Time for a spot of spring cleaning? Here’s how your PC can help
Normally around this time of year, we run an article on how you can spring clean your PC, usually by uninstalling old programs or pruning start-up applications. This year, we thought we’d try a different approach and see how your PC can actually help reduce clutter around the home. Sadly, we couldn’t find a Windows driven house-maid robot just yet, but here are a few ways your computer might be able to help with the de-cluttering.
Digitise your media – One way you can reduce clutter around the home (though not necessarily in the attic) is to digitise your media collection. Here are a few apps that can help with that task.
Compact discs can easily be converted into Mp3 or similar files and played on any suitable phone, tablet or PC anywhere in the house. To do this you can use Windows Media Player, which is available with all modern versions of the operating system.
DVDs can be converted into MKV, a format widely compatible with modern media players, by using the MakeMKV program. If you find that MKV format isn’t compatible with a device you want to use, you can use the Freemake Video Converter program to change the format.
Some Blu-ray movies can also be converted using MakeMKV, though typically Blu-ray movies feature strong copy protection and it may not be possible (or legal) to digitise them. If you like the idea of digital copies of your Blu-ray discs, many films now come with a free digital copy that you can download, though this is usually subject to copy protection restrictions too.
If you want to digitise your old photographs, then any typical flat-bed scanner will usually do the job. Be careful to wipe any dust from your photographs and the scanner bed before you start. For scanning negatives, you can buy a dedicated negative scanner. If you have a large photo collection, you could even go for the Kodak Picture Saver Scanning System, which can scan up to 85 photos in a minute. At over £1000/$1500 it’s not cheap, but you could always sell it and recoup some of the costs when you have finished digitising your photos.
Please remember to respect copyright law as you digitise your media collections. Your old discs should be stored safely in the attic and effectively become your backup copies. Do not be tempted to sell or give them away. Some discs may have copy protection, in this case you unfortunately cannot digitise them. In some countries the copyright law may prevent you from making copies of your own media for your own personal use, so check local laws if necessary.
Re-use an old PC – Okay so perhaps we’re adding to the clutter here, but before you throw out your old computers, consider putting them to another use. IT waste can be quite bad for the environment and an old PC has more uses than people realise.
File server – We all forget to back up on a regular basis, so why not devote one PC just to this particular duty? Add a couple of large hard drives to your old PC and configure software such as Genie Timeline to automatically back up across your wireless network. Or, use the same PC to share media to all your families devices using Homegroups.
Media server – Since you converted your old media to digital format, why not use an old PC to help share it around the home? The Plex software package works with dozens of devices, from games consoles to the Kindle Fire stick. Simply put all your media on your designated server PC and then install Plex. Users around the home can then access music and video on any compatible device.
Homework/child friendly PC – Sometimes its just a good idea to have an offline, distraction free PC that can be used for homework or for younger children to use without worry. Of course, the internet is a super useful reference for children of all ages, but it can also be a tremendous distraction and unsupervised use, particularly by young children, is not generally advisable. By keeping an old PC off-line you can negate these dangers. You could install some simple games for younger players or keep the machine as a stand-alone word processor. Nobody will fight for a turn and it’s always there for report writing and other tasks. If anything goes wrong, simply wipe the PC and start again. Files can be saved onto USB devices for backup and transferred to other, more capable machines when necessary.
Remember, old PCs running Windows XP can be vulnerable to malware. If you’re planning on re-using the machine and having an active internet or network connection, keep this in mind, you may need to upgrade to Windows 10, or even try some flavour of Linux if you’re feeling particularly brave.
Recycle responsibly – Re-using old PCs is a good way to keep them out of landfill, but when it comes to time to dispose of your old IT equipment, you should recycle responsibly and take your equipment to a dedicated IT re-cycling centre. Before you do this, be careful to remove any private data from the machine before disposing of it. Here are several ways you can do that.
If your PC is running Windows 8, you can use the reset feature to completely clean your PC and reset it to factory state. By choosing the “thorough” erase option, you make it virtually impossible for anyone to recover your personal files, even someone willing to go to significant lengths to do so. Windows 10 users can use the recovery/reset option to do the same thing.
If you need to clean an old external hard drive, memory card or USB stick that still works, you can use Bleachbit to clean it. First delete all the files from the drive/card, then install Bleachbit as per our tutorials here. Then, simply start the program and choose “File->Wipe Free Space”. Then, simply navigate to the device you want to clean.
If you have an older PC you can use the “Boot and Nuke” tool. To use this tool you record it to a CD/DVD or USB device then start your computer from the CD/USB device. This process is described more thoroughly in this tutorial. Use this tool with care, it will totally and utterly destroy data on drives. In fact, given that the process takes some time, you could always use that old PC you recycled to wipe/destroy any media you wanted to get rid of, without tying up your shiny new PC.
If your computer won’t read your old media any more, you should physically destroy it. A nail (carefully) driven through a hard drive is usually enough to destroy the data, while memory cards and USB sticks can be snapped in half or destroyed with a hammer.
Finally, if you’re clearing out your old technology, remember that some of it can actually be quite valuable now. Your old Windows 98 PC might not exactly set eBay alight, but old Commodore computers, for instance, change hands for good money between collectors. That goes for your other items too, one mans junk is another mans treasure, so use websites like eBay to recycle your things rather than throw them away, or even check with charity stores. You could even make a list on your smartphone, using Evernote or Onenote, then review it at the comfort of your PC, where you can then easily research the items value. It all helps keep things out of landfill!