This is a helpful article for anyone wanting to re-purpose an old machine for friends or family members, or want to make a firewall or file server out of obsolete hardware. It contains useful hints for tech packrats, such as “throw away old PCs without PCI slots, and “if a component fails intermittently, save yourself the grief and trash it.” The article even has hints for convincing your kids that what they really want it a 300 MHz PII with Linux, not a new 3 GHz PC with XP.
Re-purposing Old PCs to Save Cash
Submitted by Ron Rancourt 2003-09-25 In the News 31 Comments
Never heard of those….
Great Article. Really well thought out, and orginized.
The only 6 things I would add:
1. A. Put the components in the case, but do not tighten them down ( just hand tight ) to test.
B. Then when everything is in good shape, tighten everything down, put cable ties on the cables, and a spot of silicon seal on the ends of the connectors. ( Thanks Dell for this trick)
C. Test everything again, and then put the case on.
2. Get a copy of Mullers: “Upgrade and replairing Secrets” Everthing I know I learned from that book. ( more like a large tome ).
3. As a source for parts, check pricewatch, and local computer shows.
4. Get to know the people in the closest computer shop you trust. Ask them to Match prices, and repeat business with them.
5. Never try to upgrade a Compaq computer. Wimpy power supplies, and non-standard components galore. Cyrix is evil.
6. Never throw your old computer in the trash. ( its full of lead, and other toxic components ). Find a local computer recycler that is working with local schools, and ask them if they can use it. If not, pay them the fee to recycle it.
I set a linux (gentoo) box up for you kids. I used good components and it’s been very reliable. They can watch DVDs, play some (limited selection) games, etc.
The problem is they still need to use windows. The only websites my kids go to are cartoonnetwork, nickjr, disneykids, and other “kids” sites. Almost everything on those sites gives them the error “X-Director” plugin needed. Guess what, there isn’t one for Linux.
This means I had to buy a copy of windows and install it. Bummer.
or turn those old PCs into LTSP clients. nice experience and environment friendly activity
1) Install Windows 98SE or (preferably) 2000
2) Install all security updates and set auto-updating on
2) Install OpenOffice, Mozilla 1.4 or later, Winamp 2.91, Grisoft AVG Virusscan, and Zonealarm firewall.
3) Give it to a friend who has school-age kids and can’t afford a computer.
there is ALWAYS someone who can’t afford a computer but is missing out on some aspects of modern life by not having one.
Do your bit for society. Donate them to the needy. In this time when you can buy a P2 – 333 for £40 ( British pounds ) philanthropy is pretty economical….
I was talking to someone who works for a small (about 15 people) company that does design, printing and has two shops (office supplies and clothes). They hire very expensive techs from the local computer company, which is also the biggest in town. First they waited two weeks before they finally got a tech to come down and wire five meters of cat5 for the new computer in one of the shops. Then the tech took two old machines (P166 if I’m not mistaken) and said he’d “make one new one out of them”. And he charges by the hour. Including the time he spends “repairing” those two completely and 100% working machines.
Crap. People are getting screwed big time. If you have a couple of old PCs lying around, turn them into toys for the kids or into a firewall or a local file server or a small computer for the living room or the kitchen or anything. Hell, add a cheap tv capture card and you’ll have tv in there as well.
I’m currently looking for a cheap monitor for my other 300mhz P2 so I can turn it into something that can be used for gaming and occasional browsing. It’ll run Linux of course
Question: anyone aware of Linux distros specifically aimed at turning old machines into small desktop systems with a small browser?
Morphix-light-gui will do fine. the new one uses XFCE4 but the older ones uses icewm.
Answer to your question about an old LInux into a small desktop systems with a small browser.
Check out “Damn Small Linux” Its 50mb and comes with a lot more than just a broswer and it can be installed onto a small hd and slower cpu.
I too just built another computer and now have a spare Amd K6-2 300mhz with 256mb of ram, 2.1 gb hd, voodoo 3 16mb pci card.
