware infection. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to clean it up with Malwarebytes — but if you’re unlucky, you might be forced to format, thus potentially losing lots of important documents and photos.

Really, the best solution is to keep work and play separate. It’s just common sense: don’t store important files or check your online bank on an untrusted computer. Fortunately, it’s really easy to make a bullet-proof Web surfing box that is just for surfing (and playing a few Flash games, of course!)

Again, you could use Linux (Ubuntu!), or if you have a spare Windows 7 or XP license, use that! Almost everyone knows how to use Windows, so they’ll be able to jump right in — but of course, if you’re a bearded type, you might want to take this chance to teach your kids the basics of a real operating system.

There’s no real need to burden the Web surfing box with things like virus scanners — it’ll just make a slow computer even slower. Instead, just roll the entire system back with something like Comodo Time Machine.

4. Grab a cheap hard drive (or two), and make a Network-Attached Storage (NAS) device for easy home backups

In the past year alone, I’ve generated something in the region of three terabytes of digital photos and videos. Because I sell my photos, I have to keep them backed up. For most people, backing up to the cloud with something like SugarSync is ideal, but if you have vast amounts of data, a NAS, or network-attached storage device, is by far the better choice. Unless you have a fast Internet connection, a NAS might be your only choice, too.

A NAS is basically a bunch of hard drives attached to a LAN. With Samba shares, you can make those drives appear as local drives, which as you can imagine makes backing up files a very trivial task.

The best and easiest way to make a NAS is to grab FreeNAS, a FreeBSD (similar to Linux) distribution. Put it on a USB flash drive (it’s only a few megabytes), plug it into your old computer… and that’s it! Well, you may need to do some fiddling if FreeNAS doesn’t detect your hardware, but there’s a lot of documentation, and the support forums are great.

Earlier this year, I grabbed some cheap 1TB drives (they’re only about $50 now), a gigabit Ethernet switch ($40), and made my own FreeNAS box. It’s liberating to have almost limitless amounts of free space (it’s trivial to plug in a new drive), and great to know I have a backup if my main system dies. Did I mention that you can use a FreeNAS box as a BitTorrent client too…?

5. Dismantle it — or upgrade it!

If I’m brutally honest, most of my new computer purchases have been to replace broken computers. It’s probably something to do with pushing the hardware beyond its limits, or something. Anyway: it makes little sense to give a broken computer to someone — and it will most likely just get scrapped if you give it to charity — so you only really have two options: upgrade it, or dismantle it.

Upgrading a computer is surprisingly easy — but you need to know your way around a computer’s innards, or you’ll just end up breaking it further. If you’ve never dismantled a computer, now’s your opportunity! While microchips are infinitely complex, the actual layout of a computer is surprisingly easy to understand. Before you know it, you’ll be able to point out the RAM and CPU, and, one day, maybe even locate the fabled BIOS/CMOS reset jumper.

To get you started, Instructables has a fantastic guide on how to dismantle a desktop computer. Laptops, on the other hand, vary a lot between manufacturers — they’re also a lot harder to take apart. In general, I wouldn’t recommend trying to fix or upgrade a laptop yourself, but if you just want to dismantle it, check this guide on taking a Sony Vaio apart.

Now, having dismantled a computer, you have the opportunity to upgrade it. If you can locate the motherboard’s serial/model number (it will be on the board itself), you can then find out whether it can accommodate a faster CPU or more RAM. Once you’ve successfully upgraded the computer, give it to a friend, or close family member — it would make an ideal Christmas present…


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