Introduction: [IDEA] Uses for OLD Computers

I've often been frustrated by what I'll call the "cheap computer paradox." It goes like this: "The people who can least afford a brand new computer are the ones who most need a brand new computer." There are LOTS of old computers out there at prices ranging from cheap to free (if someone else is throwing them away.) Unfortunately, in order to understand what can and can't be done with old equipment, and to make it do what you want, it generally requires a bit of experience and "hacker talent" (old definition of "hacker.") The brand new clueless newbie really needs a brand new computer so that he can be pretty certain that the add-ons and software he buys at Target or Walmart will work, the help desk at the other end of the phone line won't laugh, and the Books he finds are relevant and helpful. Us "experts" who can think of useful things to do with 68k Macs running netBSD collect too D*mn much hardware, and we can't GIVE it away to people who could use it, because, well, those people probably COULDN'T use it. Sigh.

I suggested in another instructable that such machines could be turned into lab equipment. People objected on the principle that they were still generally useful.

SO. The idea is to collet here hints and comments on how to effectively use old computer hardware for normal and less than normal purposes. Assume for the sake of argument that the computer in question has something between a 266MHz PII and a 1GHz PIII, and 128M or less of RAM.

Step 1: Linux Peripheral

Picture of Linux Peripheral

For example, I do most of my work on a Mac, but there are occasional executables that require an X86. So this ancient Dell (?) (266MHz) was brought online. It's headless, keyboardless, and mostly data-less. It's got debian as an OS, and is accessed via X from the mac, so it can run X-based linux applications,
and DOS programs via DOSEMU, and such like. This is how I first ran EAGLE on my mac (although CadSoft then released a Mac version, making it irrelevant.) I think it's faster and was cheaper than virtual PC, and integrates better into the Mac/X environment.


retif (author)2016-08-30

Check those links : i's a linux distribution that does not need internet connection for installation, runs on pentium 4, AMD Athlon XP and 1 Mega Ram only (some say 512 Ko is enough) - script for easy installation / target as "no experts" users

and used in "Jerry PC" - PC made in Jerrycans for Africa..


Istarian (author)2008-02-08

I have a laptop older than that.It's a 100MHz Hitachi M-100D which has 24MB of Ram. It runs win98 has Microsoft Office that's newer than word 97 and can connect to the internet through it's ethernet port, albeit web browsing s slow and a little distorted. Of course I also have 2 400-450MHz dells witha bout 256MB ram each, one runs ubuntu 7.04 and the other runs windows xp. I have older macs too, one of which runs system 7.0.1,to prove the point that people who like computers accumulate old mostly useless hardware... ~Istarian ~Istarian

dla888 (author)Istarian2009-06-17

24mb of RAM???!!! That makes me think of the Commodore 64 or my old Texas Instruments laptop(memory on that is measured in KB)

garyparks1949 (author)dla8882016-08-29

I know what you mean! I have three (3) TI-99/4A's and it's peripheral expansion box (PEB) It has a whopping 54K of memory and still works great as a beginners home PC for learning Programming.

Istarian (author)dla8882009-06-18

Yeah, I was a bit surprised when I figured that out, since win98 works. Unfortunately the TCP/IP protocol/stack got corrupted or something so currently I can't get it connected to the internet, but whatever. If you think that's tiny, I have a Mac LC II that has 12MB of ram.

alloydog (author)2015-03-03

Web-site server.

I was given an old IBM ThinkPad R30 (Pentium III 1 GHz, 128 MB) without a HDD. I added an 20 GB HDD and RAM from other (long gone) laptops to boost it to 512 MB.

I installed Slackware 14.0 (I tried 14.1, but it would not support the wireless network adapter I had), set it up to be a web-server and now host one of my websites on it. link:

I used putty to manage the server from another (really old) laptop (Sony Vaio, 1 GHz, also running Slackware 14 with Xcfe desktop) and Filezilla to transfer the web page files.

The biggest cost was the website domain name at about EUR 30 for three years.