I may give it to my mom which needs to finally learn to use one. Also I have a friend from chile that doesnt have money to buy a new computer and just does the basics on a computer. I havent decided yet, but mom has first dibs
Based on my 10 years of consulting, I can say for other than the hobbiest, this is a total waste of time and money
Great article, but, most of the time, it’s BETTER to buy new than try to put machines together (of course, this article was for those who don’t have the money to do it).
I do retire machines in my household, but, when I buy new, I make sure I replace everything. Then, I still have a whole PC in perfect working condition that I can give to someone else.
I NEVER throw stuff away (unless it’s completely dead or no chance of working properly). There are far too many toxins in your average computer.
Good article, but I guess my time is better spent with family than messing around with old parts that may or may not work
Most states have laws making it illegal to dispose of computers in the trash. Put it in your car, take it to the dump, and let them take care of it.
If you don’t want your old computer there are tons of places that will take it off of you.
I like http://www.perscholas.org/
but here are more organizations..
There are places that take cell phones too
“The article even has hints for convincing your kids that what they really want it a 300 MHz PII with Linux, not a new 3 GHz PC with XP.”
I’d really want a new 3 GHz PC with Linux!
“The article even has hints for convincing your kids that what they really want it a 300 MHz PII with Linux, not a new 3 GHz PC with XP.”
None of these arguements are ever going to work when facing a teenager looking to play Unreal Tournament 2003, Everquest, Star Wars Galaxies or America’s Army online.
Finding a use for oldPCs is great for hobbiests. For anyone else it is futile.
There are several computer ‘recyclers’ selling ex-Govt computers here in Brisbane, Australia for around AUD$500 – P3s with 64M RAM and a 2-4 Gig HD. Basically useless for many uses, a 3 month warranty and too expensive to upgrade. A reliable basic celeron/athlon box costs AUD$500. Team it with a second hand 17′ monitor and it is fine.
Almost everything on those sites gives them the error “X-Director” plugin needed. Guess what, there isn’t one for Linux.
Yeah, that’s the Shockwave plugin. You can install it with Codeweaver’s Crossover Plugin product.
What is so terrible about a 300-500 MHz computer? I don’t game. But I do program. And for me there really isn’t all that much of a difference between using my 350 MHz K6-2 running Win2k and Linux and the 2.4 GHz Win2k P4 I have at work. Yeah, it’s a little faster, but for most things the speed difference doesn’t add up to much. Hell, I can still play UT, Q2 and Q3 fine enough on the random occasion I get invited to a small LAN Party. (these days, I just let my gf use the iBook, although that too is “slow,” only a 500 MHz G3) If you had the money, sure it’s worth getting something at least 1.5 GHz
But than again, I code in Squeak Smalltalk, not some annoying language like C, C++ or Java, when I have to sit and wait through long compilation processes. If I was developing in a language like that, I imagine I would cherish a 3 GHz machine- anything to not waste my time. But in the languages I develop in- Squeak, Perl, REBOL, and Ruby I just write the code and go. In Squeak, the code is compiled (unlike in Perl, REBOL [is ruby?]) whenever you save a method- but even on a very slow machine, the compilation takes only a fraction of a second.
But, am I the only one who doesn’t lust after the fastest for no reason? Am I the only one who can do his work on an older computer?
I didn’t like the fact that an article about re-using old computers for new purposes advocates tossing computers in the trash??
Motherboards without PCI slots are worthless?? Then I guess I should throw out my 66 Mhz 486DX-2 Linux router that only has ISA and VLB slots? I even still have an old 40 Mhz 386DX in service over here, it’s my mail server.
There’s still a LOT of uses for those old boxes.
As for 300 to 500 Mhz boxes… They have even more uses! They’re not OLD at all. Up until May of this year, my main box was a 433 Mhz Celeron with 192mb of ram, and I was running XP on it!!! And no… it wasn’t really slow at all. It was sure faster than the 166 Mhz classic Pentium it had replaced a year earlier.
