Demand for PCs surged during the pandemic, as people shifted to work-from-home setups amid quarantines. That left a lot of older computers sitting alone, unused.
You may be tempted to just junk your old PC. But if that laptop or desktop was created any time in the last decade, you’d be surprised by how much life you (or others) can get out of it. I’m not talking about limping along, but of ways to bring an old PC back to useful life.
You may need to do some light upgrades here and there; more RAM and a big new storage drive may benefit some (okay, probably all) of these projects. In many cases, the PC will require access to the internet and/or the ability to access software written to a USB flash drive for installing it on that old junker. Take a gander at the options. You’ll be glad you kept that old PC around.
1. Experiment With New, Lighter OS
Do you like to try new things? Nothing will seem newer than a freshly installed operating system on your old PC—even a downright elderly computer will feel brand new.
Most alternative operating systems (translation: not Windows or macOS) are based on Linux, which comes in a variety of options called “distros.” Popular examples include Ubuntu, Mint(Opens in a new window), elementary OS(Opens in a new window), and Manjaro(Opens in a new window). You’ll find interfaces similar to Windows, and they come with software packages, like LibreOffice (a free, open-source equivalent to Microsoft Office). Most work pretty great on PCs with 4GB of RAM or more, but check the specifications needed.
You might also want to try creating your own version of a Chromebook. That’s usually a laptop you’d buy that runs Google Chrome OS; it makes the Chrome browser and Google cloud services/storage the center of the OS. You can now download and install Chrome OS Flex(Opens in a new window), on old PC or even old Mac systems(Opens in a new window); it will even run from a portable flash drive.
Even if you’re a video-streaming service addict, you probably have hours of music, podcasts, movies, or TV shows stored locally, which you want to access on PCs, game consoles, tablets, or phones. For that, you need a media server.
“Theater software” like Kodi will take care of that. Install the server software on any device running Linux, Windows, macOS, jailbroken iOS devices, rooted Android devices, or even a Raspberry Pi; there are “remote control” apps for iOS or Android users not willing to go for broke(n).
Plex (above) has most of the same features. The server can install on PCs running Windows, macOS, Linux, FreeBSD, and even on NAS devices. The playback software is available for about every device you can imagine. Plex even offers some live TV options.
To get the best performance, put the server software on your old PC with a clean OS install and dedicate the system to playing media, and nothing else.
3. Turn Your Old PC Into a NAS Home Server
A network-attached storage device is a server for your home or small business network used for storing files you share with all the PCs on the network (or externally via the internet). Prices vary from a pittance to the hundreds. But if you’ve got an old PC with lots of storage drive space, you don’t need to buy a NAS: Make one. Free, usually open-source software for doing just that is easily available. TrueNAS Core(Opens in a new window), Rockstor(Opens in a new window), FileCloud(Opens in a new window), XigmaNAS(Opens in a new window), and more can put your old PC into the center of its own version of the cloud.
4. Hack Together an Anonymous PC
Everyone’s worried about privacy. As they should be. There are many tools to make your working computer into a more anonymous workstation for surfing the web, but if you’ve got a long-in-the-tooth PC that needs new life, turn it into a dedicated privacy PC with The Amnesic Incognito Live System(Opens in a new window) (TAILS).
Based on a Linux distro called Debian, TAILS can run off a USB flash drive, SD card, or DVD so you can take it with you. It routes all your internet traffic and requests through the Tor network. All the integrated applications come pre-configured for security, including the office suite, IM client, email software, and of course the web browser. Other privacy/anonymity-focused Linux distros include Whonix(Opens in a new window) and Qubes OS(Opens in a new window).
5. Fire Up a Hotspot
Nothing is worse than limited wireless network access. So turn that PC into a hotspot for sharing an internet connection via Wi-Fi. Naturally, you’ll need a PC with Wi-Fi capability.
To be honest, this is probably a job better left to a router. But the option exists via Connectify Hotspot(Opens in a new window). If you’ve already got a router with Wi-Fi, run Ethernet to the laptop, and with Connectify, create a secondary network using the same internet backhaul connection. Connectify Hotspot Pro currently costs(Opens in a new window) $14.99 for lifetime use on one Windows-based PC; there is a 30-day money-back guarantee.
It is also possible with Windows to turn the PC into a hotspot that shares your home internet without extra software.
6. Create a Starter PC for Distant Family
Everyone has that one family member who just can’t handle technology. Worse, they ask for your help. All the time. You may not even live in the same state. Or the same country! Troubleshooting over the phone is for the birds, so what do you do?
Take your old laptop, nuke the drive, and reinstall Windows 10 or 11. Then lock it down so the person you’re giving it to can’t install any software without your permission. Go into Settings > Accounts > Family & other users, and click Add someone else to this PC. The goal is to make an account for you, the Administrator, and one for your loved one, a Standard User who can’t mess with settings (much). Set the User Account Control for the account (type UAC into the Start menu to launch it). If UAC is off, the Standard User can act like an Admin. Turn it up too far and all the warnings can get annoying. You have to set the balance.
To really limit your family member’s activity, literally treat them like a child. Under Family & Other users, click Add a family member, and you get the option to Add a child. (Even the child account needs an email invite for some reason, but you can create a quick one for them on Outlook.com.) Give your phone number for password backups in case your user (child or not) forgets. Turn off the advertising and promos, and you’re almost set.
