I’ve already discussed why it’s a good idea to get rid of your older tech â€“ the old IDE hard drives sitting in the closet that you just haven’t gotten around to wiping or the computer that needs a new motherboard but the motherboard is so old that you’ll probably spend as much getting one shipped to you as you would on a new pre-built machine. I stand by that, but what if you just built a new desktop and your old machine is a good Core 2 Duo that you just bought or built 18 months ago?
That’s not so old yet that it’s a boat anchor, and it’s not so old that parts and components for it would be difficult to find. So what do you do with it? There are tons of great uses for good computers around the house, and I don’t mean something only partially useful like a computer for your guest bedroom because you need a terminal in each room of the house. Let’s take a look at some ways that you can re-use your moderately older gear that will actually make your life easier and boost your geek cred without getting underfoot or making you into the kind of spit-sucking geek with a LAMP server in his basement.
There are tons of different ways you can breathe new life into the gear that you already own or have recently replaced. If you know you’re getting a new computer for the holidays but want to figure out what to do with the perfectly good and reliable system you already own, or if you’re going netbook and want to know what you Ray Ban outlet can do with the old full-size laptop that you already have, read on; I have a few good suggestions for ways you can make good use of the gear you already own even while you welcome new hotness into your life.
Roll Your Own Firewall
If you have a latent passion for network administration, or even if you just want more control over your home network than your wireless router provides, you may consider slapping an extra NIC in your old machine and installing a Linux distro like SmoothWall or Astaro Security Gateway. Connect one NIC to your cable or DSL modem, and the other to your router, and get your hands dirty configuring what access you’ll allow on your network and what you won’t.
You can even configure traffic shaping on your home network, giving priority to games and file transfers for example but minimizing torrent downloads â€“ that way you won’t find your games lagging just because you’re downloading movie trailers in the background, or you can configure which computers are allowed to access what resources on your home network, or what computers can get to the internet at all. There’s a wealth of possibilities, and you have all of the control.
Roll Your Own NAS/File Server
All it takes is a moderate â€“ even ancient â€“ computer, and a copy of FreeNAS or NASLite, and a bunch of hard drives, and you have yourself a home NAS device that you can use to store music, movies, and other documents in a central location on your home network. If the machine is half-good, it should still take hard drives that you can actually go out and buy, and if you really want to, you can sink the extra cash into hard drives to give you some more storage space.
If you’re looking for a machine at the center of your home network that does more than just store files, you don’t even need to run FreeNAS or some other linux distro â€“ you can install Windows, Linux, or some server OS (like a Red Hat Enterprise or Windows Server) and tweak your machine to high hell. Organize your files, install an FTP server and open it up to the Web, install VNC to you always have a way into your home network even when you’re away, set up a ShoutCast server so you can stream your tunes on the go â€“ whatever you want to do. Just make sure the box is reasonable when it comes to specs, or else it’ll end in tears.
Build a Test Machine
You’ve been wanting to try out Ubuntu, but don’t have a machine to do it with and you don’t want to partition your main Windows machine or your precious iMac. Maybe you’re a Mac person but want to give Windows 7 a try (it’s pretty sweet) but don’t want to Bootcamp your Mac to do it. Maybe you’d like to build a Hackintosh. Or better yet, maybe there’s some new hardware or a peripheral you want to play with before you risk installing it in your main computer. Maybe you even want a backup system in case your desktop goes belly up.
All of those are good reasons to build a test box that you can use to play with any of those things. For example, for those folks who didn’t want to wipe their main computers to install the Windows 7 betas and release candidates (like me), a test box is the perfect tool to try things out without consequences â€“ and if it all goes to ray ban da sole outlet hell, you can blow it away and reinstall without losing anything.
Additionally, a test box is a great way to get elbows deep in the hardware if you’re not already â€“ I’m assuming that folks reading this already build their own rigs and know how to mount a heat sink to a CPU, but if not, taking your old PC apart is a great way to understand what makes it tick.
Sell It, Donate It, Get Rid of It
Now these don’t technically count as ways to â€œmake useâ€ of your old gear, but they’re certainly things you can do with it. Craigslist and eBay are full of listings for good, solid machines, and there are plenty of buyers if you list at the right price. There are always people out there looking for decent hardware that’s not so old they can’t use it for anything; and are willing to toss a couple of bucks you way for it â€“ even come pick it up from you.
The same applies with donations. Make sure you check in with your local Goodwill or Salvation Army to see if they re-sell computers where you live. If they do, your old machine can go to a good cause, and can earn you a tax deduction. Additionally, depending on where you live, they can even come pick it up so you don’t have to lug it out of the house.
Finally â€“ if you don’t want to sell it or donate it, you can always contact your local county dump or landfill, or your community’s waste management company to see if they have an e-cycling center you can drop your computer off at, or if they do a regular pickup of computer-related waste. Whatever you do, don’t just toss it in the dumpster or leave it on the side of the road â€“ it’ll wind up in a landfill that way and probably won’t get recycled â€“ and you don’t need me to remind you of the heavy metals and hazardous materials in our computers that don’t belong in the ground.
Oh, and one more thing â€“ if you do get rid of/donate/recycle/sell your old computer, make sure you properly wipe the hard drives of all of your data, or remove them entirely. A lot of computers that wind up in places like thrift stores and on the sides of roads waiting for dumpster divers to pick them up have hard drives in them with all of their data intact, like the previous owner just shut them off. Just grab something like Boot and Nuke or the Ultimate Boot CD to make sure those drives are clean before you part ways with your old tech.
In any event, as much of a fan as I am of getting rid of your old tech, there are times when the gear is good enough that they could serve a good purpose if you keep it. Just make sure you’re not keeping something in the closet for the sake of keeping it and no other reason â€“ make sure you actually know what you’re going to do with your old gear before you resign yourself to letting it stick around; otherwise you’ll end up with computers in your garage and closet â€“ which is fine and cool â€“ until it’s time to move or you’d rather do something with the space.