If you're using a PC that's a couple of years old you may well
salivate at the thought of something much faster. There are plenty
of upgrades available that promise to breathe new life into your
machine. You could add a faster chip, more memory, better hard
drives and end up with a machine equal to the latest models. That's
the theory. In practice it might be a false economy.
Take a PC based on a 166Mhz MMX Pentium with 64Mb of memory -
enough for general use these days. To go to a really fast processor
would require a new motherboard. With most new motherboards being
made for ATX-style cases, that means you must buy a new case and
then new memory chips because the old ones will not work on a new
Here's where it all starts to add up. In fact, if you have an
old machine about the only thing worth considering is an overdrive
type processor that fits in the existing motherboard. This costs
about £100 to £150. Spend more than that and you
stumble into dangerous territory where there may be as little as
£100 difference between upgrading an old system and buying a
new one. However, you should take into account that a new PC will
come with a warranty, new software, faster hard drives, USB ports
and probably a better monitor than your existing one.
In short, if you have anything that won't take the latest chips
without a motherboard upgrade it simply isn't worth spending money
on it when new systems can be bought for less than £500.
Another thing to bear in mind is that if you buy a new PC, your
old one will still be hanging around. That's what we're interested
in. Just because a system is slow when you're running Office 2000
doesn't mean its only value is as an oversized doorstop. There are
still plenty of ways to make use of older hardware.
Got a Buddy?
If you have around £140 to spare on top of the cost of a new
PC, one thing worth looking at is Buddy. This is an expansion card
that fits in your new system and links to a small control box
through a cable.
It's not the same as re-using the whole of your old computer.
Instead, you simply plug the old keyboard, mouse and monitor into
the control box and it gives you another terminal that lets two
people use your new PC at the same time.
The technology isn't that new. It's been around for a while in
the world of Unix systems, but on a home computer running Windows
it needs the fast processors that are used on the latest systems to
provide two Windows desktops.
However, your new PC is probably spending most of its time
waiting for you to press a key, so you'll find that using a sharing
card such as this will provide two systems that have reasonable
performance. This will also allow you to transfer other parts of
your old system, such as the hard drives or a CD-RW, into the new
If you decide against transferring these parts across, you could
buy a monitor and keyboard switch to put between the old monitor
and the Buddy box. This will let you use the same screen either on
your new system through the Buddy card, or on the old one. Switcher
boxes start at around £30 for models with a mechanical
switch. Alternatively, you could opt for a unit such as the Belkin
Omnicube which lets you switch the display from the keyboard.
If your home or office has more than one up-to-date PC capable of
playing the latest multiplayer games, you might consider keeping
the old PC fully intact and using it as a server for networked
play. Most PC games can be networked in one way or another and
you'll be able to find out on the internet if there are servers
that you can download, and what they'll require in terms of
With Quake, for example, you can download servers from ID
Software's pages at www.idsoftware.com/quakeworld, and the server
simply needs a Windows 95 machine to run.
Of course, you'll also need a network card for each computer
that you want to link up. These cost about £25 or less for
The old PC acting as a server will allow you to play multiplayer
games on your network without any of the clients being slowed down
by having to handle all the network communication. However, there
are a few reasons why you might want to use your own Quake server
rather than one provided by your ISP. You can control all the
settings on the server, such as the type of matches, or assign a
password to restrict connections. This means that you and your
friends can have a private game, without sharing the server with
all the other users of your ISP.
Users with a very fast PC might not see much benefit in doing
this. Dumping some of the load from a 700Mhz Pentium III on to an
old P150 probably won't help things, but it's worth downloading the
server for your favourite games if you already have more than one
computer and want to share games with lots of people.
Network cards aren't just used for games, of course. With the
addition of a network card to your old and new PCs, you can link
the two together using the standard file and print sharing in
For a home office there are obvious advantages, such as enabling
two people to work together and share information easily. It could
mean allowing a machine in the kitchen to check your diary or
investing in a full-blown multi-user accounts program.
There are other things you should also consider. If you have a
Windows printer, for example, you'll know that they can slow down a
lot of the rest of the work you're doing, because they use the main
processor to create the page that is to be printed. By networking
two machines together you can leave your old PC to handle the
printer, so that as soon as the job has been sent over the wire
between them, you can switch back to your real work.
An old system could also be used as a back-up server, either by
adding a tape drive or just by using it to automatically back up
your critical data onto its existing hard drive. There's no need to
worry about floppy disks. You simply copy it all back from your old
system should something go wrong.
