posted by Howard Fosdick on Wed 4th Aug 2010 18:19 UTC
IconIn previous OSNews articles I've claimed that discarded computers up to ten years old can be refurbished and made useful to someone. They shouldn't be discarded. They should be refurbished -- fixed up and reused -- rather than recycled -- destroyed and separated into their constituent materials. So how does one do this? In this and several subsequent articles, I'll describe how to revitalize older computers.


Here's how I got interested in this subject. I've been refurbishing computers, off and on, since the early 1990's, back when I discovered you could upgrade a 286 to a 486, by replacing the motherboard, processor and memory. Back then reusing the other parts (case, power supply, keyboard, mouse, monitor, disks) was worthwhile because they were expensive. 

I eventually started refurbishing computers for charity, both for non-profit organizations like Free Geek Chicago and on my own. It's an unpaid hobby that is unrelated to my career as an independent database and operating systems consultant.

If you'd like to play too, just haul that old computer out of your attic or up from your basement and you'll have fun making it useful again. Or if you don't have one sitting around, ask friends, neighbors, or co-workers. It's not obvious how to dispose of computers properly, so many people store them away, where they slowly age into obsolescence. You can often get free older computers from online sources like FreeCycle, FreeSharing, Craigslist or these other organizations. (I've even refurbished two P-III's I found curbside in the alleys while walking my dog!)

Most of these computers will be in the range of five to ten years old. This is my "target market" -- a Pentium III or better. Many of the better donations will come your way because their owners don't know that Windows needs to be tuned up, just like their car. Instead they figure a slow Windows system is "just too old" and give it away. You'll also get some good donations that have a single easily-fixed hardware failure, like a bad disk or broken CD. Many people feel it's easier to toss out any aging computer with a hardware problem than to fix it.

My goal is to refurbish computers for those who can't afford new ones. This is important because about one-quarter of Americans do not own a computer. They have to trek to the public library or wait in line at school to use a shared one. Large families have to share computers among their kids. A secondary machine is very useful to them, even if it's not state-of-the-art. If you're in IT or the computer industry, please understand that many people would love to have your discarded five to ten year old computer (properly refurbished). You can find local refurbishers to donate your old computer to here, hereand here.

Single Purpose Systems

My goal is to build general purpose systems. This differs from those who take older machines and repurpose them for a single function. By honing in on a single task, you can make even computers with very limited resources useful. The kinds of tasks they can be used for include routers, firewalls, print servers, file servers, backup computers, word processors, and more. This article has a complete list of fun single function projects.

One of my favorite dedicated uses for old computers is as inexpensive intelligent terminals connected to central servers. The PC's manage presentation graphics while the central server runs the applications. You can even reuse Pentium II's and Pentium I's in this way. The Linux Terminal Server Project provides free Linux software to implement this architecture.

Robert Pogson has written detailed articles on exactly how to do this and the technical parameters involved. He describes real-world use in the Canadian school system. He also details exactly where they have saved money versus what a traditional network of "fat client" personal computers would have cost. Given the clear cost-effectiveness of this approach I'm surprised we don't see it employed more often.

What Good Are Older Computers?

Ever had a non-technical friend ask you: "which computer should I buy?" That's a tough question to answer. It all depends on what they're going to use it for and their expectations. And these can vary widely.

Refurbishing a computer presents the same dilemma. Its value all depends on:
  • The tasks you want to perform 
  • Your performance expectations
Let me give you two extreme examples at opposite ends of the spectrum. I have one friend who is busy recapturing his youth by tricking out an ancient 486. With his hardware mods, he can do anything -- play games from his teenage years, email, even web surfing and social networking. I greatly admire his technical ability. But his approach is impractical for most of us.

On the other end of the spectrum I know several IT professionals who look down on anything more than a year or two old. They enjoy working with cutting-edge systems and have the money to buy the latest equipment. I think that's great, but they don't realize that not everyone shares their values. Or their finances. Some people just want to perform everyday computer tasks. As long as performance is adequate they really don't care about computer specs or whether their system is cutting edge. They do care how much the system cost.

What you consider worthwhile depends on your goals. My goal is to help everyday people with general purpose computers that would otherwise be prematurely discarded.

