There's gold in them there hills - hills of old PCs that is. The 21st century has seen a new gold rush (or is it more of a shuffle) and it's all about digging up the hidden precious metals in your old PC kit.
While it's not quite gold, frankincense and myrrh, there's certainly gold, copper and aluminium among the list of valuable elements. So while an old system might be worthless to you, it's certainly worth something to somebody out there.
Recycling a system is the last and best option for a condemned PC. Making sure it's safely recycled and reused as much as possible is better than ending up creating its own coffin space in a landfill. The scary side effects of dumping old electronics are poisons leaked into the environment - when we say environment, we mean your water supply and backyard.
The most common and delightfully hazardous elements found in electronics are lead, cadmium, chlorine, mercury and tasty old arsenic. Stuff you really don't want in your cup of tea. If you're at all ecologically minded then running old electronics for as long as possible is by far the soundest proposition.
It's also financially a good idea, as we'll see, an old system is still capable of performing all manner of useful tricks. While you might be a high-demand PC user, that's not to say your old system isn't perfect for Aunt Betsy or little Jimmy's first rig. So upgrade, reuse, do a project or simply sell it off for cold, hard cash.
There's no doubt that an old laptop or ageing desktop can be put to good use. You don't even have to be ecologically minded to have an aversion to spending money. With recession becoming the new norm and one per cent growth some crazed fantasy confined to heady boom days, saving a bit of cash tends to be pretty high on everyone's to-do list now.
For an old system, the most obvious move is to simply extend its shelf life. A strategic upgrade here or there can revitalise what was a creaking system. More often than not the biggest complaints about an older PC are slow responses and long boot times. Anyone running a PC with less than 4GB needs to get themselves over to crucial.com or kingston.com and use the memory upgrade advisor to look into a memory upgrade.
With 4GB memory kits as low as £36, throwing in extra memory is still one of the lowest-cost but most beneficial upgrades you can make. Jumping to 8GB will certainly cover most demanding situations, helping eliminate pagefile access and reducing potential disk thrashing.
Do remember, once you move to 4GB and above you'll need to be running a 64-bit install of Windows - and that handily brings us onto our next option.
Long boot times and general sluggish load times are the other major bugbear of an older system. A fresh reinstall of Windows can help cure a lot of these, but while you're at it why not pop that install onto a new drive?
Annoyingly SSD prices have actually gone up at the start of 2013, which is likely down to high demand. Even so you can grab perfectly handy 128GB sized drives for around £80, but SSDs are not as affordable as they used to be.
If capacity is your thing don't dismiss spinning drives. Newer 3TB drives are retailing at around £90 and can happily pump out over 100MB/s - if money is no object 4TB drives are available at around £150. These are not only going to boost your general drive speed but also increase capacity no end.
We're going to gloss over the processor, motherboard and GPU. If you opted for a mid- to low-end processor then there are often upgrade options within the same available socket. These options reduce as time goes by and any new sockets may have superseded whatever you currently have.
Often a dual CPU and motherboard upgrade gives you the real jump in processing power you're looking for, but then the expense at this point is starting to creep up. You should also consider a power supply upgrade. This might sound an odd suggestion - as it's not going to improve performance a jot - but it could greatly improve energy efficiency of your old machine.
Having recently tested the ultra-efficient Pico PSU from Scan Computers - alongside newer and older PSUs - it quickly became obvious that newer units are far more efficient than older ones. If you're running an old PSU that's not certified at least bronze in efficiency, then consider an upgrade to save on 10 - or as much as 30 - per cent power use. It's a worthwhile investment as a PSU is one thing that will last and last.
You can, of course, simply give your system away. With extended families there always seems to be somebody that's in need of a PC, be it a desktop or a laptop. It's more than likely that whoever it is will be more than happy with your cast-off.
This isn't to say you should go handing over your previously prized possession. We'd be strong advocates of a full format and Windows reinstall. It's not only far more pleasant giving someone a vanilla Windows install, but you won't be lying there at night worrying about your browsing history being uncovered.
When handing over a system it's well worth going through a short checklist of items, so below we have 'Destroy the evidence' on wiping data and good practice when doing that. We also hope you're handing over your Windows licence and original discs too, if there's a recovery partition or disc then it's best to use this and hand these over as well.
A common issue with older laptops, however, is the old dead battery - if you're handing one to a relative you might want to discuss if they need the battery or not. Replacements can usually be acquired more cheaply from eBay, if they feel they need the portability. Unfortunately, doing the donation thing usually entails a level of support, so prepare for the phone calls.