As a poor college student, I keep my computers for a LONG time, and I’m always finding new uses for them. Real geeks keep using their old stuff forever!
I still have an old Laser 128 over here I use for classic Apple ][ gaming.
So don’t throw your computers away!!! Find a new use for them or give them to a needy geek!
Xander:”As a poor college student, I keep my computers for a LONG time, and I’m always finding new uses for them. Real geeks keep using their old stuff forever!”
Any suggestions of new uses? I can’t think any other use for old computer than turning it to a server or a simple websurfing & textprocessing computer.
The main problem with recycling old computers is getting cheap hard disks (i.e. under 10Gb for say $20).
I have a PPro233 and a P200MMX mobo/CPU sitting at home, with RAM etc. but don’t have any spare hard drives to make them into complete computers.
Mind you, I just retired the P200MMX firewall and replaced it with my girlfriend’s old PIII/667 which was running Win98SE (she now has an Athlon 1.6GHz with XP).
“what they really want it a 300 MHz PII with Linux” should be “what they really want is a 300 MHz PII with Linux”
I think that’s what you meant to say anyways.
“What is so terrible about a 300-500 MHz computer? I don’t game. But I do program. And for me there really isn’t all that much of a difference between using my 350 MHz K6-2 running Win2k and Linux and the 2.4 GHz Win2k P4 I have at work. ”
Wow, you must work on small project then. At my job, the compile time difference was amazing between my old 800mhz and my new 2Ghz. I save a truck load of time, just for that, and I’m not talking how smoother is my hardware target emulator when I debug.
I guess on depending what you are working on, yes, the faster the better.
Oh and my colleagues rendering 3D are more than happy too not being stuck at 200mhz.
1) Telling people to throw out computers without PCI slots is petty. There’re still uses for them. A 486 can make a perfectly fine email, typing & light browsing system.
2) Most people don’t compile software & render 3D. It is irrelevent.
3) You can use modern hdds with older computers – but you need to download the tools from the makers’ websites that let them bypass the bios limitations.
BeOS will make a slow 300MHz feel like a 500-600.
http://www.beosmax.org has a free download with a slew of drivers
to boost compatibility with all kinds of devices.
As long as your old PC has a CD-Rom drive you’ll be able to
load it up.
I’m running XP on an old P2 333MHz laptop; I upgraded the RAM from 64MB to 192MB and it’s just peachy.
Runs XP quite a bit better than it ran Linux, actually.
Nice article. But I’m surprised it doesn’t mention the KVM (keyboard-video-mouse) switch.
I have an old AMD K6-200 with win98 that gets booted once a week. It has just one job-to back up the data from my palmtop (psion revo, if you must know). It also has the psion emulator loaded so I can work on that data on a real monitor and keyboard. This releases one precious serial port for use on my main (Linux) machine
But this only works because I don’t have to cram another monitor and keyboard on my smallish desk. Instead, both computers are plugged into a Belkin 2-way KVM. Hit scroll Lock twice, then press the cursor-up key and I am at my other computer. The switch is transparent to all operating systems I’ve tried.
Definitely one of the most useful pieces of hardware I’ve ever bought (4-way switches also exist) and MUCH better than dual-booting. This way, the old K6 gets to live a few more years.
I’m ‘working’ on pile of 486es and early Pentium machines. It keeps me on the third floor, out of my wife’s way, and she knows I’m mostly staying out of trouble. Much cheaper than fixing cars or motorcycles. You don’t need a giant shop and thousands of dollars of tools to work on a computer either.
eBay is an ~excellent~ place to find obsolete graphic cards, sound cards, modems, etc. You can find plenty of components to plug into an ISA slot!