Hycro (author)2009-11-30

Looks like an old Dell I got for free once...tried to strip it for parts for the old IBM PL300 with a P3 550 in it that I had, but found none of them would work in the IBM, and I ended burning out the Dell's PSU, so I couldn't even use the Dell anymore, so I stripped it for its electronic components, I still have the CD drive kicking around somewhere, it's one of those ones that's easily converted to a plain CD player, and all that's needed is just a power supply for it, has its own play/skip forward/stop buttons on it. One of the LED's out of the Dell is now my HDD usage light for my custom built computer, with 4 case fans, 2.9GHz AMD Athlon X2 64 processor in it, 4GB RAM, 750GB total for hard drive, there's more stuff I put in it when I was building it, but I don't feel like going through all of it, and although it's not the most poweful computer out there, it's still pretty good, and yes, I am running Vista Home Basic on it, because most of the games I play on it require a Windows operating system, and a couple require that it be Vista Home Basic or higher, Everything but the GFX card I'm using rate 5.4 or higher for the "Performance Rating" that Vista uses. Desktop graphics are the lowest, rated at 3.4, and with overclocking the GFX card, the 3D graphics performance is 4.3, I could probably get it higher, but I risk making it unstable, already made it crash by overclocking too high, but not so much that the computer told me that it was too high, I had to press my "Magic Red Button" (I made my otherwise silver Reset button on the front into a red button)

Xellers (author)2008-02-22

Is is possible to strip out some laptop components and install an old TV tuner and antenna to make a simple LCD TV? I have an old laptop ~1.5 GB Hard Disc, 128MB RAM, 200mHz MMX CPU I also have have 4 desktops -One with 6GB Hard Disc, 128MB RAM, 400mHz PII CPU, CD Reader -Another with 10GB Hard Disc, 512MB RAM, 500mHz CPU, CD reader -A 1990 Macintosh LC (terrible), u8nfortunately, it has a funny monitor connection, so it is headless, no connections (no floppy or CD drive, no USB connection, and no internet connection) -Finally, a broken one that is only a few years old, 80GB Hard Drive, 2.8gHz pIIII CPU, 512 MB RAM, 64MB Video Card with digital and analog output

Istarian (author)Xellers2009-07-02

You should get a mac to vga adapter, they exist. I have a Macintosh LC II, which is the slightly better, but stupidly constrained successor to the LC (ie, 32bit processor on 16bit bus). Mine has a floppy drive. You think you have a lot of computers... Desktops - PII 400MHz MMX Dell Optiplex G1 - 256MB RAM, 8GB HD - PII 450MHz MMX Dell Dimension XPS R400 - 256 MB RAM, 100GB HD - PIII 450MHz Gateway (this used to work, but is broken) - 64MB RAM - P4 1.5GHz (has weird power issue) - 512MB RAM - AMD Athlon XP 2900+ (2GHz) - 1GB RAM, 80GB HD - Macintosh LC II (circa 1990, absolutely useless) - 12MB RAM - Performa 6100/66 w/DOS Card (66MHz) - 32MB RAM, 700MB HD - Bondi iMac Flavor (Rev. B) 233MHz - 64MB RAM, 4GB HD Laptops - Hitachi M-100D ~800MB HD, 24MB RAM, 100MHz - Dell Latitude CPtS ~no HD, 96MB RAM, 500MHz - Dell Latitude CPtC ~no HD, 32MB RAM, 400MHz - HP Pavilion ze5600 ~80GB HD, 512MB, 2.66GHz (heat problem)

littlechef37 (author)Xellers2008-05-22

olny 4 ? I got about 16 computers now...

app0 (author)littlechef372008-08-12


westfw (author)littlechef372008-05-22

All running? No fair counting the machines that are so old That no one will buy them.]

littlechef37 (author)westfw2008-05-25

Well it depends on what you define as old able to run linux but not windows or able to run windows ?

Xellers (author)littlechef372008-05-23

No, by now I have moe computers plus many motherboards, HDDS, CPUs, Various Drives, etc. laying around.

dylanwinn (author)Xellers2008-05-17

Ya, just grab a USB TV tuner that supports viewing without recording. If you have Digital Cable of Satellite, the Adaptec VideOH! works good, but it requires Windows 98 or better.

