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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That said, you can set your media PC to blank the screen and power down the hard disk after just a few minutes to save power, a setting under Windows power management. Note that if you do make these changes, your server might take a few seconds to come back online when you try to access files.

Overall, the server was quite speedy in all of my tests and everything worked well -- streaming video files to my Sony PlayStation over Wi-Fi, running backups from a spare laptop and copying a large collection of music files. Note that my server did not support Gigabit Ethernet on the network card, but a simple upgrade would speed up file transfer speeds as well (if you use a Gigabit Ethernet router).

4. Turn any older PC into a gaming rig

Gamers know that the most critical component on any PC is a high-end graphics card. Without one, even if you have a fast processor and loads of RAM, recent games such as Aliens vs. Predator or Left 4 Dead 2 will still run slowly. The newer graphics cards are powerful enough and provide enough RAM to handle the pixel-pushing mayhem of just about any shooter, even if the CPU is a bit outdated.

I used an older PC that used to be a home server and still runs the Windows Home Server operating system, and added an AsusTek 8800GTS graphics card that's about a year old and has 512MB of memory. It's not a DirectX 11 card, which means it won't work with some of the very latest games (such as Battlefield: Bad Company 2) but it does support the vast majority of newer games.

A new gaming rig
Snap the graphics card (shown on right) into place, and install the new power supply. This old server has a fan that's been used so much that the edges are starting to wear out.

This upgrade is fairly easy, but you'll need a power supply that has two six-pin PCI-Express cables, such as the ThermalTake Toughpower. That's because the graphics card is very power-hungry and requires the extra power cables.

To upgrade, first remove the old graphics card. Snap the new graphics card into the PCI Express slot and connect the PCI-E cables. You'll need the latest graphics driver for the card you use.

Now, you might wonder: Does this really work? Is a graphics card upgrade really enough to revive an older system? As a sanity test, I used a second old PC equipped with an older AMD Athlon processor and installed the same power supply and the same AsusTek graphics card. Then I tested the game Aliens vs. Predator. As most gamers know, you can quickly tell the difference between a PC that handles games well and one that's sluggish. With the card installed, the game ran smoothly and never had any annoying graphics slowdowns or frame-rate problems.

In fact, both systems ran smoothly -- I knew I could buy another GPU for the second PC and use it as a spare gaming machine. If the PC processor is older than five years, this upgrade might not work, however.

5. Turn an old system into a Folding@Home system

Here's an upgrade for any older netbook or notebook that's not only easy, but gives you an opportunity to help a worthy cause.

<"http://folding.stanford.edu/" target="new">Folding@Home is a project developed at Stanford University. Once you download the client, your computer becomes a "node" on the Stanford network and runs scientific calculations to help researchers understand protein folding and, in turn, to find cures for cancer and other diseases.

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