So what do you do with an old PC that would cost too much to upgrade to current standards? We encounter that question frequently around here. We have everything from the latest multiprocessor boxes to creaking 386s. In fact, our original 1984-vintage IBM PC/XT died only a couple years ago, and it was doing useful work until its untimely demise. Here, in no particular order, are ten useful things to do with an old PC:
In many households, one spouse is a PC power user and the other is much less demanding. She works at home doing serious number crunching and plays Quake for relaxation, while he just checks his email periodically and uses the Web to keep up with the PGA Tour results. Or viceversa. He might be happier having an older system all to himself than he would be sharing the latest, fastest PC. While you’re at it, consider installing a home network, if only to share your Internet connection. You can do so using a traditional wired Ethernet, 802.11 wireless networking, or even Home Phone Line Alliance (HPNA) networking. The cost can be as little as $50 for a couple of decent Ethernet cards and a 100BaseT cable.
Younger kids want to play educational games, some of which require a lot of PC, but many of which run just fine on a two- or three-year-old system. Older kids need word processing, web browsing, and email, but may also want to run games, some of which are quite demanding. Before you pass the old system on to the kids, consider doing one or more “$50 upgrades”—$50 for a faster processor, $50 to add RAM, $50 for a new video card, and, if necessary, $50 to replace the CD-ROM drive with a DVD-ROM drive. Before you do much more than that, remember that you can buy or build a pretty competent PC nowadays for $500 or thereabouts, not including the monitor.
An old Pentium system with a 15” monitor and 1 GB hard drive isn’t a good upgrade candidate, but that doesn’t mean it’s useless. It’s still more than good enough for web browsing, email, and light word processing, and there are many elderly people who would love to have such a machine. The stereotype that old people and computers don’t mix is just wrong. One of our readers reports that his 103-year-old grandfather spends hours on the Web every day, and similar stories are common. If you ask around, what you find may surprise you. If you’re going to do it, do it right. Strip the system down and reinstall Windows, Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, and Office. Carry the system over, set it up for them, connect it to their phone line, and spend a couple of hours getting them started using it. Help them get connected to the Internet, and check back periodically to make sure they’re having no problems.
Many nonprofits are pathetically underequipped with PCs. You may feel guilty about offering them what you consider to be an old, slow, and relatively useless computer, but utility is in the eye of the beholder. To someone running DOS applications on a 386 or 486—which many nonprofits still do—your old Pentium may be a godsend, particularly if you’re willing to spend some time helping them set it up and perhaps even network it to their other machines. Don’t be surprised if a nonprofit turns down your donation, though. Many of them have strict requirements for what they’re willing to accept, probably because they’ve been deluged by people trying to dump old XTs and 286s for tax writeoffs. If local nonprofits aren’t interested, contact the National Cristina Foundation (http://www.cristina.org). They accept anything from 486s up, including individual components.
If you don’t have a home network yet, now may be a good time to set one up. For the small cost of a couple of network cards, some cables, and perhaps an inexpensive hub, you can share peripherals like large hard drives, tape drives, and printers among all the machines on the network. Better yet, you can use inexpensive proxy server or NAT software to share one Internet connection; Windows 98 even has Internet Connection Sharing built in. We’ve retired a couple of our old systems to duties as servers. One has lots of disk space and a tape drive for system backups. The other connects to our cable modem, sharing the Internet connection with the rest of the network via the WinGate proxy server.
Home automation, until recently the exclusive province of gearheads, is becoming mainstream. Much still depends on obsolescent and unreliable X-10 technology, but other technologies are poised to make significant inroads. If you’re not familiar with home automation, visit http://www.home-automation.org and check some of the web sites listed there. You might be surprised by what can be done, and an old PC can be quite useful as a central controller for a home automation system.
If you work at home, consider installing a real telephone system and using your old PC to manage it. We both work at home, and have a Panasonic telephone system installed. We use an old 386sx system with a Talking Technologies BigmOuth card (alas, no longer available) to provide integrated automated attendant and voicemail functions. You can do the same to project a professional, “big company” image. As they say, “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”
You may think that 1.44 MB floppy, 1 GB hard disk, or 4X CD-ROM isn’t worth much, and in one sense you’re right. But if you have to troubleshoot your main system, just having a working spare of any type may save you a trip to the computer store. And that old ISA video card may be priceless if you need to install a flash BIOS update, because ISA video cards display the prompts and menus used by some flash BIOS update programs. PCI and AGP video cards do not display the prompts, forcing you to work blind.
If you’ve never tried it, you might be surprised by how useful another PC on your desk can be, particularly if you network your home PCs. Windows and multitasking are great, but nothing beats having another monitor displaying a web page or other information while you work on your main PC. Robert takes this to an extreme, working surrounded by (currently) nine PCs that share four monitors.
It’s pretty obvious that Linux is no flash in the pan. Most people who read this book and are not running Linux now will be within a year, so it makes sense to get some experience with Linux starting now. Happily, Linux doesn’t need much hardware, particularly if you’re running it as a server. We’ve run it successfully on creaking 486 systems. It’s fast on a Pentium, and it flies on older Pentium II and Celeron systems. Many people say Linux is less likely to have problems on newer hardware, and that’s true to some extent. However, the problems that Linux has with older hardware are usually with unusual devices. So, although Linux may not support ancient tape drives or sound cards or network adapters, it’s likely to work just fine with most of your older hardware. Our main Linux server at the moment is an elderly Pentium II/450 system that we upgraded to 256 MB of RAM and a 40 GB Seagate hard drive. It still has the original Matrox Millennium video card, SoundBlaster PCI sound card, and Intel 100BaseT network adapter. Everything works for us. It probably will for you as well.
Do note that if you plan to run Linux as a desktop OS, you’re not giving it a fair trial if you run it on elderly hardware. A GUI requires a certain amount of horsepower, whether it’s running on the Linux kernel or the Windows kernel. If you have any thought of migrating to Linux as your desktop OS (as we plan to do during 2002), do yourself a favor and run it on reasonable hardware—at least a 750 MHz processor and 256 MB of RAM. As with Windows, more is always better.