Once your computers are networked, there are plenty of other
things they can be used for. If the old system is running Windows
98 Second Edition (SE), you can use the built-in Internet
Connection Sharing facility. This lets you leave the modem on the
old machine, but still access the internet from the new one.
One advantage of is extra security. If anyone manages to attack
the computer that's connected to the internet - perhaps you forgot
to set a password for file sharing - that's the only computer
they'll reach. Your accounts and other important data can be stored
safely on the new computer, away from prying eyes.
This isn't exclusive to Windows 98 SE. There are products, such
as Wingate, which you can use to achieve the same result, using
Windows 95 on your old PC. A version of Wingate that supports up to
three users costs around £25, but you can download a trial
version from the website as well.
When it comes down to it, you probably decided to ditch your old
system because it was slow running Windows. This doesn't mean that
the machine is unusable for other operating systems. Windows is a
huge behemoth of an operating system and there are alternatives,
such as Linux, that you can run on the same hardware with much
better performance. For example, many people use ageing 486s
running Linux as mail servers.
As long as the computer has enough RAM, around 20Mb, then it
will be able to deliver thousands of email messages a day without
needing a reboot for several months.
If you have at least 16Mb of memory, although
preferably more, and a couple of hundred megabytes of disk
space, then you can run Linux on your PC. You'll find downloadable
software on the internet for most of the things discussed here
- connection sharing, mail servers, firewall and even games
servers. Not only this, but it'll all perform much faster than
You can even download graphical word processors for Linux, such
as Wordperfect, but adding a graphical interface will slow things
down. For the best performance, particularly if you want to run a
Linux system as a firewall or an internet gateway, it's worth the
time and effort learning how to control the operating system from
the command line. When things are set up properly, you can leave it
alone to do its job.
There's no doubt that Linux is the most versatile option for an
older PC. Samba, for example, turns the system into a
Windows-compatible file and print server, while Netatalk or Cap
will allow it to serve files to Apple Macintosh systems.
Add a web cache such as squid, or Cern's proxy server, and you
can route all your internet access through the Linux box, helping
to make the most of your bandwidth with an intelligent local cache.
This is a file where pages you frequently visit are held so that
they don't have to be constantly downloaded from the internet.
Best of all, Linux is free, although you can expect to pay
around £40 for a copy in PC World, which is a lot less
trouble than downloading it.
Similarly, if you prefer to play with a commercial Unix, then
why not order a free version of Openserver or Unixware from
www.sco.com for a similar price?
End of the line? While upgrading an old PC is seldom
cost-effective these days, that doesn't mean it has to be tossed
into a landfill. As our suggestions show, there are still plenty of
things you can do with it, even if it's an ancient 486.
So, shake the piggy bank and see how much it'll cost you to
treat yourself to a new computer. When you consider the use you'll
still be able to get out of the old one, you may find you have a
real bargain on your hands.
What happens now?
If you're not tempted to re-use an old PC yourself, there are other
options besides leaving it out for the refuse collectors.
It may well be the case that the PC you're replacing is still
fairly serviceable for business applications, even if it won't run
the latest version of Office.
That doesn't matter to some organisations, particularly in the
voluntary sector where massive software and hardware upgrades are
seldom the norm. You'll find that some are still running systems
based on DOS or Windows 3.1.
If you have no real use for an old computer, donating it to a
charity or voluntary organisation is one option that you can
consider. Some of the smaller organisations in your area might be
crying out for computer hardware, so it might be worthwhile giving
them a call to offer your PC to them.
If you do go down this route, however, you might have to do some
work to prepare a system yourself. Remember to check the licences
for any software you installed to see whether or not you can pass
it on to someone else. You may simply have to reformat the disk to
ensure you're not unwittingly committing software piracy.
The simplest solution is to find an organisation which
specialises in recycling computers for charity. There are a number
of these in the UK.
Some sell the systems on to students or people on low incomes.
Others distribute them overseas or to other charities. In all cases
they'll look after cleaning the system up and making sure it's only
running licensed software.
You'll find some useful links to refurbishing computers on the
DTI website at www.dti.gov.uk/support/comp.htm. If you'd like to
support education, www.free-computers.org is a charity which
distributes old computers to schools, in association with the
Rotary Club. WasteWatch, an environmental organisation at
www.wastewatch.org.uk, has a list of recyclers and other
information on its website.
Belkin Omnicub monitor and keyboard switch costs
£119.85 including VAT, www.belkin.com, 01604 678 300
PC World Buddy B-200 PC sharing system costs £139
including VAT, buddy.direct2u.co.uk, 0800 298 7178
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