Spring cleaning? Don’t throw out that old PC!
Now that spring has sprung (at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere!) you might be thinking of that spring tradition of cleaning and de-cluttering. If there’s an old PC lurking in your house that hasn’t been used in some time, you might be thinking of sending it to the electrical recycling centre. Before you do that though, have you considered other uses for it? PCs can do more than just sit on a desk or in a lap and surf web pages or help with writing assignments, here are several uses you could put an old PC to.
File server – Like many IT ideas, file servers first appeared in corporate environments, but soon began to appear in homes too. A file server is simply a computer on your home network that you use for storing files. Great for backups, for homework projects or for any files you want to share amongst the family.
Setting up a file share is really easy. Browse to any folder on your PC and right click on it, then choose the “Sharing” tab and click the “Share” button. A file sharing permissions window will appear.
If you log in with the same username and password on all your PCs, just click “Share” again. Enter your password and/or click “Yes” if Windows User Account Control prompts you to do so. Windows will then say that your folder is shared. To access it from any other PC in your home, just enter the link that’s provided into File Explorer. Usually the link consists of two backward slashes (\\) followed by the computer name then a single slash and the folder name. For example “\\W10-Games\Games” would be the link to the “Games” folder on the “W10-Games” PC. Alternatively, just use the Network icon in the navigation (left hand) pane in File Explorer to browse all available PCs and shared folders. If it sounds complicated, just give it some practise, try sharing a spare folder and see how you get on.
There’s more, tools like Goodsync or Syncback SE can help you keep two folders synchronised. This means you can use one folder as your working folder and another as a backup, or perhaps, work on your files while you’re out on the road then synchronise them when you get back home. The alternative to this is, of course, cloud storage, but with online security breaches and data miss-use rife, perhaps you’d prefer to keep things on your own network.
Before you rush to blow the dust off that ancient PC, A word of warning. Very old PCs, the kind that still run Windows XP or even Windows 98, are capable of sharing files, but they use an older, outdated method for doing so. This old file sharing protocol has several security vulnerabilities in it and, because of this, Windows 7, 8 and 10 will no longer connect to shared folders on a Windows XP machine. On a PC like this, swapping Windows for Linux might help make it useful again, but of course this requires some know how with the open source OS.
Disc checker – Have you ever had an external hard drive suddenly die on you? You’re not alone. Hard drives are mechanical devices and, unfortunately they all fail eventually. Even solid state drives will eventually wear out. There’s nothing you can do to stop this, that’s why you should always have a backup copy of any important files. While you can’t stop hard drives from failing, you can at least test them and spot any errors on a drive before it degrades any further. The Chkdsk (check disk) command can be used to quickly check a drive and we have a tutorial here that shows you how you can do that.
The only way to thoroughly check that a hard disk is healthy is to use a tool like HD Tune to check it sector by sector. This takes a very long time, 5 or 6 hours or more is not uncommon for a large drive. Rather than tie up your computer waiting for this, why not use your old machine to do this work? The old PC can be put in a spare room or somewhere out of the way where it’s noisy fans won’t prove a distraction and left to plod along with the task as long as necessary.
Plex server – Plex is a program that, in a nutshell, lets you create your own, custom Netflix. Simply load a PC with media, perhaps converted from your old DVD collection using a tool like MakeMKV https://www.makemkv.com/ , then install Plex server. Once installed, you will be able to access your media from a variety of devices, including Roku, Shield, Google Chromecast and Amazon Fire stick, as well as smartphones and games consoles. Plex will help with sorting and cataloguing your media, even downloading information about the film or show in question to make browsing more enjoyable.
Unfortunately, for a Plex media server to run smoothly, you will need a reasonably fast PC. This is especially true if you want to stream high definition media, so an older PC might not cut it. Check the page here for the minimum system requirements.
Minecraft or other game server – Kids gone Minecraft crazy? Help them play together with their friends, siblings or even parents by making your very own Minecraft server from an old PC. The server will run the persistent world, saving all the progress they make together. By having your own server, you can also prevent strangers connecting and interacting with your children too. You can block outside connections to the server entirely if you prefer, simply skip over the instructions for “port forwarding” on the Minecraft Wiki.
Setting up a Minecraft server takes a little technical know how, so you might need to call in the help of the family IT expert, but it’s well worth it if your kids are Minecraft crazy. Check the article here for more information.
Kids a little bit older, or not into Minecraft? Perhaps there’s a server for a game they enjoy playing together or with their friends. Most likely, your children will be in the know about such things, so you can ask them.
If you have to dispose of an old PC – If you decide you really can’t find a good use for that old computer, please dispose of it responsibly. If the machine still works, you may be able to give it away. There are often local groups such as Freecycle or Freegle where you can advertise unwanted items and people can come and collect them. Failing that, check with the local authority to locate your nearest electrical recycling centre.
Remember to remove all your personal data from your PC before giving it away or taking it to the recycling centre. In Windows 10 you can use the “Fresh Start” feature under “Device performance & Heath”. In Windows 8 it’s called “Reset this PC” and it can be found under Settings -> Update and Recovery -> Recovery. For Windows 7 and earlier things are a little more complicated. You can format and wipe the hard drive using a tool called DBAN, but if you’re giving the PC away rather than recycling it then you, or whomever your giving it to, will need to reinstall Windows.
As we’ve seen, there are many uses for an old PC above and beyond the usual desktop computing tasks. Hopefully some of the ideas we’ve given you here will help keep older PCs out of landfill for a bit longer.