Your old computer, born again

Turn your old machines into media servers, e-mail stations and nodes to help with scientific research

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2. Use an old notebook as an e-mail terminal

With some older laptops, the trick is where you set up the system and not necessarily whether it's fast enough for every computing activity. For example, I used a five-year-old Toshiba Satellite 4600 to set up Yahoo Mail in full-screen mode (in Internet Explorer, just press F11). I then placed the computer in a hallway where any member of my family or a visiting friend can jump on it to check for messages.

E-mail terminal
Use an old laptop as an e-mail terminal; you can run the browser in full-screen mode by pressing F11 so that it hides other applications and options.

Granted, this terminal is not adequate for anything beyond basic Web browsing and e-mail, but it's only a click away for those who just need to write a quick note or update their Facebook or Twitter status.

The old Toshiba laptop is not fast enough for any other computing activities, but it has a bright screen and the keyboard works well (minus one missing function key). Because I keep just my e-mail up on the screen with no other apps running, this sluggish laptop works just fine for typing up e-mail replies, even if you can't use other apps.

3. Use your old PC + iTunes as a home media server

An old computer likely has a slow processor and not much RAM, but a setup like that is actually a good match for a media server's fairly low-key system requirements. The speed of the media server depends mostly on the hard disk drive and the type of controller -- if your system supports SATA and has fast hard drives, you can expect fairly good performance even if the processor is a bit outdated.

You'll need an optical drive to load music files onto the hard drive, an Ethernet card (or Wi-Fi capability) to connect to your local network to share the media files, and just enough RAM to run the media server. Usually you can get by with 2GB or so to run your operating system and one application.

The main advantage to setting something like this up is that you can keep the media server running at all times and have quick access to your files.

As far as software is concerned, I prefer Apple iTunes, not because it's necessarily the best media server or because it has extra features for sharing music, but because it's extremely well supported. For example, I tested the setup with a Logitech Squeezebox Radio, which found the iTunes files over my Wi-Fi network. Keep in mind that new software such as Sonos ZonePlayer S5 is more likely to support iTunes as a media server than are older apps.

Apple iTunes is also free, and it runs reliably.

It's also very easy to set up: Download the app from iTunes.com and install. Then load your music files. Now go to Edit-->Preferences. Click the Sharing tab and enable the "Share my library..." option. This makes your media files available to other devices.

One quick note about power savings. Your older PC probably does not have a recent Intel Core processor such as the i5 or i7, so it won't shut down threads on the processor when they are not in use to save power. You may want to consider an upgrade if the processor is not 80-plus certified, a rating that means the system runs efficiently and doesn't waste energy.

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