Five to ten year old computers can do the job. Just look at what you can do with Puppy, a Linux distribution targeted at older and limited-resource machines:
  • Perform home and office tasks with word processors, file and HTML editors, PDF viewers, spreadsheets, and HomeBank finance manager
  • Surf the Internet, and read, write, send and manage email
  • Play, record, mix, rip and manage music
  • Scan in documents and pictures, read or scan photographs, alter and manage images and graphics with image and vector editors
  • Write your personal blog with PPLOG and the Hiawatha web server, or create your own wiki with DidiWiki
  • Telephone, chat, or message via Voice Over IP with Psip, and instant message and chat with Ayttm
  • Manage your address book, personal contacts, and daily calendar with Osmo daily organizer
  • Read, write, and burn CD's, DVD's, and Blu-ray discs
  • Log in to remote computers with telnet and send & receive files
  • Manage your files and data with file managers, a file finder, and tools for backup
  • Manage your computer and its performance with a full set of utilities for setup, configuration, and performance monitoring and management
Mature machines have their limitations. Their lesser performance becomes obvious during CPU- and disk- intensive tasks. Concurrency is zilch compared to today's dual- and multi- core computers. You can't run a virus-scanner or perform some other background task on an older machine and expect it not to interfere with your primary task. You might find that websites with big images or lots of active code will present screens slowly (though sometimes this depends more on your line speed and its consistency than computer performance).  And smooth video might be an issue. Fluent video requires roughly a one ghz CPU or better.

Mature machines can't run current versions of Microsoft software like Windows and Office. Running Microsoft software on an older machine means running older versions of the software.

What You'll Get -- Hardware

Ok, let's say you've got an older computer in hand. While machines vary by manufacturer, this chart describes their general characteristics:

Pentium: Produced: Processor Speeds: Typical Memory: Maximum Memory:

I 1993 to 1998 60 mhz to 300 mhz 16 to 64 M 128 M
II 1997 to 1999 233 mhz to 450 mhz 64 to 128 M 256 M
III 1999 to 2003 450 mhz to 1.4 ghz 128 M to 512 M 512 M to 1 G
IV 2000 to 2008 1.3 ghz to 3.8 ghz 256 M to 1 G
1 or more gigabytes

Sources: Wikipedia, Tom's Hardware, personal experience. "Typical Memory" refers to how much memory you'll typically encounter in donated computers. "Maximum Memory" is the hardware limit for the maximum allowable memory. Computers vary a bit in maximum memory by manufacturer; common maximums are listed.

Throughout this discussion I'll assume that you have no prior knowledge of the computer you're refurbishing. We'll call this an "unknown computer" or a computer in an "unknown state" -- a computer about which you can not make any assumptions. If you're reviving a known computer from your own basement or attic you might be able to skip some of the steps I've listed.

With any older computer, it's critical to first verify that the hardware works. Otherwise you can waste lots of time later, trying to fix mysterious errors you could have caught earlier. It's analogous to finding a software error in the design phase rather than during programming. Testing hardware costs a little time up front but can save you so much more later.

Boot into the computer's hardware configuration panel (by pressing F1, F2, DEL, or whatever works for that computer). Check out the parameters and see if any errors are highlighted. Look to see if there's a hardware error log to view. Be sure to run any diagnostics these panels offer!

You'll also find the hardware specs on these panels. Does the old laptop have a mini-PC (wifi) card? What are the computer's video memory and adapter type? What are the optical disc drive's capabilities? Write down all hardware device information for later. You might need it during an operating system install or to locate drivers.

Your main testing and verification targets are the memory, disk, and motherboard. The configuration panels might help you to test them. If not, Hiren's Boot CD comes with a full suite of tests. Live Linux CD's like Ubuntu offer free memory testers like memtest86. Any installed version of Windows offers a good disk checker in Chkdsk or Scan Disk. If you have to break the Windows Administrator account password to run them use the free program Offline NT Password and Registry Editor. It deletes the Administrator password so you can log on to the Administrator account without entering a password. Be sure to reset the Administrator password after you gain access!