Xellers (author)dylanwinn2008-05-17

98 or better is fine! But I don't think I'll spend money on some old junk like the laptop. And right now, it's broken and I've acquired many more computers. Also, I might be getting a G4 Mac Laptop, so I won't need most of this tuff (except for the PIIII PC that I managed to fix).

Xellers (author)Xellers2008-04-26

I fixed the PIIII PC so now I only have the other junk plus a lot more since I posted my previous comment.

dsandds2003 (author)Xellers2008-02-24

You might try a TV tunner card for it.

Xellers (author)dsandds20032008-03-04

For what?

westfw (author)Xellers2008-02-23

Not easily. The LCD in a laptop is all digital and doesn't interface to TV signals without quite a bit of effort.

dylanwinn (author)2008-05-17

My getto Non-Microsoft Tabletop PC: 1) Get an old PC, install Xubuntu or DSL on it. 2) Throw in a touchscreen and a WI-FI adapter. 3) Mount it in your coffee table, and you're good to go!

dla888 (author)dylanwinn2009-06-17

Nice! I'm trying to put linux on an old macbook, but apple makes that so hard.

westfw (author)dla8882009-06-17

How old of a macbook? Have you seen

dsandds2003 (author)2008-02-24

I think these machines are great for LINUX operating systems and you will find they work better with LINUX (which is free for the downloading) or you can help support these free systems by buying the operating system on CD. Which is also CHEEPER than windows and can be installed on as many computers as you have for no charge. Just your time. It is also ALOT easier to install LINUX today as compared to 5 years ago.

dla888 (author)dsandds20032009-06-17

Red Hat ain't free... But wait there's Cent OS. Close enough to Red Hat.

westfw (author)dsandds20032008-02-24

Beware, however, that as linux has been made more windows-like in its user interface, it has also become more windows-like in its demand for resources. I doubt whether a full gnome/kde/etc based system will run much better on an old PII with 128M ram than WXP would. Stick to your more basic xterms and such and it'll work much better.

n4zou (author)westfw2008-04-16

I loaded xubuntu on an an old PII 350 with 128m memory. It works just fine as an internet terminal. ;)

dsandds2003 (author)westfw2008-02-25

Well i guess it all depends on what you want to spend on the computer and alot of older boards will not support XP totally. I ran into this with several older boards and found if you use the LINUX CD ( where you run LINUX from the CD) it works pretty good. Also i have found alot of older motherboard sites do not even exist anymore. I found it cheeper and easier to either install or run LINUX from the cd easier that trying to use an operating system prior to XP as most sites do not even support ME,98SE,98 or even 95 anymore. I have founf LINUX to be MUCH faster than XP on older machines with at least a 300 MHZ. processor and with 128 meg of ram. ANYthing lower than 300 MHZ and less than 128 meg of ram. This is what i have found with my playing around with these things since the dark ages of DOSS. The BIG question is do you want to spend $90 dollars For XP or try a FREE LINUX system? BELIEVE ME you will be suprised at even a clean install on a older machine.

Stanislaw (author)dsandds20032008-04-04

I would recommend something like Ubunutu or xubuntu - I've set up some of my old compaqs 266 series and its perfect. I've converted most of my family to ubuntu with the same - for simple browsing of the interwebs, word processing, presentation design (of the powerpoint type) and spreadsheet data crunching - ubuntu comes with gnome OS, openoffice and mozilla - and it costs about 0 $ - the cd's can even be obtained for free by order.

fooboo (author)2009-01-26

"So this ancient Dell (?) (266MHz)" Look like a Dell G1 to me going by the case design. They ranged from about 266Mhz to 450Mhz. I used to have a 450Mhz one that I ran Gentoo on as a testing web server. A friend of mine had a 350Mhz one he ran his business off. It was his web server, he ran it without X and did all of his editing in command line programs. He was a committed user of old equipment. He also got his old Psion 5 running Linux and would edit on that and upload it to his server via the serial cable that came with them.

