BOOT CAMP 571 (08/04/09)

More Uses For Old PCs and Laptops


Nowadays most of us have at least one old computer gathering dust or awaiting that final, sad journey to the local recycling centre but it doesn't have to be that way. We've been looking at interesting things to with redundant desktop PCs almost since Boot Camp first started, but now for the first time, we're going to include laptops in the mix.


Falling prices coupled with the growth in wireless networking has meant that more people than ever now own one or more laptops. However, they tend to have comparatively brief working lives, compared with their house or office bound cousins. They are prone to damage, inherently less reliable and once the guarantee runs out the high cost of maintenance often means that owners are more likely to replace rather than repair.


Nevertheless, many laptop owners are reluctant to toss out their old machines once they've been retired. Maybe it's because they're small and once packed away easily forgotten, or kept in the faint hope that one day they will get around to getting it fixed, or it will come in handy as an emergency standby. My own theory is that laptops made five or more years ago usually cost the thick end of £1000, when a thousand pounds was worth something. Parting with something that expensive, even though it may now be practically worthless can be very hard. So don't. Over the next few episodes of Boot Camp we'll look at ways of putting old PCs to good use, or if its popped their clogs, doing something useful with the parts.   


But first, if you are going to get rid of an old computer, you need to think carefully about doing it safely, legally and with proper respect for the environment. Your first concern should be the data contained on the hard drive or drives. As well as your personal files and documents it almost certainly contains a history of your web surfing activities not to mention bank and credit card details, passwords and PINs, if you have been shopping and banking online. There's usually more than enough information on the average hard drive for an identity thief to get up to all kinds of mischief and for nosey-parkers to compile a very detailed profile of the ex-owner's life or business.


You're still not off the hook if the computer no longer works; the information stored on the drive is probably recoverable.  Even if you've never used your PC for storing private or personal information, you can't legally sell or give it away without removing Windows and most commercial applications, and it is virtually impossible to transfer software licences to other users, so no matter how you dispose of an old PC you must ensure that all of the data on the drive(s) is completely destroyed


Unfortunately that's easier said than done. If the computer is still working you may think that deleting files or formatting the drive will do the trick. Not so, all this does is erase entries in the drive's file index; the data is still there and accessible to anyone with readily available recovery software.


Basically there are only two ways to permanently annihilate data. You can do what the military, security agencies and government bodies do (or should do...) and that is to mechanically pulverize or chop the drive up into little pieces. The diy equivalent is to deal the drive a few hefty blows with a big hammer or run it through with a power drill. It's surprisingly satisfying, especially if the PC it once belonged to was less than reliable...


The alternative is to sanitize the drive by repeatedly overwriting the data with random characters or meaningless numbers. Clearly this is easiest when the PC in question is still in working order; if not the drive can be removed, popped into a USB external drive enclosure and plugged into another computer. External enclosures sell on line for around £15.00 and we'll come back to them later on in this series. You will need some software to carry out the job and you can't go far wrong with a freeware utility called Active KillDisk (


Once a computer's drive has been wiped it can be safely disposed of - see also this week's Top Tip, but even that can be difficult. Selling it is an option but unless it's less than 2 or 3 years old don't expect to get more than a few pounds for it, and hardly anyone wants an old style CRT monitor these days. Giving it away is another possibility but you may find takers are thin on the ground. Charity shops don't like electrical goods, and schools and colleges are normally well supplied with up to date equipment. It's worth asking around friends and family but don't be surprised if teenagers turn their noses up at older PCs that are incapable of playing the latest games.


Next Week - More Uses For Old PCs and Laptops, part 2





Cathode Ray Tube - old style video monitor screen basically a big glass bottle with all of the air sucked out.



Preparing a disc drive for use by creating a filing system, or erasing a previous one



Using someone's personal information, name, address, bank and credit card details etc., without their consent, to create a bogus identity for the purposes of fraud



If you have a local Freecycle group ( you can list it on their website and there's a good chance that someone will offer to give it a good home. Most specialist recycling companies are geared up for bulk quantities and the cost of sending someone out to collect a single machine is simply not economical. If you can't give it away then disposal at your local amenity site is the best bet, and it should end up being properly recycled, but don't put it out with the normal household rubbish. If you can't get to the tip contact your local council and you they may be willing to pick it up, though some may charge for this service.  


Don't forget, there's a full archive of previous Boot Camp Top Tips at




© R. Maybury 2009, 1803


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