BOOT CAMP 574 (29/04/09)

More Uses For Old PCs and Laptops, part 4


Don’t let that old PC or laptop moulder away in the loft or garage, especially if it’s still working! This week, in the final part of this short series we’re going to get a bit experimental, which basically means some of these projects are for more advanced users. Don’t let that put you off, though, since your tinkering will be confined to a redundant machine it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work straight away, and it’s a great opportunity to learn about computers…


Are you struggling to get a good signal with your wireless network or maybe you own a B&B and want to be able to provide your guests with Internet access? If so this tip, which turns am XP, Vista or Mac PC or laptop into a makeshift wireless Hotspot, could prove useful.  The PC in question needs a LAN socket and wireless connectivity but don’t worry if they haven’t, they’re easy enough to add using USB adaptors and dongles. There’s an easy to follow video tutorial at I have to warn you that this method is not very secure, so make sure the PC being used doesn’t contain any private files, as it is relatively easy for someone to hack into it.


Digital photo frames are everywhere but most of the cheap ones are not very good, so why not make your own? With a few simple tools and some readily available free software almost any old laptop can be converted into a sophisticated and eye-catching photo frame, capable of storing and displaying thousands, if not tens of thousands of images.


How far you go is up to you, this tutorial (  for example, is quite ambitious as it separates the screen from the body of the computer and re-houses it in a custom frame. Clearly this requires some DIY skills, but there are plenty of other ways to do it and a good place to start is one of the specialised websites devoted to this topic, packed resources and guides for specific models: and


This next tip is for anyone that has a home or small office network. An old but still working PC can be easily turned into a multimedia server or a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device. A server is probably the most straightforward option. Essentially the PC becomes a repository for all of your media files, videos, music, photos and so on, which can be downloaded or streamed to any other PC or laptop connected to the network. The age of the PC is not that important, providing it has a Pentium 4 processor or later and at least 512Mb of RAM it should be okay. Older PCs tend to have limited hard drive space, so you may need to invest in a new high capacity drive, but with 1 terabyte drives selling for less than £60 these days, it’s not going to break the bank. Again there are plenty of ‘how-tos’ on the web, this one from Popular Mechanics (, is a good example as it uses the free Ubuntu Linux operating system, which is ideally suited to this sort of application.


Turning your old PC into a NAS device is a bit more of a challenge. The hardware requirements won’t be a problem and most PCs less than 4 or 5 years old should be up to the job, though you’ll probably need to add some extra hard drive capacity. However, unlike a multimedia server, which can also, at a pinch, still be used as a PC, a NAS device is dedicated to the one task. It also better suited to more serious applications, as it requires a more structured approach to file management and security. It can’t easily be done using Windows-based software either but there are several freeware and open source applications that do the job very well indeed. These include FreeNAS ( NASLite and NanoNAS ( and OpenFiler (, but they’re not for absolute beginners so be prepared for a fairly steep learning curve.


Finally home automation and this has been a popular application for old PCs for a long time. At one time or another most of us have fantasised about living in a house that obeys your every command, from switching on the lights and playing your favourite music when you enter a room to pulling the curtains when you are away. It’s definitely all possible, and more, but be warned, to do this sort of thing properly you will need very deep pockets.


There are several ways to proceed, if you are on a tight budget or don’t mind getting your hands dirty there’s the hardcore DIY route, where you need to be able understand circuit diagrams and know your way around a soldering iron. Alternatively there’s the more civilised but vastly more expensive ‘black box’ approach. All you have to do is plug the appliances and devices you want to control into small plug-type adaptors that communicate with your PC wirelessly or through signals sent through your mains wiring. The best known of these off-the-shelf systems is called X10 ( It has been around for quite a while and is now virtually an international standard that encompasses everything from basic home automation and entertainment through to security and remote video surveillance.


Next Week – Privacy and Paranoia





Originally a plug-in key or security device for computers but these days it applies to virtually any small widget that plugs into a PC or laptop’s USB socket



Local Area Network -- a computer network



CCTV Video system connected to a network or the Internet, enabling live images to be viewed from any network or Internet connected PC



Here are a couple of slightly off the wall uses for old laptop screens floating around the web. The basic idea is to use it as an LCD ‘shutter’. One suggested application is to put it in front of a car licence plate. When a sensor picks up the flash from a roadside speed camera the screen instant turns dark. An extension of this idea is to combine several screens to make a large LCD ‘window’ that automatically turns dark at night, or when in direct sunlight.


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



© R. Maybury 2009, 0804

Part 1 2 3

Search PCTopTips 



Boot Camp Index















Top Tips Index

Windows XP

Windows Vista

Internet & Email

Microsoft Word

Folders & Files

Desktop Mouse & Keyboard

Crash Bang Wallop!

Privacy & Security

Imaging Scanning & Printing

Power, Safety & Comfort

Tools & Utilities

Sound Advice

Display & screen

Fun & Games

Windows 95/98/SE/ME






 Copyright 2006-2009 PCTOPTIPS UK.

All information on this web site is provided as-is without warranty of any kind. Neither PCTOPTIPS nor its employees nor contributors are responsible for any loss, injury, or damage, direct or consequential, resulting from your choosing to use any of the information contained herein.