Making use of old computers #junkcomputerproject

Computer in the bin? It might still have something to give!

  • Old computers are just as useful as when they were new
  • Things have moved on – but they haven’t changed much
  • You can get games, musical instruments and do science with them

Old computers, rather than the now-established world of retro computers, are pretty much worthless. They’re the machines your company is throwing out by the bucketload, they’re the laptops your kids can’t play Minecraft on anymore, they’re the boxes you find at carboot sales and on Gumtree for less than a takeaway dinner – but they’re still perfectly usable.

An old MacBook in a bin, yesterday

Technology from the same era is equally cheap – and some of it’s pretty powerful, because today’s trash was yesterday’s cutting edge platform.

Like everything on GeeXtreme, this page will evolve as I try new things, find interesting bits of kit or get distracted – consider it an outline.

What’s retro, and what’s old?

Fortunately, defining what’s old, and junk, and what’s retro and valuable has become a lot easier as all of the computer companies of the ’70s and ’80s died off. If it is based on an Intel (or compatible AMD) processor, runs Windows or Mac OS primarily, and isn’t supported by the latest software or updates, you can consider it ‘old’. If it’s a design icon, comes from the ’80s or earlier, or you haven’t heard of the company making it or a few years, it’s retro.

It is possible to find uses for retro computers – when I started this site, those were the old ones people were throwing out – but for the most part, owners of Commodores and Amigas, Ataris, Sinclairs and Apple IIs just want them to be what they were when they were new.

Or to sell them for loads of money…

What can ‘junk’ computers do?

My main focus here is on music. We’ve reached a tipping point with technology that ‘decent processor power is cheap, we’ve had decades of development of software, and real synthesizers haven’t moved on much’. You can put together a really quite powerful and appealing synthesizer, organ or piano for less than £200, using all that ‘worthless’ processor power.

One of the great things about resurrecting an older computer for this sort of thing is that you get access to obsolete software that hasn’t been updated. This MacBook allows the use of GSi software’s WatKat – a Watkins Copicat clone – that won’t work on my newer machines.

And it also allows NeuronVS to run – a software version of the Hartmann Neuron synthesizer. Like every Mac this age, it runs Garageband which allows recording of audio and MIDI, and you can wrap the older VST to work as an AU, or just run it in UglyVSTi.

Adding a 2006-on MacBook, Mac Mini or iMac (though they’re bulky) to your existing music setup is made even more appealing if you’ve got an unused S/PDIF connector on your interface. The headphone/line output port includes a Mini-TOSLink optical output, which allows a clean digital signal without the need to buy an audio interface.

Because these machines are in limbo at a time when 32-bit plugins were still a thing, you can find all sorts of usupported and free, but still interesting, fun and genuinely useful instruments to run on them – like TAL software’s Roland-inspired emulations.

It also has a Firewire port. All those once-expensive, high-end audio interfaces, such as the Mackie Onyx, now sell for just a few pounds on eBay but often feature better quality, speed and stability than entry-level USB interfaces now.

MacBook Firewire-400 port - ready for all those unloved audio and video accessories

But they can also be used as dedicated arcade machines for retro gaming, be dedicated to video chat or similar, act as media centres or form part of a wider distributed network of computers for science (including working towards a cure for Covid-19). This can be done under Windows, Mac OS or Linux with the BOINC client, and projects such as Rosetta@Home.

Rosetta@home processing protein folding - including searching for a cure for Covid-19

Speaking of viruses, machines such as this can even be isolated on your network to protect your proper computer from malware or viruses when looking for stuff on the internet.

Apparently Minecraft mod sites and Roblox things are full of this sort of stuff (or so my experience cleaning up family computers tells me), so it’s of more use for protecting kids online than you might think…

And they can do everything they did when they were new, just as well as they did new, if restored and filled with the right software. Word processing in 2000, 2010 or 2020 really hasn’t changed all that much…

What’s worth the effort?

  • Core 2/Duo, i3 to i7 and AMD Athlon processors are easiest
  • Laptops come with screen, keyboard and touchpads, saving space
  • Desktops/workstations/servers have expansion slots for cool interfaces

When wandering the car boot sales and junk shops (do they still exist), it’s worth having an idea of what is worth bringing home. For example, I grabbed an original Intel iMac last year for £15; the screen is damaged. I could still make it do something – but why bother? I’d have got a lot more out of that £15 if I’d spent it on the old Dell rackmount server next to it.