Visit account.microsoft.com/family(Opens in a new window) for an overview of what everyone on your Microsoft Account has been doing. Here, you can block websites, select games and applications, and more.
Want to really lock it down? Set up a feature on the account called Assigned Access(Opens in a new window), which puts Windows in Kiosk Mode—you know, like when you encounter a PC at a public place that can only access one thing. For example, set the user account to only have access to a browser. That’s pretty limiting but better than answering tech support questions!
Before you send that PC off to live with your loved one, install a remote-control program like TeamViewer or set up the PC to use Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Connection, so you can occasionally take over the system to perform updates. Better yet, use it to show your family on their own screen how to perform basic functions they can’t fathom. When using the computer remotely, create restore points for future restoration of the PC when it inevitably gets screwed up.
7. Whip Up a Guest or Kitchen PC
Depending on the size of your old computer, be it a laptop or desktop, it might be just right to sit out of sight for occasional use only. Say, when you need a recipe on screen in the kitchen, or when guests are spending the night and need to look something up. A lightweight Linux distro like Zorin(Opens in a new window) could be just right for this setup, as it mimics the look of Windows and macOS quite well, so there’s not much of a learning curve.
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8. ‘Make’ a Tablet
(Credit: mkarvonen at Instructables)
Have some mad DIY skillz you want to put to the test? Take a down-on-its-luck laptop apart and convert it—into a “tablet.” Depending on the system, you’re not going to get a touch-screen-quality experience. The smarts of the system typically still reside with the keyboard, which you’ll have to tether to the screen in some way. Take a gander at the website Instructables(Opens in a new window), and you’ll find many step-by-step lessons on how to pull it off, including one that will turn any screen into a touch screen(Opens in a new window). Honestly, it’s probably cheaper, and definitely easier, to simply buy a tablet…but where’s the fun in that?
9. Turn That PC Up to 11
This is for a select few, the proud, the string-strummers: Turn that ready-to-be-abandoned PC into a guitar amplifier. You’ll need a special cable to hook the guitar up to the PC via a USB port (try Ubisoft’s Rocksmith Real Tone Cable(Opens in a new window), which works on Windows and macOS PCs as well as game consoles) and a demo copy of Guitar Rig(Opens in a new window), an amplifier modeling program. You can pay $199 for the Pro version(Opens in a new window) that does it all, including 21 amplifier emulations for guitar and bass, plus all the distortion effects.
10. Create Your Own Security Cam
If that old laptop has an integrated webcam—and most of them do—or you’ve got a stray webcam you can attach, put that extra eyeball to use. Reinstall the OS and download a copy of Agent DVR from iSpy(Opens in a new window). Once set up, you access your camera(s) via a web interface in the browser, and it requires no fiddling with router settings. Setting out a PC as your camera is not as subtle as buying one of our top home security cameras, but it’s a lot cheaper, since this is free for personal, local use. You can also do this with a smartphone.
11. Go Old-School Gaming
Older PCs can generally handle older games, and there are plenty of ports of old titles that work on the PC, as well as work with your nostalgia. With a fresh install of Windows, you’ll be ready to turn an older PC into a dedicated gaming system. Where do you get old games? Steam is always an option, but GOG.com(Opens in a new window) also has plenty.
If you run into problems, read How to Run Old Games on Your Modern PC. Grab an emulator for old systems like the Nintendo 64 to get up and running with really old games on PC or Mac.
12. Contribute CPU Cycles
Even the oldest, crappiest PC has plenty of computing power going unused in its idle moments. Distributed computing projects—where software ties together a huge number of internet-connected PCs to work on computationally massive problems—can put those cycles to good use.
For example, you’ve probably heard of [email protected] (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), a distributed computing project that went back to the 1990s. It was spawned at Berkeley and used volunteer PCs to analyze signals from space. SETI no longer needs our help, but other projects do.
Visit BOINC(Opens in a new window), which is the backbone for several projects you can choose from. Or use [email protected](Opens in a new window) to help scientists still fighting to learn more about the COVID-19 virus and others. Set it up on that old PC and let it run in the background to be a “citizen scientist.”
13. Save It for Zoom
A laptop or desktop can be dedicated to one function, such as video conferencing. A fresh install of Windows or macOS will do the trick. Any browser works with services like Zoom or Google Hangouts. Mac users also have FaceTime to talk to people on iOS or iPadOS devices. Either way, you get instant access to everyone’s face, and you can keep it on that old PC, while you get real work done on the newer one.
14. Tear It Down to Build it Up
(Credit: Zlata Ivleva)
If you’ve got an old-school desktop tower/mini-tower PC, this is a good opportunity for you to learn what it takes to build a PC. Take it apart. Put it back together. See if it still works and try to figure out why. Better yet—buy a new motherboard and some components and Frankenstein that old PC into something new and aliiiive. You’re essentially using that old chassis rather than buying a new case to save all of $100, but the learning experience is worth it.
15. Turn PCs Into Art
Even if you can’t find a useful way to put the PC to use, consider cannibalizing it for something else. You’ll see some interesting ideas on Pinterest under a search for “computer repurposed(Opens in a new window).”
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