If you're planning to use an old system for another job there are a few things to consider beforehand. First, you should give it a good spring clean. Grab yourself an air blaster, or a hoover with soft-brush attachment and a duster. Get inside that PC and make sure you clear off however many years of accumulated dust and dirt you find. We're told by good authority - namely QI - that most of that dust isn't human flesh. So that's at least one less icky worry removed.
Part of the reason for this is it's likely this old system is living on borrowed time - so it's important you clean up the CPU cooler, PSU fans and any system cooling of dust, to try and give it a fighting chance of living to see England fail to qualify for the next World Cup.
This brings us onto the important aspect of hard drive failure. It's just something to keep in mind that most hard drives have a three-year life expectancy, beyond that failure could happen at any point. Now, we're running drives six years old without issues, but we've relegated those to test systems. If they go and all the data is lost, that's fine. The point is, we'd advise you not to store anything vitally important on there in the long run.
So with that old system cleaned, washed and paid for it's time to put it to good use. Here are ten of our top reuses for an old system - you might think many can work on the same system, which is true. It's simply down to you to implement them in the way that suites you best.
Destroy the evidence
Out, Damn'd spot! Out, I say!
Planning on passing on an old system? You'll need to take basic data protection measures then. To kick things off wipe your hard drive, it'll contain all sorts of juicy bits of data about you. Just deleting the files isn't enough as this only removes the file pointer from the file system tables, leaving the actual data on the drive. There is an urban myth that you need to wipe a drive multiple times to safely erase data, this is nonsense, a single wipe is fine.
The old 35-times myth came from a 1996 paper by Peter Gutmann that wasn't referring to modern drives, but 30-year-old storage systems. In fact, in a follow-up paper he says two passes would be more than enough. Wipe all the shipping drives using something like Parted Magic - this boots from an optical disc and will safely wipe all attached internal drives.
Owners of SSDs shouldn't use standard disk wiping tools, you need to use a specific secure erase command - Parted Magic supports this. If you're really paranoid about data security on old drives, we'd suggest you invest in a heavy-duty drill or pair of bolt cutters.
Get hard cash for recycled systems
We spoke to John Frost at www.uk-computer-recycling.co.uk about how you can sell your old PC kit for cash and what happens to it once it enters their secure premises.
So what does your company actually do?
Our business collects and recycles all IT related equipment throughout the entire UK. We have also established a laptop-recycling scheme for households, allowing the general public to exchange their old laptops for cash. We process 1,500 to 2,000 PCs and laptops per month.
What type of systems do you see the most of?
We see a fluctuation of specifications every three years once businesses upgrade their equipment. Around 2011/12 was the end of the Pentium 3/4 era and we are now beginning to see the influx of dual-core systems. Around 90 per cent of these systems are Dell and HP.
What's the easiest and hardest parts that you deal with?
I have to be honest and say that the IT recycling field isn't easy to get into due to the amount of red tape involved regarding our responsibility to the environment. It's always interesting and satisfying to see pallets of absolute junk turned back into base materials, such as precious metals, and reused again.
What percentage of systems do you manage to salvage and reuse?
I am very proud that our company is able to salvage around 80 to 90 per cent of all the equipment that passes through our facility. Only a small percentage of equipment is forwarded for dismantling and an even smaller amount will ever reach landfill.
Any tips for people trying to salvage their own systems?
My best advice would definitely be reuse over recycling - can it be reused around the house or do you know someone that may have use for it? A simple RAM upgrade can greatly increase performance and prolong its lifespan.
Gassing on about gasses
PCs are horrible for the environment
We're going to say they're as bad as a car - we have no evidence to back this up, but stay with us.
When it comes to its carbon footprint, it's been shown that you're better off running an older car for longer than scrapping it and buying a new more efficient one. Even when you take into account saving through recycling, an old car can be run for as much as a decade, before its inefficiencies outweigh its production and ongoing carbon use.
Unless you're running a diesel-powered PC mod, PCs hardly have a similar carbon-generating life cycle to your average car. If you're being 'green', the longer you can run a PC the far better off it is for your carbon footprint, as the majority of the carbon will have been created during manufacturing of the PC.
While few sources offer a full breakdown of the potential carbon generated by manufacturing and transporting all of the individual components that go into a PC, one analysis puts the carbon generated for a 2008 MacBook laptop at 230kg (while a UN analysis puts desktop manufacturing at 240kg). We can assume a desktop would be higher due to the amount of steel that goes into the casing, as well as increased shipping, and a gaming desktop would be even higher.
So every time you go out and buy a new PC or laptop, that's the amount of extra carbon that's pumped into the atmosphere. For day-to-day use, HP has a carbon footprint calculator.