Laptops still have a bit of ‘it’s worth money’ about them, but £50-60 is enough to get a mid-2006 onwards Core 2 system. On the whole, it’s not worth bothering with Atom/netbook class machines – they were pretty awful to begin with – and I’m a fan of ex-corporate Dell Latitudes and similar for this sort of project. They’re not pretty, but they’re tough and stable, and offer a lot of scope for upgrading.

Mac Minis – Intel, Core 2 Duo onwards – are good, but may attract a higher price. Make sure you get the power supply and other cables. Intel iMacs are also worth getting, but the aluminium ones are a better bet than the polycarbonate. If nothing else, the plastic iMacs are awful to work on…

Early Intel iMac with faulty LCD

For Mac laptops, anything aluminium-bodied and Intel is worth having; the PowerPC (iBook and MacBook G4, iBook G3 and older) are either collectible, or a bit of a pain to do anything useful with other than going back in time, if you can find the prototype iTachyon emitter Steve Jobs was developing.

Desktop PCs take up space and need a display (old LCD displays are cheap, or you can use many early LCD TVs as suitable monitors – with the advantage of big pixels for hanging on the wall/using at a distance). However, they have the advantage of expansion slots, so you can upgrade the graphics – or more usefully, take advantage of now-obsolete audio cards if building musical toys.

For electronic musicians, there’s little more appealing than a rack full of gear – and old A/V processors and servers provide rack-mounted PC hardware ideal for converting to a VST host or similar. Some may require hacks to the cooling system – designed for 24/7 operation with marginal ventilation – to silence them for studio use, but the end result can be quite impressive and powerful.

Upgrades and fixes?

Before doing anything else, it’s worth fitting a solid-state disk drive or SSD. These are now inexpensive for sizes around 128GB to 240/256GB, and will transform the speed and reliability of an old computer. What you need will depend on the system, but the majority of desktops and laptops will include some form of SATA drive.

Upgrade memory and install an SSD for decent performance

Old ‘spinning disks’ – traditional hard drives – are unlikely to be reliable at this age, wasting all the time you’ve spent making the computer work in the first place.

You’ll want a means of talking to the machine when setting it up and transferring files – old USB sticks are ideal for this, or you can buy a new one. You’ll also want to network it, which can be done by sharing a connection from WiFi to Ethernet if your machine won’t reach your router.

Memory is cheap now – and used memory is often perfectly good. Older computers – machines before 2007, as a vague rule – often won’t support over 4GB memory, limiting some of the applications they can be used for now; but 2010-onwards computers frequently have less, but support more. Find out what’s inside it and get the most you can reasonably afford.

Old laptop batteries can be a fire risk. If they don’t fit the computer properly, try it without the battery installed – if it works, use it without and buy a replacement when you’re happy with how it works, rather than wasting money beforehand.

Old laptop batteries can be a fire risk - will it work without it installed?

Apple MacBooks with sealed-in batteries can show issues with the trackpad as a warning things aren’t right – but will usually report a bad battery in the menu bar too.

Choosing an operating system

Geeks will already know what to install and how to find it; if you’re just getting started, it’s not too difficult to resurrect a machine. Look for the COA – certificate of authenticity – on a Windows computer. When picking a junk computer up, try to avoid anything that has ‘Windows Home’ variations – you want Professional or Ultimate (and you’ll probably want to turn off most of the Ultimate features).

Generally it’s fine to stick with whatever started on the computer, only upgrading versions to get features you’re lacking. For Macs, that means OS X 10.7.5 on a Core 2 Duo – which has the advantage of both 32-bit and 64-bit support, but these machines can be sent further back to OS X 10.6, or Snow Leopard, to run PowerPC apps too.

Mac OS X 10.7.5 on Macbook 2GHz

For AMD-based machines, I’d recommend going for Linux over Windows – but choosing a distribution is always awkward. At the very least avoid Windows Home, which is often found on lower-end AMD machines as they’re sold to consumers as budget or ‘high-value’ bundles.

Here’s one I made earlier…

GeeXtreme central - the Dell M6500 that runs MAME, BOINC and rosetta@home...

To keep things simple, I’m going to link to the systems I put together as I complete a given project – but in the meantime, if you’ve repurposed a junk computer to be useful, fun or entertaining, tag @geextreme_UK and #junkcomputer project and I’ll link to your projects! I’m sure there are far more creative things out there than what I’m doing, after all.