iamdenteddisk (author)2008-09-28

ok guys heres the skinny, you can keep anything p2-300 and newer and run xp. some of my more fun projects was rewriting bios on an old sx2 to run xp and web bios funnything was it zoomed online video and all, xeltek superpro Z universal eprom programer is the $hit for any would be hacker/programer/EETwizard. as far as the old-old stuf you can keep it stock and collect software for retro museum collections but most of it is done gone. I done quiet a bit of factory and office upgrades in the last 15 years and prety much got one of everything to be had but I know I have recycled 50 million in computers at their new price any way. I love turning them into robots, automate things with them or even run my cool qb ai progs and just put them all in the garage for a few weeks talking to each other and see what they learn my preference is p2-300 and up for the use of usb webcams on robots and built some funky servers from them too I am amazed how usefull the buggers still are...preciated the opp to rant a bit.

d1ndian (author)2008-03-14

what are the best things in an old computer to use in a new one or to use in an experiment to make something.................

westfw (author)d1ndian2008-04-13
Well, this is the big problem. Once a computer reaches a certain age (and it's not that old), the pieces are nearly useless in a "new" computer, because standards, sizes, and expectations change so rapidly. Consider my youngest kid's Dell 2400, which is about 4 years old now:
  • 128m DDR memory, upgraded to about 768M. But a new computer will use DDR2, or FBD memory. So the memory isn't very useful. I've go like whole trays full of assorted obsolete memory technology. Depressing.
  • sound blaster SB live audio card; might be useful. I haven't kept up with the relative goodness of onboard sound vs sound cards.
  • CDRW drive. Useful, but I wouldn't put together a modern system without some sort of DVD capability, at least for read (in fact, the computer has an add-on DVD drive.) (value: maybe $20)
  • 80G EIDE disk. 80G is SMALL by modern standards (thanks to multimedia really taking off. Video: 12GB/hour for standard miniDV resolution. Sigh.) And modern systems tend toward SATA disks. It wouldn't make a bad "live backup" sort of destination, but... (another $20 item.)
  • PCI GigE ethernet interface. Still useful. In fact, already moved into a newer system where the GigE speed was more important. OTOH, PCI is getting less common. (value: $15)
  • Onboard video, upgraded to 256M PCI card. The card may be useful for adding 3rd and 4th monitors to a modern system, if there are PCI slots, but it's not very State-of-the-art. (value, $40 ?)
The annoying thing is that it's far from a useless system "as is"; it's just feeling its age, and the parts are not useful elsewhere. I'm thinking of trying to turn it into a DVR (all it needs is a tuner card or two and some big disks.)

My Mac (Dual PPC 1.25GHz, about the same vintage, but not as "minimal" a system at purchase time) is worse off, since Apple has less of qualms about burning bridges. DDR memory, IDE disks, PCI cards - all useless in a new mac. Even the lovely 23" ADC display will require a $100 "adapter" to use on a new Mac (DVI only.)

Since when is an 80 gig hd considered "small"??? It's huge, IMO. And most of the hd's I see for sell on various tech sites are around 140 gig. It's not THAT small. The laptop I'm using now has only a 10 gig hd. LOL I have what I thought to be a more "modern" system in the living room; has 80 gig hd, 1 gig ram & DVD-RW drive. *shrug* These standards are getting ridiculous.

Well, mostly since multimedia. I've got 11G of music, 55G of photos and about 180G of movies on my Mac. Today's rather inefficient "I'll store images as .BMP and sounds as .WAV pluse a couple hundred meg worth of trailers" games and applications aren't any help either. The kids' 80G PCs were getting full... Now, if you want to do just WORK on your PC, 80G isn't bad :-)

rocketman221 (author)westfw2008-07-17

until about 2 years ago I had a computer with 3 hard drives with a total space of just over 2.5 gb and space was never a problem until i got my first digital camcorder. but now my cellphone has more memory that that.

Ahhhhh.... well, I don't keep a lot of media stored on my pc. Any music or movies that I download is immediately burned to to CD/DVD, and I delete them from my hd, after burning. I guess it really depends on the person. I can't imagine having 55 gigs of photos stored on my hd. LOL My pictures folder is currently at about 300 megs. Music folder is close to 1 gig. Then again, if I ever needed more space, I'd just buy another hd (probably external). Pen drives are a great option, as well. But, for now, 80 gigs is more than ample for me.