The one hardware improvement that really counts with older computers is to maximize memory. For example, a Pentium III with 512 M can run almost any Linux distribution. 128 M on that same machine severely restricts your options. You might find a 400 or 450 mhz P-II of use with 256 M but worthless with less. So always max out the memory. Get extra memory by cannibalizing other discarded or broken computers. Or you can find it inexpensively online or at computer shows.

Choosing Operating System(s)

One might think that choosing an operating system is only a technical issue, but for mature computers, it's one of the biggest decisions you'll make. The OS determines performance and the available applications. It affects licensing, security, ease of use, and other key factors.

I volunteer at Free Geek Chicago, a non-profit refurbisher that combines computer donations with free and open source software to get computers to those who need them. Free Geek always destroys all software and data on the disk(s) by running a program like Darik's Boot and Nuke or DBAN. This assures those who donate their equipment that their data has been fully destroyed by overwriting the entire disk. Reformatting a disk or installing an operating system do not adequately destroy data. Demagnetizing or degaussing the disk destroys the data, but it also destroys the disk because it eliminates the tracking guidance mechanism. You can't demagnetize a disk if you intend to reuse it.

After over-writing the disk completely with DBAN, Free Geek Chicago installs Xubuntu Linux. Xubuntu gives clients all the benefits of Ubuntu -- wide popularity, a large user community, a huge repository of free applications, active online help forums -- while running the light-weight XFCE graphical user interface.

Keeping Windows?

If you're fixing up a computer for yourself, friends, or family, you're in a different situation than an organization like Free Geek. You can weigh whether to keep the already-installed Windows software. Let's detail some of the pro's and con's.  

If the Windows version pre-dates XP -- such as ME, 98, or 95 -- I would not recommend you keep the OS for general use. These older Windows versions suffer security vulnerabilities. Microsoft no longer supports them or provides security fixes. Most anti-malware programs no longer run on pre-XP systems. And if you can get modern anti-malware running on them, it will degrade performance, since these OS's run on machines that are over ten years old. Finally, Windows systems pre-dating XP don't offer user account security.

This recommendation applies only for general purpose, Internet-connected computing. You might still find special purpose or single use needs where older Windows systems fulfill your goals. My favorite example is my friend who writes romance novels for a living. She has a special "writing room" with an old Windows 98 computer running Word 2000. She doesn't want to be Internet connected. She says that would distract her from her job, creative writing. She's happy to have picked up a dirt-cheap refurbished computer rather than shelling out hundreds of dollars for a new one. She needs nothing more than she has, and what she has fits her needs perfectly.

Move up to Windows XP and deciding whether to keep Windows becomes a more interesting question. XP is in the middle of Microsoft's de-support process. All applications and devices run with XP, and there is a wide array of excellent free anti-malware programs available. The software on the machine will be age-appropriate. (You can't run current Microsoft software on your older computer.) The system will include all the necessary drivers. Keeping Windows retains all the installed applications, too. These could have high value, depending on your intended use. Finally, you're keeping a premier operating system, with world-wide support forums, lots of online information and help, and tons of apps. You'll get all the traditional Windows advantages -- ease of use, compatibility, a high degree of applications integration, and more. 

The one major downside is that it takes a lot of effort and expertise to clean up a donated XP computer that arrives in an unknown state.  This time-consuming process focuses on three key objectives, performed in this order:
  1. Security
  2. Anonymization
  3. Performance tuning
Security means ensuring there is no malware or spyware on the computer. Because of rootkits, you can never be theoretically certain that you have secured an unknown computer. But running a series of anti-malware and cleanup programs will protect you sufficiently to give adequate assurance for typical computer use.

Be aware that for an unknown, donated computer you will have to run a number of anti-malware programs -- preferrably in sequence -- and that this requires significant run time. Running a single anti-malware program is not sufficient to assure that you have cleaned up an unknown computer. Anti-malware programs have different strengths and best identify different threats. No program has a 100% detection rate!  Running several programs also helps you properly deal with the false positives thrown off by any one program.

Anonymization is only necessary if the computer is not your own. You'll probably want to wipe out any trace of the identity of the former owner and his or her activities. It's usually easy to locate and over-write the previous owner's data files and user accounts. But locating and eliminating all the personal data kept in the Registry, buried in application configuration files, and residing in application profiles can be difficult.