Using this we can see a high-end workstation per year will create about 89kg of carbon through its electricity use, while a more modest workstation will chow through 55kg. A lower-end system running integrated graphics will be more along the lines of 31kg per year and a laptop can be as low as 16kg - even when used every day.
Ten uses for that old system gathering dust
1. Linux box
We're often banging on about Linux at PC Format, though oddly not as much as our sister mag Linux Format does. Without a doubt, it's a useful but complex OS, so it makes sense to bung it on another system and use that as a development platform or test bed.
Many could point out you'd be better running a virtual PC on your main system, but you can do that on the test bed anyway. You also can't beat running an OS on native hardware, as it throws up so many more issues - and we love issues, don't we?
2. CCTV network security system
With the cost of wireless security cameras plummeting to below £40 and even 500GB hard drives costing under £40, an obvious use to turn your spare machine to is a 24-hour a day CCTV security system.
As long as you have a home network infrastructure already set up, it's easy to use the free software from www.ispyconnect.com to build your own complete CCTV system. It'll watch for motion and capture relevant clips, send warnings to you and can even control home appliances, too.
3. UPnP Video server
One of the best uses for an old system is to have it as a headless server on your home network. Running an older version of Windows, Linux or a dedicated appliance OS (such as FreeNAS) all offer the ability to store and serve files over a network.
Opting for Windows does enable the flexibility to use any server software you like. One of the more interesting ones is www.serviio.org, which offers a highly flexible UPnP server capable of transcoding video to any devices that connect to it.
4. Digital jukebox
Sure you can just hook up your PC to a set of speakers or a Hi-Fi, but that isn't quite as straightforward as it sounds. Ideally, you might want to check for a coaxial connection or make use of a matrix inputs for real surround decoding. Beyond that you should consider whether your music collection is on iTunes or stored as more generic MP3s.
Apple iTunes does have the advantage of a wide range of remote control app options, including streaming from your jukebox to any number of AirPlay devices. An easy alternative would be to use Windows Media Player and an Android or iPhone remote app, which would easily enable headless playback.
5. Advanced picture frame
If you're after something with a bit more of a DIY edge then putting an old laptop to work can be the perfect project. If you're able to disassemble a laptop then, as with many models, it's possible to mount the display reversed to the main chassis.
Depending on how much of a completionist you are, you can remove the chassis altogether, along with any optical and hard drives. Try booting the system from a USB flash drive for that minimal feel.
Mounted inside a suitably large frame it makes an interesting way to display pictures, and as it still has full wireless networking, you will be able to throw up videos, web pages and more.
6. Arty project
Who said that we're running out of ideas to do with old kit? Never, we say! A really common DIY project for an old desktop system is to turn it into some sort of art installation. A while back we wall mounted an old PC, which worked out pretty well we think. In fact one of the test systems we use is still mounted on that very Perspex sheet.
Search www.instructables.com under 'computers' and you'll find a wealth of arty and just plain crazy projects to try from fish tanks to Millennium Falcon-styled PCs.
7. Retro gaming
Even a laptop from the last millennium is capable of playing some games. If you fancy another DIY project why not construct your own retro gaming table or cabinet? Or you could just let the kids play on it while you watch Match of the Day.
Emulators such as MAME enable you to relive those gaming days of glory. Depending on how lazy or rich you are, it's possible to hack together a fun arcade table from an old coffee table and use wireless peripherals for next to nothing. Or if you go all out, you could add some high-end arcade controls from www.xgaming.com.
8. NAS/Printer/Firewall/Web server
In the grand scheme of things, any one of these would be somewhat trivial for an entire PC to do, most even semi-new routers provide these features while only using 10 watts or so.
However, when you start adding advanced features such as hardware firewall, flexible print servers, totally configurable NAS with any file system or RAID configuration and suddenly it makes a lot more sense. There's a whole range of OS choices to go for from standard Windows, Windows Server to FreeNAS and Linux Format favourite ClearOS.
9. Network solutions
This covers a host of solutions, but having a second PC is fantastic as all of a sudden you can start playing around with networking. Ideally, you'll want a hub/router but if you've got a wireless or broadband router that should be taken care of.
Obviously, you can now simply play with Windows networking, fiddle with IPv4 and generally swear a lot when none of it works. You could also run a dedicated game server or grab a copy of www.turnkeylinux.org and have an instant web server to play with.
10. Test system
An easy win is to use the system as a test bed. This won't suit many people, but if you try out a lot of software or even need to benchmark hardware for evaluation, it makes an awful lot of sense not to tie up your main PC. As it's an older system, it's not going to cut the mustard for graphics cards, but for many other tests and software evaluation it's a valid use.