New Life for Old Computers

7. Install Jolicloud to liven up an old netbook

Netbooks such as the original Acer Aspire One and the Dell Mini don't use the latest iteration of the Intel Atom processor (called Pineview) and come with 1GB of RAM or less. (Companies such as Lenovo now offer 2GB and 3GB versions of their netbooks.) Older netbooks usually run Windows XP, which some see as outdated.

One easy way to make your netbook run faster is to use a new operating system called Jolicloud.

To use Jolicloud, you'll need a 1GB USB key. Click the download link at Jolicloud.com and download the ISO file for Jolicloud and use Jolicloud's USB Creator to create the key. Boot up your netbook, watching carefully for the key to press so you can access the netbook's BIOS. Now, look for an option to boot from a USB key, enable it and save the BIOS. Jolicloud will walk you through the basic installation.

When you reboot, you'll find that the new operating system loads much faster than the old one did. You'll also notice that it provides some cool social networking features (such as the ability to update your Twitter status from the operating system). The new setup also includes a fast browser based on Mozilla Firefox.

Another operating system to consider is Moblin (a mobile variant of Linux). I tested Moblin with a friend's Acer Aspire One, and it ran about twice as fast as the originally installed version of Windows XP for basic browsing and even beat Windows 7 for speed. Most of my tests were simple stopwatch comparisons of before and after -- with the Moblin browser, the machine started up in about two seconds compared to four seconds or more on the two versions of Windows.

8. Use an older desktop for Netflix movie night

If you have fast broadband in your home, you can use an old PC to stream movies even if the processor is outdated or the system is clunky or is filled with too much software. If your old system is loaded with software and drivers, it might run more slowly. Windows might not have enough space for virtual memory, among other things, but in my tests that didn't really change the movie playback quality.

Once you log into your Netflix account, click the "Watch Instantly" link and select your movie. The first time you select this option, you'll see an installer download.
For this upgrade, I used my old home-built computer from about 2007. It has an AMD Athlon 64 processor and just 2GB of RAM, but it happens to be housed in a red and black case that matches the colors of the Netflix service.

Netflix offers a "Watch Instantly" service for any member. The movie selection is a little slim compared to what is available on the service's DVD inventory, and you can't stream the latest flicks, but there is a great back catalog of Hitchcock movies and some new releases.

When you try the "Watch Instantly" feature for the first time, you'll see an installer download. Netflix uses the Microsoft Silverlight service for streaming movies. After the installer is downloaded, you won't need to download the movies; they will play "instantly" after a few seconds of buffering.

To use the "Watch Instantly" feature, you'll need at least a broadband connection that runs at 1Mbit/sec. or more, or you'll see a lot of buffering. With enough speed, movies stream quite well even on older PCs. But if the monitor you use is so old that the screen isn't bright and clear, you'll forgo some picture quality.

In my tests, movies playing on a Samsung 2233SW monitor looked crisp and colorful. I also used a Sonos ZonePlay S5 speaker for playing the sound in very high quality directly from the PC audio card; even though the sound card is old, it still played movie audio just fine. Really, the quality depends on the speaker system you use.

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