Complete anonymization also includes cleaning up all that "tracking data" Windows leaves lying around: cookies, flash cookies, temp files, internet temp files, download and install files, logs of all kinds, most-recently-used (MRU) lists for various applications, search autocomplete, Internet Explorer autocomplete, histories of several kinds, web cache, recently-typed URLs, all the web sites visited that are stored in the Index.dat files and sometimes the Registry, and more. Even with automated tools it's tough to be sure you've found and erased absolutely everything. Most people consider it unnecessary to be this thorough but it's good to be aware of all the "personal data and traces" we leave behind when using Windows.

Performance tuning a donated computer requires time because people don't usually donate computers that still meet their performance expectations. They donate computers they feel have become "too slow." Most Windows users have no idea that they should tune up Windows periodically, so it's common to get donations of perfectly good computers that just need some tuning to reclaim their spark. 

You need to achieve four objectives in performance tuning:
  1. Reduce the processor load
  2. Reduce memory use
  3. Reclaim disk space
  4. Ensure optimal use of the network connection
In next month's article I'll describe how to secure and anonymize donated Windows XP systems. This will be based on my free guide How To Secure Windows and Your Privacy. While the guide is two years old it still applies since we're talking about reviving Windows XP systems. The month after that I'll show how to performance-tune mature computers.  This will be based on my new guide that covers all Windows versions, How to Tune Up Windows.

Installing Windows Fresh

Another OS alternative is to install Windows fresh. Many believe you get better performing, cleaner systems by re-installing Windows rather than securing and cleaning up an existing install. This makes sense but it isn't practical unless you have the original install disks.

For a fresh install, you have to have both the legal Windows license and the matching install disk. Plus you'll lose the installed applications unless you have their original install disks, too. Finally, you have to be able to locate and re-install all the drivers. You can do this even if you don't have the original "drivers CD" that came with the computer but it is time-consuming.  You can find and freely download most Windows drivers from web sites like NoDevice, CNet Downloads, and Soft32.  There are also many web sites that will scan your computer and recommend the best drivers for your devices.

Some vendors offer proprietary systems whereby the disk has a "recovery partition" so that you can do some sort of "recovery re-install." How this works and whether it will give you the full benefits of a true re-install depends on the particular vendor's technology.

Refurbishing non-profits that install fresh copies of Windows are nearly always members of Microsoft's Microsoft Authorized Refurbisher (MAR) and Registered Refurbisher programs. These programs offer reduced-fee Windows XP and Office licenses as well as install tools to organizations that conform to Microsoft's program requirements. The goal is to reuse computers five years old or less. (By way of contrast, Linux-oriented refurbishers like Free Geek reuse computers up to ten years old.)

Multiple Operating Systems

Non-profit refurbishers like Free Geek must guarantee complete data destruction, so they completely over-write disks and cleanly install a new operating system. You may be in a different position. If you decide to keep Windows, you might try dual-booting. Couple XP and its installed apps with a fresh install of a suitable Linux. This gives you the best of both worlds, retaining everything Windows and the installed apps offer while pairing them with the benefits of open source software and free download repositories. There is a fair degree of interoperability between the Windows and Linux worlds these days, too. Linux can read and write files in Windows partitions and Linux applications like OpenOffice can work with Microsoft Office files. For dual-side applications compatibility you can install OpenOffice under Windows, too.

The major cost to dual-booting is your time, both for securing and cleaning up Windows, and also for installing Linux.  Also, the computer must have sufficient disk space. You need about one gigabyte of free space to install a small Linux distro like Puppy and from four to eight gigabytes to install a full distro like Ubuntu.

If you decide to dual-boot Windows XP and Linux, you'll need two key tools:
  1. Dual-boot manager
  2. Partitioning tool
The former installs on the disk's master boot record or MBR and presents the operating system selection menu upon system start. This is where you select whether to use Windows or Linux for your session. The latter enables you to add the Linux partition to the disk and resize the existing XP partition (usually necessary to co-install Linux). Both tools come bundled with most Linux general-purpose distributions. Puppy and Ubuntu are two examples. Linux gives you everything you need to set up a dual-boot system with Windows XP.