In general, all the photos and movies are uploaded from cameras rather than downloaded from the internet. (which is one of the things that makes them so big. In general, no compression, which means about 12G/h for standard miniDV camera resolution.) The music is mostly ripped from CDs. And the new cameras have more pixels, and HD-video is starting to look attractive (although that seems to be compressed more often.) I suppose that the main problem is that the best way to preserve digital data is to make sure you copy from your old computer to your new computer. It only takes about 15 years to collect 15 years worth of data :-)

80 GB is tiny! Even my 5-year-old laptop has a harddrive that big! GO 2 TB!

d1ndian (author)westfw2008-04-14

thankyou very much westfw for the information about recycling an old computer...thanks again

Derin (author)2008-05-25

you could also get a switch plus a router to set up a network for connecting those together and tada mirrored server room

westfw (author)2008-05-17

Have a bad day? The neat thing is that you don't have to be "rich" anymore to afford that 2T of disc. A terrabyte costs about the same as 10 cartons of cigarettes... (do people still smoke 2 packs a day? So 10 cartons is about 2 months worth?)

I'd rather have the smokes. I have no use for 2T's of disk space; it would be a waste of money.

Please note that not everyone's computing needs are the same. 80 GB's is massive for me, because I rarely download any type media, and any media that I do download is burned to dvd, and the file is wiped from the pc hd. I really don't understand why everyone using their comps as a storage facility.

2T terra bytes is quite much however 80gbs is not small. Personally I have a 160 gb external hdd And I am quad booting four operating systems. 2 Tbs is more for borrowing movies from the internet or running a server. You can quad boot on a 40gb hdd.. It all depends what you do with your space. Its like a house some people dont have much stuff and they just want a place to sleep and some people have six uhauls worth the stuff in there homes.

westfw (author)littlechef372008-05-22

I dunno why everyone is assuming that disk space gets used up quickly by downloaded-from-internet media. Of the 250G or so that I mentioned in MY media collection, almost all of it UPLOADED from cameras (I think I've got 20 or so MP3s downloaded from iTunes.) UPLOADED video is much larger than downloaded video, cause it's less compressed. (12GB/hour for direct uploads from mini-dv videotape, for instance.)

dylanwinn (author)2008-05-17

How do you use the P4 box to run x86 Linux apps in OSX?

westfw (author)dylanwinn2008-05-17

I run Mac-X (X windows) on the Mac, and use it as the display for the linux apps (which tend to be X-windows based.) You can even set up mac-X "applications"
like "EAGLE" to execute 'ssh -n my-linux-server "eagle -display my-mac:0"'
And "linuxWindow" = 'ssh my-linux-server "xterm -n linux -display my-mac:0"'

Mr.Grinch (author)2007-03-08

Have any of you heard of Recycling centers for computers? they're awesome. you just walk in pick up different parts and leave, all completely free. i believe one is called SOCCRA. when people are done with there computers, they bring them to SOCCRA instead of throwing them away. it's like a scrapyard for computers. They have bins for monitors, graphics cards... even laptops (rarely though) if you get there early enough, you can get a top quality computer!

Xellers (author)Mr.Grinch2008-02-22

I went to one, picked up some awesome stuff, and then got yelled at by a worker, was forced to return the parts, and was kicked out.

Mr.Grinch (author)Xellers2008-04-13

i went to soccra recently, and they changed their policy, my city gets a couple of bucks per 4x4x4 foot box of computer stuff (most of it pretty recent stuff), and a worker told me to go home. try going on one of the days nobody is there, then pop the trunk, load up and drive off. (i'm not responsible for your actions, or your detainment in the city jail, a friend told me to do this)

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Bio: Middle aged geek username also works at,,,
More by westfw:Visualizing EAGLE Edits with a Gerber ViewerMake a Double CD/DVD Case From a Single Sheet of PaperSingle Sided Really Bare Bones Board Arduino in EAGLE.
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