BOOT CAMP 498 (30/10/07)

Ten uses for an old PC, part 3 30/10/07


This week in the final part of this short series we look at some of the more adventurous things you can do with a redundant computer. Dedicating a machine to a single task is something older models are well suited to; when a PC has only one job to do it generally does it well; it’s only when we fill them up with loads of flaky software programs and get them to do lots of different things at the same time that they become slow and unreliable.


If your old PC has a decent sized hard drive, or you have a spare drive sitting around doing nothing then you have all of the ingredients for a home digital music jukebox. A 40Gb drive, for example, will hold thousands of MP3 files and you can use it as a storage vault for music for your iPod or personal stereo and free up space on your current PC’s hard drive. If the computer has a CD writer you can also use it to ‘rip’ and burn your compilation discs and again help to relieve the strain on your main computer.


You will need some playback software, of course you could use Windows Media Player but there are plenty of free alternatives that do an even better job, like the ever popular and highly customisable WinAmp.  A pair of decent powered speakers can do wonders for sound quality, better still connect the audio output from the PC to your home stereo system. If it is too far away or too noisy (see this week’s Top Tip) use a wireless AV sender or fast Wi-Fi link to broadcast your music another audio device or PC in any room in the house.


Why stop at music files? Your old PC could just as easily be used to store, manage and edit all of your digital photographs. A freeware application such as Picasa will catalogue, print and email your photographs, and if you want to touch-up, fine-tune or fiddle around with your images then try PhotoFiltre


PC’s with a 1GHz or faster processor and plenty of storage space can be turned into a well-specified personal video recorder (PVR). All you need is an analogue TV tuner card or Freeview adaptor. These devices usually come with recording software and most of them have timer facilities, so you can record programmes when you are out. You can watch recordings on your PC monitor or, if your PC’s video adaptor has a video output socket, you can plug it straight into your TV. Many laptops have video output sockets, though older models may be short on hard disc space and you will need at least 20 to 40Gb of free space to record more than couple of hours worth of TV programmes at anything like reasonable quality.


Freeview digital tuner modules that plug into a USB socket currently cost between £25 and £50; the more sophisticated ones have twin tuners, so you can record one channel whilst watching another or even record two channels at once.


Video editing and VHS to DVD conversion is another possibility though this is best left to higher spec machines (2GHz or faster, at least 1Gb RAM, lots of hard disc space, preferably a second slave drive and a DVD writer). Provided you start with a clean slate, format the drive, reinstall Windows and load only the necessary editing and DVD authoring software the results can be very good.    


Home automation is a perfect application for a spare PC. Various systems have been developed, but one of the most popular, known as X10 is ideal for DIYers. It uses household wiring to allow the computer to communicate with control modules that plug into mains sockets, which can be anywhere in the house. Software on the PC controls the remote modules to switch on a washing machine or dishwasher in the early hours, to take advantage of low tariff electricity, control your central heating or switch lights on and off to make it look as though your home is occupied when you are out. Here are some links to suppliers of home automation devices get you started.


Your computer can also keep watch on your home, office or shop using inexpensive web cams or more sophisticated video surveillance cameras, which plug into an adaptor card or USB module The PC continuously records images from one or more cameras. Motion detection software, constantly checks the images for unexpected movement and will send you an alert by email or text message if an intruder is detected. Many systems can also be set up for real-time remote video surveillance, so you can keep a watch on your premises from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection using a laptop or PDA. This could prove very handy if you have another property or holiday home that is left vacant for long periods.


Next Week – Put a Puppy in your PC





Low power transmitter used to send audio and video signals from an AV source component (DVD player, satellite tuner etc.), to a receiver connected to a TV or display device in another room



Personal Digital Assistant – pocket or palm-sized computer



Speakers with a built-in mains powered amplifier




The only downside to using PCs as home entertainment devices the noise coming from the cooling fans in the power supply and on the CPU chip. The simple solution is to hide the computer away inside a cupboard or enclose, though it is vitally important to ensure it is well ventilated otherwise it may overheat. The alternative is to fit a quiet power supply module and prices start at around £25. A ‘silent’ CPU cooler as well should make it almost inaudible and again prices start at around £25. You will also need a monitor, keyboard and mouse in order to control the PC but if the PC has a video card with a composite or S-Video output you can connect it to a nearby TV.


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© R. Maybury 2007, 1010

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