Of course, there are other ways to run more than one operating system on a single computer besides dual-booting. Booting "live CDs," USB booting, and virtual machine software come to mind. Even if you elect to install Linux to disk you'll face choices such as "full" versus "frugal" installs. There is a wide range of options and this is an important issue in computer refurbishing. I'll discuss the options in detail in a future article.

Dare I offer my own preferences for Linux distros? (Everyone knows there are dozens of excellent distros one could choose). I value systems that are widely used, offer active online communities, are user friendly, and require minimal tweaking after installation. Here is what I prefer:

Recommendation for
Low-Memory Systems:

Recommendation for
High-Memory Systems:

 I Damn Small Linux
Damn Small Linux or
Puppy Linux
Damn Small Linux or
Puppy Linux
Puppy Linux
Puppy Linux Any  (Ubuntu)
Any  (Ubuntu) Any  (Ubuntu)

I only give P-III's and better to end users. As long as a techie initially installs and configures them, I find that Puppy, Xubuntu, and Ubuntu offer sufficient ease of use for anyone. So these are the three systems I give to clients.

With a Pentium III and 512 M, you can install any Linux distro, even large-sized systems like Ubuntu, CentOS, Red Hat, or PCLinuxOS. Ubuntu fits my criteria and so I've always used it in the past. But the five P-III systems on which I've tried to install the latest Ubuntu release, 10.04, have all failed. I've had success with two of three P-IV systems. In all cases, the new video didn't work out-of-the-box and fixing it has become more complicated than simply editing the now-missing xorg.conf file. I am concerned but have not yet completed testing, and am now trying some different boot options. My impression thus far is that Ubuntu is leaving older systems behind. If this turns out to be true, perhaps I'll have better luck with other members of the Ubuntu family, such as Xubuntu or the newly-emergent Lubuntu. Lubuntu focuses on older systems and requires minimal system resources. Or I might turn to other full distros about which end users have given me very positive feedback, such as Vector and Wolvix.

More OS Options

There are other interesting free systems to try besides Linux. I won't discuss them here, so perhaps readers can add comments and share their experiences on how they've used them:

Operating System: Best Use:

BSD BSD is noted both for its rock-solid reliability and minimal system requirements. Check out FreeBSD, OpenBSD, and NetBSD.
Haiku A new OS that has received attention at OS News, Haiku was inspired by BeOS. Although Haiku can run on less, a P-III with 256M is recommended.
FreeDos For old DOS-era machines, FreeDOS gives you a modern, open source system. FreeDOS brings DOS into modernity by supplying many "packages" that support modern devices and features.

Coming Up ...

Obviously there are many different ways to refurbish computers. This article offers only a single perspective. Please add a comment sharing your own ideas and what has worked for you. What has been your experience?

Next month I'll describe how to revitalize Windows XP systems. I'll focus on two main areas: security and anonymization. Then in the article after that I'll discuss how to performance tune mature Windows systems.

When I was in high school, I remember how enthusiastic some friends were about rebuilding old cars. I never caught the "car bug" but I appreciated their goal.  Few people think of computers this way, even when they have years of good service left in them.

Nothing is more satisfying than taking a computer someone has discarded as worthless, fixing it up and tuning it back to life, then getting it to someone who really needs it. It's not hard if you know how.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant who specializes in databases and operating systems. He's refurbished computers as a hobby for over fifteen years.


Smart Reuse with Open Source
How refurbishing defeats planned obsolescence
How To Secure Windows and Your Privacy Free comprehensive e-book tells how to secure Windows (July 2008)
How to Tune Up Windows E-book tells how to performance tune Windows (March 2010)
Goodbye Microsoft Good information on how to revive older computers with Linux
Upgrading and Repairing PC's The standard hardware reference book. If you're working with older equipment you don't have to have the latest edition.
The Complete PC Upgrade & Maintenance Guide The other standard hardware reference book
Free Geek A non-profit charity that refurbishes computers and recycles unuable parts
Electronics Take Back Coalition Background on reuse and recycling
Microsoft Refurbisher Program How Microsoft's refurbisher programs work

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