I was irritated by a family next door that said they had no computer and would like one of my older ones. Well, I go over there and they have two old computers, both of which are better than the one I gave them! They did pass mine on to someone who ~really~ didn’t have one…
Regarding the article, I was disapointed that the only OS mentioned was Linux. Sure, stripped-out Linuxes will work fine on older machines, and often have better hardware support than on brand-new components. But that’s not the only choice available.
As someone else mentioned, BeOS would ~fly~ on an earlier Pentium, and be easier to use. Older versions of Windows would be an excellent choice too, being that’s what the computers were designed for – the amount of free software for Windows95 that would run on a Pentium I or II is amazing. No mention of GeOS, NewDeal, or Breadbox Ensemble either, which is still being sold and marketed specifically for productive use on ‘obsolete’ systems.
Must disagree with the comment above about setting up a give-away computer with all of the latest security patches and auto-updating. That crap will bring an older machine to it’s knees and fill a small hard drive in no time. Instead, install Win 98 with no upgrades, but add Kerio and AVG Anti-Virus.
Just some thoughts,
Convincing a 14-year-old that 330 mhz is just as good as their friends’ 3Ghz gaming machines with 256MB graphic cards is absolutely futile. Was it really so long ago that we were that age?
An 8-year-old might be that gullible. My 3-year-old neice ~loves~ the Mac LCii I gave her.
My mother has a five year old computer that I have significantly upgraded. It started out with a 2 gig hard disk, 32 megs of RAM, and Windows 98. I grew tired of constantly fixing Windows, so I gave her, for Christmas one year, a 128 megabyte stick of RAM I had left over and a new 40 GB hard disk. (It was the smallest hard disk I could find.)
On that I installed Windows 2000 Pro, Linux Mandrake 9.0 and FreeBSD 4.7 Stable.
Windows she only uses for printing, since she has a cheap winprinter.
Linux runs and avoids the maintenance problems I still have with Windows, but it is slow and temperamental. But FreeBSD (I just upgraded to 5.1-Release) runs faster (even with the latest KDE!), is easier to customize to the computer’s needs, and can do things that neither of the other OSs can do on that machine.
This is a machine, by the way, that chokes to death booting Knoppix – and has on every version for the last year.
The BSDs, I think, are probably one of the best choiuces for older hardware like this.
Once I get this machine
This is bad advice. Have you ever checked your W2K task manager? On a plain W2K after booting, no apps loaded, it already eats *more* than 64 MB RAM. And you pound the better part of know bloatware onto the poor thing…
Gonna tell ya all a tale of 2 systems I have running for myn 10 yr old daughter,one is an old 200mhz Macintosh Power PC,the other is an Intel DotStation 300mhz Linux box.The linux box has KDE running on it and is DOG slow ,the Mac (which I configured myself ) has a dual boot MacOS 8.6/BeOS system running on it,and runs twice as fast as the linux machine(both boxes have 64MB RAM)and with the MacOS partition She can acess all those sites that you cant get to on linux,plus it’s running the two easiest to use OS’s on earth for a young child.Maybe a better system would be a Win98SE/BeOS5 setup (most of those old boxes laying around the house already have win9X on them anyways and BeOS has tons more apps for the X86 platform,although IMO win 9X is a poor trade-off for MacOS for a young child it’s still a lot easier to use than the commandline hell you can run into using Linux,and believe me there’s no fun in giving your kid a computer to play on that requires them to yell “hey dad I can’t get this or that working” or “how can i get to(whatever)?”every 5 minutes or less,You want something they can point and click and play their games and such,and be able to go on BeBits or Tucows and download a game and install and play it themselves without yelling “Hey Dad”.
Linux really sucks for an adult in this respect let alone a small child.
Plus there is Gobe productive which is a very nice program for kids to do homework assignments with(write reports,etc)very much easier for a kid to understand then the heavyweight office apps on linux or windoze.Lots of musical tinker-toys,some good console game emulators,ArtPaint makes a nice graphics app for kids,plus a port of TuxPaint,plus lots of nifty little toys like attracton,RGB blur,replicat.My kid loves BeOS!!!
