What You Said: How Do You Repurpose Old Hardware?

By Jason Fitzpatrick on September 9th, 2011

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Earlier this week we asked you to share your tips and tricks for squeezing life out of old computers and hardware. You guys responded with a pile of good ideas and now we’re back to showcase them.

One of the most prominent themes was the use of Linux. Most people use their computers for very little more than browsing the web so an old computer with a stable Linux distro and a modern web browser is a great way to help out a friend or relative that needs a cheap web terminal. Wayne writes:

If I upgrade, then I donate working equipment to friends and family. Usually though, I don’t replace my computers until after I can’t find replacement parts for them. I am just now upgrading some of my machines to SATA from IDE drives.

Here in California it is illegal to throw them in the landfill and purchase they charge you a recycling fee. Because of this most manufacturers take back old hardware and usually give a credit. They are then reimbursed by the state for the recycling fee. Our local waste management will also collect the hardware for stripping and recycling.

Logan seconds that motion and adds on a few ideas:

Some things I’ve done with older computers:
– Reformatted and gave to in-laws as a starter computer for web browsing
– Turned an old desktop from my boss into a Linux machine for tinkering with my Arduino Uno and scanning documents
– Getting ready to try and salvage my old desktop (Pentium D, 2.8 Ghz) as a htpc
– Turned my wife’s old school pc into my shed / workshop machine for web browsing and music playing.

I have moral reservations of just throwing out old pc’s. I don’t even want to recycle, but once you stack up with 7 computers, it gets to be a bit much.

Dave would definitely win re-use triathlon with his exhausting list of recycled computers and accompanying projects:

I had 4 at one point, all hand-me-downs. with some other hand-me-down tech (really old surround sound units, like w/ vcr tape inputs) I set my house up for entertainment:

– old dell (2ghz, 2g ram) converted to htpc (xbmc) for living room, using itunes to control music connected to inside and outside surround sound (itunes over xbmc b/c i can control easier by iphone/ipad), runs old v games roms with controller have it directly connected to…

– old repurposed linksys wireless g with dd-wrt which is connected to xbox, tv, and directv dvr

then i got:

– old dell (2ghz, 2g ram) running xbmc for bedroom with wireless card, streaming movies over the wireless network from the living room pc to bedroom tv. also have directv2pc to view dvr from living room directv receiver

used to have:

– old (circa 96, 97, 733 mhz, 256 ram) home built pc: originally had as a jukebox for outside bar (foobar, tinyxp, external hd with mp3′s) but then converted to printer server for office when i realized the house i was in came with outside speakers for the patio and wall outlet for speaker wires. Originally had the aforementioned old surround sound in outside bar for personal sound.

then someone gave me:

– old (circa early 2000′s 1ghz, 768 ram ) hp: once i got this, i scrapped the above printer server for parts (just out of luck this one accepted the ram, originally was 512). got another linksys wireless g (garage sale), slapped DD-WRT on it and made it a bridge and turned this one into my new printer server (wife was getting pissed of the slowness of the old printer server).

Took the remaining hard drive of the old (733 mhz) comp and put it in my living room pc for 2 hard drives. No need now for my external with mp3 collection, just copied it right in.

Now, I’m moving house so in-laws got me a wireless printer, which kills my printer server comp.

Trying to figure out what I am going to do with it since I’ll still have the outside bar with old surround sound that could stream music from my iphone/ipad (grabbing music from living room pc).

Logan’s idea is pretty good, a workshop computer in my garage/workout gym.

Although installing Linux is a popular way to breath life into an old machine it’s not all sunshine and roses. Reader v10 highlights why old computers aren’t the best fit as primary machines for many people:

I repair computers for a living, and I often get people trying to dump their 6-8 year old computers onto me. In the past this used to be fine as I could re-purpose them for simple web browsing etc. for schools or older folks, but it seems that in the past few years there has been such a surge in demand in what a computer can do that none of these older PCs are viable anymore.

The biggest reasons for old computers not being wanted seem to be this:

-Lack of ability to run higher definition YouTube videos (Even schoolkids and grandparents expect this basic functionality now)

-Unable to run newer operating systems such as Windows 7 or Linux editions that use the newer more graphical intensive GUI’s

-Too slow to handle the newer Antivirus and web browser software, which either leads to negative impact on performance or opening up to security issues

-Hard drives that are already 6-8 years old can’t really be vouched for to last any reasonable amount of time, and are often too small to be of any real use

So yeah. That’s why I’ve got a stack of a good 10-15 working but unusable computers at the moment in my workshop. I would love some great ideas on what to do with them though.

As a counter to that, however, small town living and a little ingenuity has led St. Mitch to fix up and give away systems all over town:

Being from a very small town and having access to a seemingly endless supply of unwanted machines through my business selling and repairing computers, I am constantly wiping drives and setting up basic systems for any garage or basement that is used for work, hobbies, or just hanging out. There are very few properties in town that don’t have one of my “leftovers”. I’m always happy to rip people’s music into my system so that I can set up a virtual jukebox for the owners. I don’t charge a penny for the systems since giving them away actually saves me from paying to recycle them. It’s great to see one of my creations everywhere I go and keep track of how long they last. I have some friends that are loyal to ’98 and run it on a daily basis. No kids are without a computer in my town unless their parents want it that way either. I’m always looking forward to designing another “Frankenstien”!!

St. Mitch or St. Nick? We certainly wish there had been a computer repairing/distributing saint in our town.

When a computer comes to the very end of it’s life cycle, some readers get creative taking it apart. Aaron hacks apart the hard drives:

I like to disassemble low capacity hard drives and remove the magnet inside. The magnets are quite strong and can be used for any number of things…just don’t let two of them come together on either side of your finger…

Indeed, they are shockingly strong and a good pinch can leave a blood blister in its wake.

For more ideas, including alternative uses for old PC servers and an interesting debate about how “green” reusing old PCs really is, hit up the full comment thread here.

Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 09/9/11
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