BOOT CAMP 573 (22/04/09)

More Uses For Old PCs and Laptops, part 3


Last week we looked at some of the things you can do with an old, non-working PC or laptop, which is basically strip it down, re-use or sell the parts that are still working and recycle what’s left. In the final two instalments of this series we’ll consider some practical uses for a redundant computer that still has some life left in it.


If you’ve ever wondered what makes a desktop computer tick then this is your chance to find out. One of the best ways to learn how a PC works is to pull one apart and then put it back together again. While you are at it, why not give it a makeover, upgrade a few parts and put it back to work? There’s nothing to stop you taking a laptop apart but it’s usually a one-way trip. They are swines to reassemble and you’ll be lucky if it still works.


If you are going to take your PC apart the first thing to do remove the side or lid and muck it out. The insides of old PCs can be quite disgusting. I have found the quickest and easiest way to get rid of the accumulated dust and fluff is to use a pressurised airline. If you haven’t got one of your own (see this week’s Top Tip), the one at your local garage will do the job in about 30 seconds. Otherwise use an ‘air duster’ – available from most stationers and PC suppliers.


Reconnect the monitor, keyboard and mouse and switch it on to make sure it is still working. Switch off and take a few photographs of the innards, so if you get stuck you’ll know where all the cables and plug-in boards go. If you haven’t got the original motherboard manual it might be a good idea to take a few close-ups or do a sketch of the cluster of wires that connect to the front panel switches and lights as these are not always very well labelled.


Dismantling and rebuilding PC is actually quite therapeutic, both for you and the machine. Removing and replacing plugs and connectors helps to remove a thin layer of oxides that builds up on contact pins and surfaces that can result in intermittent connections and eventual failure. It’s a good idea to touch a metal radiator before you start and when handling the parts avoid touching any contacts. The chance of damaging electronic components through static discharge is quite small but don’t take chances. 


The parts in a PC that can be usefully upgraded are the CPU, RAM memory and hard drive. You will have to do some homework, though, to find out if the motherboard can support a faster CPU and more memory, if not you are stuck; upgrading the motherboard, as well as the CPU and memory will probably cost you more than a new PC.


Many older PCs are put out to pasture simply because they have become slow or the hard disc drive has filled up, in which case all you have to do is wipe the drive and reinstall Windows, or add a second slave drive. Better still, wipe the drive and install the Linux operating system, and this is also something you can do with an old laptop. Some laptop motherboard and device drivers can be difficult to obtain but you can easily check by tapping the make and model of your machine followed by the words ‘install Linux’ into Google and you’ll soon find out if it is do-able.


This is a great way to get to know Linux and it really is very easy to do. All you have to do is download the Linux ‘iso’ Image file and use it to create a bootable CD, pop that into the drive and follow the prompts. As an added bonus Linux usually runs a lot faster than Windows on the same hardware, plus it is virtually bullet-proof, almost immune to viruses and malware. It’s generally more stable than Windows and these days really quite civilised; connecting to networks and the Internet, for example, is usually a lot easier.


Versions or ‘distributions’ of Linux, such as Mandriva and Ubuntu look and work a lot like Windows so the learning curve is quite gentle, Linux versions of many popular applications are available or there is a free ‘Open Source’ alternative, so who knows, you might even end up liking it so much that you abandon Windows altogether.


Most Linux distributions are completely free and they are very easy to install on a blank drive, or, if there’s room by dividing or partitioning the existing drive, so you can still ‘dual boot’ Windows. There’s a simple to follow Linux tutorial in Boot Camp 446 (  


Next Week - More Uses For Old PCs and Laptops, part 4





Can of compressed gas, used to blow dust out of confined spaces



International Standards Organisation Image file (aka ISO 9660) a file filing system used on recordable media structured to support an operating system



Software with minimal licensing and broad, often free distribution, which users are encouraged to help develop



Owning your own high-pressure airline is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Small portable electrically-powered compressors, with their own air tanks are now widely available online, and from workshop machinery suppliers from as little as £50. These are about the size of a small suitcase and pack away easily in a garage or garden shed. They’re not just for blowing the dust out of old PCs either. They have a myriad of other uses, from inflating car tyres, to spray-painting fences and powering tools like nail-guns and wheel wrenches. Nowadays most garage airlines are coin-operated so it could even pay for itself! 


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



© R. Maybury 2009, 0104

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