11 Uses for an Old PC

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4. Give It to a Relative

I do this all the time. My brother-in-law has modest computing needs. So I'll often just hand over one of my two-year old PCs, though I'll usually drop in a midrange or entry-level graphics card.

I don't generally recommend doing this with your kids, though--at least, not if your kids are like mine. They often need as much or more PC horsepower than I use on a regular basis (outside of gaming and photography, anyway). My older daughter is a dedicated photographer, and makes heavy use of Photoshop, while my younger daughter has become a pretty hard-core gamer (she recently asked for a copy of Borderlands for her birthday).

Giving a system to family members can be fraught with peril, though. That's because you are now the go-to person for tech support. So you've been warned: Give a PC to a friend or relative, and you're now on call. Don't worry, though--we've got you covered in "How to Fix Your Family's PC Problems."

One thing you'll definitely want to do is completely erase the hard drive and reinstall the OS from scratch. If it's an off-the-shelf system from a major manufacturer, restoring it to its original condition from the restore partition or restore disc accomplishes the same thing.

In Video: How to Completely Erase Your Hard Drive

5. Dedicate It to Distributed Computing

Use your PC to fold some proteins with Folding@Home.
Want to do a little good for humanity? How about dedicating your old PC to one of the various public distributed computing projects?

The best known is probably Folding@Home. Folding@Home uses computing resources from all over the world to help study protein folding, an essential element to understanding how many diseases operate. If your old PC has a fairly new graphics card, that hardware can often pitch in as well, and offer up even more computing resources. Other distributed computing ventures include:

6. Use It as a Dedicated Game Server

Set your PC up as a dedicated server for classics like Freelancer.
Do you have a favorite multiplayer game? If so, check and see if it's a game where you can host a server on a local computer--you might consider making your old system a dedicated game server. Most multiplayer games capable of playing online often support dedicated servers. I ran a Civilization 4 "pitboss" server for a few months, and Desktops Editor Nate Ralph is in the process of setting up a PCWorld Minecraft server.

Team Fortress 2 also supports dedicated servers.
The neat thing about many of these dedicated game servers is how little system horsepower they actually need. I ran a Freelancer server on an old Pentium 4 laptop system, at times supporting eight simultaneous users, with no performance issues.

7. Use It for Old-School Gaming

Related to the idea of using an older system as a dedicated game server, consider repurposing that box for old school gaming. You can go as nuts as you want. For example, install Windows 98, so you can run those older Windows 95 and DOS games, if you have a bunch around. Note that this isn't as necessary as it used to be. Online services like Steam and Impulse are offering older games that have been rewritten to work under newer operating systems, and DOSBox lets you emulate a legacy DOS environment to get your classic gaming fix.

Perhaps the most complete site for older PC games is Good Old Games. GoG, as it's often called, offers a large number of older titles, all of which work fine under newer operating systems. So if you've always wanted to go back and play Planescape: Torment , now is your chance.

Relive the arcade game's glory days with MAME. Don't worry about running out of quarters.
If you want to go really old school, install MAME (multiple arcade machine emulator) software. That will allow you to play arcade games and games written for older game consoles, provided you have access to the ROMs and other related files to run the games. MAME can become a gigantic time sink (albeit a very fun one), so you've been warned!

8. Make It a Secondary Computing Server

If you're a content creator using a title like 3dsmax, Adobe After Effects or Sony Vegas, having another PC to help with distributed rendering chores can greatly speed up final renders for complex projects.

Each application handles distributed rendering a little differently, so you'll need to consult your documentation. But typically, you'll install a lightweight application on the secondary rendering system, which will take data and commands from the primary system and then return results when done. The main application on your production system, or a separate manger app, manages the rendering across multiple networked systems.

9. Set It Up as a Light-Duty 'Living Room' PC

We have a small PC in our living room that's often used for quick Web surfing and to check e-mail. Occasionally, our kids will come down and do homework on the communal PC when they get tired of being cooped up in their rooms. This can work particularly well if you have networked storage somewhere in the house, so people can get to their files whether they're on a personal system or a communal one.

If you do have this type of communal PC, your first inclination might be to create separate accounts for each person. I've found this isn't really necessary. Since it's communal, no one really keeps private information on it.

The flip side is that you'll want security software that's as bullet-proof as possible. Since you have multiple users on one system, eventually someone, sometime, will hit a Web site that may attempt to download a Trojan horse or other malware.

10. Salvage It!

If you have a do-it-yourself bent and build your own systems, you may reduce the cost of your new system by salvaging parts from the old one. Good candidates for salvage include the case (if it's not a proprietary, prebuilt system), the optical drive, the power supply, and, sometimes, the memory modules.

Depending on how much you actually reuse, the distinction between new system and one that's simply been upgraded is a hazy one. If you replace the motherboard, CPU, memory, and primary hard drive, but keep the case, power supply, optical drive, and graphics card, is that a new system, or one that's been upgraded?

That will still leave you with a few old parts. Which brings us to our final point.

11. Sell It

Somewhere on eBay, someone is looking for a computer. They may not be able to afford a new PC, or are looking for a second PC for the family. Your old PC, at the right price, may be just what they need. Assuming it all goes smoothly, everyone wins: You unload your old hardware, which finds a good home with a new user who can appreciate it.

However, it's not as simple as selling it at a garage sale. For one thing, scammers cruise both Craigslist and eBay, looking to convince unwary buyers to take deposits that mysteriously vanish when you try to cash them. Always be suspicious of anyone who wants to use Western Union and has an overseas address.

My general rule of thumb is to stick to selling locally (if it's Craigslist) and only in the United States, if its eBay (since I live in the U.S.). Also, using an escrow site like Paypal (required for eBay anyway), gives you a sense of security, though clever scammers still manage to take advantage of Paypal. Read "How To Sell Your PC and Other Gadgets" for more tips on selling your old tech gear.

As we've seen, an old computer can have many uses, particularly if it's still in good working condition. And not all uses for a PC require quad-core systems with high-end graphics. So if that old system is sitting in a closet somewhere, dig it out and put it to use. Who knows? It might be your PC that identifies the signal that's the first sign of intelligent life outside our planet.

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