Before you throw out that old laptop, stop and think of all the things it could be doing for you.
You could turn it into anything from an electronic recipe book to a cutprice digital picture frame with just a little know-how, some free software and perhaps a little time spent with a screwdriver.
Heck, even if the thing doesn't boot up it could earn you a few pounds by being broken up to sell off the remaining working parts.
1. Show off your photos
Digital picture frames make great interactive ornaments, although their price is beyond many pockets. If you're willing to spend an afternoon ripping the guts out of an old laptop, though, it's entirely possible to build your own at a fraction of the cost.
First you'll need to do a little remodelling. Laptop screens usually don't bend backwards beyond the horizontal, so the general technique involves carefully detaching the screen and repositioning the laptop's body so that it sits behind. This isn't too complicated because most screens are simply connected to the motherboard via a ribbon cable plugged into a socket.
PC Format published a practical guide to converting an old laptop into a professional, wall-mounted digital picture frame last year. You can also find guides showing how to convert specific makes and models at Repair4Laptop.org.
2. Donate old hardware
FreeCycle is a grassroots movement for passing on unwanted items to those that have a need for them. The aim is to try to keep useful things out of landfill sites and to give these 'pre-loved' items a new home.
There are nearly 500 FreeCycle groups spread across the UK, with a total of over 1.7 million members – see www.uk.freecycle.org.
To pass your old machine on to a new owner using FreeCycle, go to the website and search for a local group. Each one uses a Yahoo Group to organise exchanges, and some carry many hundreds of messages per month. With this amount of traffic, you're sure to find someone who needs your old stuff more than you do.
Make sure you format the hard disk before passing it on, of course – while keeping old tech alive is a noble pursuit, there's no point potentially giving away your personal information.
3. Donate CPU cycles
Due to a severe lack of funding, many research efforts survive by volunteers downloading client software which then runs whenever their computer isn't being actively used. This is possible thanks to the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC for short).
This grew from the original SETI@home project, which listened to the skies for alien transmissions. BOINC allows the developers of similar projects to organise the distribution of work packets for each computer. The idea is that once installed, the client software downloads a packet of data and crunches the numbers. Once complete, it uploads this and downloads another.
Some distributed computing projects simply couldn't be undertaken in any other way, and a number are truly awesome in their scope. If you're interested, there are plenty of the distributed projects you can choose from, including helping CERN with the hunt for new particles and identifying molecules that may provide greener energy.
Wikipedia maintains a long list of projects you might like to get involved in – see here for more info.
4. Create a recipe book
If you're not too bothered about the possibility of getting flour into the keyboard, why not turn your old laptop into an electronic cookbook? There are plenty of free recipe database packages available. ChickenPing is just one example, although it's more than just a recipe database.
It also allows you to plan meals and shopping lists, manage the contents of your fridge and generate shopping lists. Once the contents of your fridge are known to ChickenPing, you can even have it generate recipes based on what you have.
There's nutritional data, a central database so you can share recipes with others, a very handy substitute finder for ingredients you currently lack, and a 'sticky fingers' mode that gives you a hand summary of the ingredients and cooking method.
5. Serve up files
Creating a large network share is a pretty easy way to get your extra machine working for its keep. A domestic fileserver that gives everyone using the network a single place to dump files where they can be efficiently backed up is a very useful thing.
After carefully clearing out all your old files and emptying the Recycle Bin, you'll need to set up one or more network shares. Assuming your old laptop runs Windows XP, create a folder into which people can dump their files and right-click on it.
Select 'Sharing and Security' from the context menu and a window pops up. Tick 'Share this folder on the network', enter a name and also tick 'Allow network users to change my files'. On the General tab, make sure that 'Read Only' is deselected and click 'OK'. When you browse the network on your other computer, you should see the new share.
6. Make an alarm clock
If you've decided to use your old laptop as a fileserver, it'll be on all day and night, so why not use it as an alarm clock too? To do so, try the Banshee Screamer by Hanov Solutions. Download the installation package, run it and accept the defaults.
Clicking the tiny bomb symbol at the top left accesses the menu. You can make the interface larger and set the time from an internet-based time server.
You can browse an online skin gallery to change the clock's on-screen appearance, but it's best to keep the default skin and set the desktop background to black. If you also set a blank screensaver, you can prevent the bedroom being too light at night.
7. Explore home automation
If your old laptop is in good working order, it could be a great opportunity for you to dabble in the world of home automation. The most well-known home automation system is X-10, which uses your home's mains supply to transmit signals to units plugged into standard sockets. Best of all, it doesn't require a huge amount of computing power to control a whole house, making it ideal for use with an old, underpowered laptop.
Link all the relevant switches from a master unit connected to a USB port and supplied software enables you to schedule events, such as closing the curtains and switching on lights. You can even hook the whole thing up to the internet – ideal for times when you'll be unexpectedly late home or away on holiday and want to ward off potential burglars by giving the impression that you're in.
8. Build a media ripper
With a little thought, you can make your old laptop into a CD ripping station to store your music collection. Using EAC (Exact Audio Copy), it's as easy as popping the CD in the drive.
First of all, download LAME from here. This codec enables EAC to read the raw WAV files found on audio CDs. Next, download and install EAC from here. When installing, deselect the option to install the Ask toolbar.
Once installed, EAC runs and a wizard appears. You can accept the defaults. The wizard will then attempt to locate LAME, which can take a while. Accept the rest of the defaults but enter an email address to access the online database of album information.
The main interface appears. Click 'EAC | EAC Options' and select the Directories tab. Select a directory to rip to and click 'OK'. If this is a network share, you can access it from other machines on your network.
Put a CD in the drive and accept the option of calibrating. Now click 'Action | Test and Copy Selected Tracks | Compressed' and the rip begins. As for playback, the app you choose is up to you. Windows Media Player is decent, while Winamp is still knocking around too.
9. Make a wireless bridge
Almost all laptops have both a wired and wireless network card, making an old one ideal to act as a bridge between a wired hub and your wireless network. Windows XP has the ability to act as a bridge built in.
In the Control Panel, click 'Network and Internet Connections | Network Connections'. The general procedure is to click the connection for the wireless card, hold [Ctrl] and click the wired connection. Right-clicking offers the option to bridge the two cards. Microsoft has provided a full network bridging guide, including a troubleshooting section, here.
10. Explore Linux
Linux is the ultimate in laptop resurrection tools. With lower system resource overheads than Windows and a galaxy of free software, it's a great way to bring old hardware to life.
Today, all the major Linux distributions are easy to install, will dual-boot with Windows and have excellent graphical user environments. Thanks to Samba networking, they'll mount your Windows network shares straight out of the box, and a large number of wireless cards are supported.
One of the most user-friendly Linux distributions is Ubuntu – get it from here. Burn it to a bootable DVD, boot the DVD and then follow the on‑screen instructions.
Firs published in PC Plus Issue 300
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