BitDepth 794 - August 09

Got an old PC knocking around the house? Here's some ideas about what you might want to do with it.
This old PC
There’s old and then there’s really old. The IBM PC Jr, via

Eventually, every computer user has one or more computers that are just a bit too old lying around collecting dust. 

Your first thought might be to pass them along to your children or another family member, but think a bit about that first. A younger user is likely to need more horsepower than you do to do anything more challenging than browse Facebook.

All but the simplest Flash online games will perform best with a more recent computer model so your well-meaning gift may stir more resentment than gratitude when it’s put to the test. Any computer that’s four or more years old probably isn’t a good candidate for use by any but the youngest of children playing age appropriate games.

Your next thought is probably wrong too. Upgrading an older computer is a chancy business. Components go through an arc of price, starting expensive when the system is new, dropping in price as supply increases and the system ages and then finally surging in price as manufacture ends and they become rare.

A computer that’s between two to four years old remains a good candidate for cost-effective upgrades like a better video card, more memory and a faster hard drive. Add those items to an older system and you’ve got a useful reserve computer or one that you can gift with a sense of pride.

Systems older than that, between four to eight years old, will pose a greater challenge. It’s rarely worth it to add much to such systems unless the upgrade is cheap and adds a feature that makes the system usable for a special purpose.

An older computer in that age range makes a passable server system, for instance. Add a fast network card to it and you’ll find that a fast hard drive on the LAN responds almost as quickly as if it were connected directly to your main computer. Servers in light use don’t need much horsepower to function well and can run capably on as little as 1GB of RAM.

Such a system can run headless for most of its life, offering connected, continuous backup opportunities using basic synchronisation software. Adding WiFi to a system that doesn’t have it makes it possible to place it anywhere, though there will be a cost in connection speeds.
Add Virtual Private Network (VPN) services to the mix (tricky but doable) and you’ll be able to control and access the system not only over the network but over the Internet as well.

My preferred use for an older system has been as a combination fax server, scanning workstation, PVR, jukebox and file server. My needs have grown so sharply in recent years that the secondary system is now newer than my main system.
Still, for years, a five-year old system on my network accepted faxes, served up music (iTunes makes this easy on Mac and PC) and with a TV card both displayed and recorded cable TV.

You may find that your workflow capabilities are multiplied by the presence of a second computer system or you may be happier off-loading some routine digital chores to an older, slower system that can be left running 24/7.

An older computer can find new life on a home or small business network and continue to work usefully. It may take some minimal spending on upgrades and some digital elbow grease (Linux installs, anyone?) but that will only serve to improve your understanding of the power of networked PCs.

More ideas
Networking tips
Server setup
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