For a PII, he was correct in selecting Win2K, but you are fully correct in pointing out that 64 megs of ram is NOT enough for it. NT has always been RAM hungry, and 64 megs is what I consider the minimum for 98, much less the somewhat chunky around the waist 2000.
When building a junker to give off to the needy (something I am well known for in my area), I usually select one generation back in OS for when the processor was released. Windows 3.1 for 486’s (I know what your thinking, but Win 3.1 still has a lot of life in it. Office, IE 4.01 or netscape 4.x and your in business. Add Calmira for those uncomfortable with the old interface), Windows 95 for Low end non-mmx pentiums/anything with less than 32 megs of ram. Win 98 for your 32-64 megs of ram in a MMX processor box, and Win2K for anything faster than 400mhz with at least 128megs.
I do the same thing on the Linux side. Just because linux used to be clean for P-150’s, doesn’t mean Mandrake 9 or Red Hat 7 are going to run well on them. You use the latest and greatest distro, and thanks to all the new stuff that has been tacked on to the OS it is going to run like molassas.
If your going to put linux on an old machine, at least use a linux designed for old machines. Dig back through your CD cases and dig up Slackware 3. One linux I use on old machines with a great deal of success is Storm Linux (which was based off of Debian). Stormix’ distro was the first linux I ever saw that I would put on a nubes machine without fear, and I consider it a shame they went under. Storm Linux was very much ahead of it’s time. The last release (Storm 2000 – Rain) I still toss on low end pre-mmx pentium with 64 megs of RAM, and it works great. You can actually install it in a useable configuration with a mere 1 gig drive, something very few X configs with both Gnome and KDE installed can manage these days (Yeah, you only get about 300 megs free, but that’s enough for web browsing and most documents). The old copy of mozilla that comes with it works great, and you can install the new version with little or no hassles. Hell, it boots faster on a non-MMX P-150 than Mandrake or Red Hat do on my Barton 2500!
The only real reason to use newer linux distro’s IMHO is to get support for newer hardware. I rarely see anything added that I would consider a ‘must have’ or that I can’t patch into an old one.
One thing people talk about is how hard it is to get a good sized drive, or how smaller drives are useless. I don’t fully see that, as smaller drives can often be very useful. The trick is to mount a bunch of them. Have three 540 meg drives that you don’t know what to do with? Mount all three in one box. Under windows put the OS on the first one, install user data and new programs on the second one, and devote the third for the swap file.
*nix is even sweeter for this. You put the root on the first one, the swap partition and /bin/xfreeXX.XX on the second and then mount /usr on the third. The user won’t even know they are on multiple drives! The ability to mount partitions as directories can really make arrays of older drives useful. I often see people discarding old 320-540 meg SCSI drives, which is a real waste to me since with a good cable you can array six of those inside one case, and in a lot of situations that array of drives can be faster than some modern Ultra ATA setups. (Smaller drives means less distance to seek, SCSI drives have always been performance obsessed, multiple drives means less seeking when reading from different directories, etc).
I’ve even been known to toss an old 420-540 meg drive in next to a 10-40 gig drive in a linux box, just to put the swap file on it. While the drive may be ‘slower’, it actually speeds things up since you don’t have to change the primary drives head position if the OS wants to write to/read from the swap file. This old-school technique can also do wonders for Windows boxes, yet I don’t see it used as much as I would think it would be. My desktop has three drives in it, a trio of 80gig ATA-133 drives. Two are operating in RAID 0, with the OS’ on them. The third is partitioned for the swap files for the varios OS’ I run (Be Dano, Win XP, Mandrake 9.x, FreeBSD, Win98se, I even have an Atheos Partition). You want FAST, that does the trick. (Not that I have any clue why ANY OS would need the swap file with a gig of RAM)