How-To Geek

What You Said: How Do You Repurpose Old Hardware?


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

Comments (19)

  1. Jaybee

    I started repurposing old Win 95 computers donated by the city in 2001 under the auspices of the Brant FreeNet. The PC Museum recently took over the sponsorship of this program and we have given away a total of over 1250 computers to local non-profit organizations and individuals in need since 2001. The city transfers the Windows licenses on the systems they donate so we wipe (Darik’s Boot and Nuke) the drives and reinstall a fresh copy of the OS. Any computers we receive without an OS license get the latest LTS version of Ubuntu Linux.

  2. HackToHell

    My old P3 is now running UBuntu and is my home server for my website :)

  3. Doc

    I take it to the range and blow it to hell. Not good for the recyclers, but lots of fun to do.

  4. Joe

    Make a media server by installing vortexbox s/w it’s very good.

  5. Jeff Burns

    Old hard drives (after wiped) with the covers removed make handsome paper weights or bookshelf decorations too. They will lie flat or stand on edge without having to modify them at all. I usually give them back to the customer I got them from and the typical response is, “Cool”. Three minutes work and great free PR.

  6. Thomas

    In response to jeff burns, if you drill the center out, after removing the top, you can install a clock works, which makes a very handsome desk clock!

  7. Jase

    my first laptop I gave away to a youth club I go to, so the youth club has a second laptop(and more powerful, and useful laptop) when I had my iMac, but kept my little netbook.

    I gave my laptop away because it could not cope with linux and I am fed up with windows.

    My netbook I have given to my sister(as her first pc) and I have put Qimo 4 kids on which is based on xubuntu with a very and highly configurable window manager, full with educational software that is designed for toddlers.

    Qimo 4 kids is designed for kids aged 2 or over.

    It took about 15 minutes to install and takes under 10 seconds to boot, and shut down is basically as fast as putting the lid down.

    and the best thing is, it is fantastic for netbooks with 190something mb’s of ram or more, and hardly uses up any cpu even when you have one that only just can manage windows 2000.

    so it is basically more netbook/old hardware friendly than what windows 2000 was.

    The other reason I gave my laptop to youth club was because why do I need a powerful laptop when I have a iMac that can do 100 times better, and an iPod touch which is perfect for out and about entertainment?

  8. tony tow

    Dedicated torrent box running liveCD. All downloads go to a second internal HDD that gets scanned whenever new files are downloaded. Works great for me!!

  9. Sesses

    How does one come across all these old working PCs? Is it as simple as going to the dump and finding them?
    It would be fun to have a computer that I don’t mind breaking.

  10. Richard Washburn

    I alway thought that old computers would be good for displaying a slideshow of digital images.

    I can imagine older nursing home patients simply viewing interesting photos to ponder them. Then off to the next one.

    I myself think that this might be more interesting to some people then watchin the TV.

  11. Steve McCarron

    I started with computers back in the very early 90’s. I still have everyone I purchased. One is no longer used as it is a P75 in a full size tower. The next a P500 died with a mother board problem about 6 months ago. Over the years I have been given a lot of machines. Some good, some not so good. Once my grand kids started using the computer to sure and play online games, I knew I was in trouble having only one machine. So here in my little home office, I now have 4 computers set up. One for each grand kid and one attached to my TV for watching movies and the like. Grand kids have gotten older and wanted a computer for home, so with machines that were given to me and one I purchased for $100, all three of the grand kids have machines at home now. I have been given a lot of old machines by folks at work and around the hood. Most have problems, Hard drives that are no good, bad ram, cd/dvd’s that don’t work. As some of the machines I got for the grand kids had small hard drives, a second small drive of 20-30 gigs from something that no longer worked were great for some of the other machines.

    Once all the useful parts are recovered, the rest goes to the recycling depot. I have about 8 hard drives here still, so those are going to end up as a storage box. I have a Promise IDE card that adds 4 more IDE ports and for simple storage, these should be fine.


  12. Geek Hillbilly (@GeekHillbilly)

    I have been doing the Computers For Kids Project heere in SE KY for 19 years now.I repair old unwanted machines and they are given to low income families with children free of charge.A minister at Big Creek Baptist Church (Omer David Cook) got me started so long ago.I am now disabled but still do the repairs to keep myself busy,The smiles from the kids are well worth the effort.
    I’m just guessing but I can say that I have personally done over 2000 computer in this time.I intend to keep it up as long as I am able.

  13. G. Kelly

    That’s funny! I was at the store yesterday, and I don’t know how we got on the subject of computers, but the cashier lady says she was looking to donate her 2003 Dell hand-me-down desktop from her daughter. She says it runs too slow to use and her daughter suggested, what sounds to me, to install another bank of RAM. I told her to bring it to the store for me to pickup because Linux immediately popped into my mind. I am assuming it is an XP machine and I haven’t decided what version of Linux to use yet. I have to ask this lady what she used the computer for to determine what she needs. She is about 66 years old so I am assuming probably e-mail and web surfing. I haven’t tired Linux Mint yet but I am willing to spend the time to try it first and see if that will suit her needs…I think the less demand on the the computer the better the performance unless she is a heavy-duty gamer in disguise…you never know. Anyone using Mint out there with any feedback? The YouTube issue mentioned above may be an issue but not sure. If more RAM or different graphics card is needed it may be better for her rather than buying a new computer that she may not need. I sent my daughter my Dell XP laptop running on Ubuntu 11.04 and that sucker boots up in 20 seconds and she is loving it. I don’t like the Unity desktop but my daughter does and, Hey! 20 seconds is nothing to shake a stick at. Any comments will be helpful before I get started. It took me 3 weeks of trial and error to finally configure my daughter’s computer with Ubuntu 11.04 and XP inside a virtual machine but it runs sweet. I don’t think she has discovered what is inside the virtual box yet and she may never need to run the XP…we will see.

  14. Randy

    Where I work we repurpose our old equipment and use it at our disaster recovory location.

  15. Renee Robbins

    Does an old keyboard that is functional have value?

  16. Nitin

    I took my old P3 and added a few upgrades such graphics card and RAM then connected it to my living room big screen TV
    add extra hard drive and you have a great media player all for around £50

  17. ebrahim

    i disassembled my old P3 and took off its fans and now i’am using those fans as cooling fans for my p4 desktop computer.

  18. J000

    @Renee: dime a dozen – flea markets get away with selling them about $5 each though

  19. sds

    When I lived in a Navy-town, I refurbished old machines and gave them to military families so that they could email their deployed loved ones.

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