Since I am reasonably good at solving various computer problems, people often turn to me in their time of need. Sometimes, people thank me by dropping off obsolete computer hardware at my house. Since I’d rather not let such things go to waste, I’ve found various ways to re-use such stuff.
Recently I was given a decent obsolete (made in 2001) PC. It is a 1.8 Ghz Pentium 4, 256 MB of RAM, CD, floppy disk, AGP graphic card, and ethernet. It was, however, missing a hard drive. While the machine is slow by current standards, it is still useful.
Having tried Linux in the past, yet not wishing to risk partitioning my main PC, I found that my new (old) PC was ideal for testing out various versions of Linux. I finally settled on Ubuntu Linux, mainly because it is well maintained, has a strong community and is free. If you have an old PC that still works, you might want to consider installing Linux on it and taking a look at it. Linux has reached the point where it is quite close to Mac and Windows in terms of being user friendly. It is also more stable than Windows. One of its main virtues is that it is free. Further, you can easily find software that matches the commercial programs available on Windows and Mac. For example, Open Office is an adequate substitute for MS Office. Another reason I like Linux and its software is that I can install the software without having to mess around with product activation. One reason I have not bought a new PC is that I dread the prospect of having to go through the hassle of re-activating my Microsoft software on a new machine. Having to call in and explain that I have bought a new computer and hence need a 65 (or so) digit number to use the software I already paid for is not something I enjoy doing.
A second option for an old PC is to turn it into a network storage device (or network attached storage-NAS). Essential a NAS is a simple server that provides access to storage space. Put crudely, it allows you to access a hard drive (or drives) via a network (such as home LAN or wireless network). The main advantage is that you can access the files you need from the server rather than having to boot up a specific machine. Obviously, this only makes sense if you have multiple computers-if you just have one, then your files will be right there (or perhaps forgotten at work or school).
You can buy commercial NAS systems. But, if you (like me) have an old PC you can make your own using free software. One way to do this is to use a full Linux OS and set up a server (much like setting up file sharing on a Mac or Windows machine). Another way is to use dedicated NAS software to turn the PC into a NAS. NAS software generally does not require much in the way of computing power which makes old PCs ideal for this role. You can get free NAS software from FreeNAS and also from Openfiler. FreeNAS is an open source project and provides community support on the site. Openfiler, while free, is also commercial-you can pay for a manual and buy support.
Setting up a NAS is fairly straightforward but, obviously enough, requires a reasonable degree of technical competence.
Microsoft does offer a commercial product called Windows Home Server. It is fairly easy to use but is not free (no shock there). It does require a PC that can boot from a DVD drive. My old PC only has a CD drive, hence I didn’t try the Windows software on it. You can also buy home servers with Windows Home Server already installed. Such servers are basically just low end PCs that have been set up as servers. If you want a home server but lack the skill or patience to make your own, this is a reasonable option. If you just need more storage for one PC, it would be overkill-just add a new hard drive (internal or external).