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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When you try the "Watch Instantly" feature for the first time, you'll see an installer download. Netflix uses the Microsoft Silverlight service for streaming movies. After the installer is downloaded, you won't need to download the movies; they will play "instantly" after a few seconds of buffering.

To use the "Watch Instantly" feature, you'll need at least a broadband connection that runs at 1Mbit/sec. or more, or you'll see a lot of buffering. With enough speed, movies stream quite well even on older PCs. But if the monitor you use is so old that the screen isn't bright and clear, you'll forgo some picture quality.

In my tests, movies playing on a Samsung 2233SW monitor looked crisp and colorful. I also used a Sonos ZonePlay S5 speaker for playing the sound in very high quality directly from the PC audio card; even though the sound card is old, it still played movie audio just fine. Really, the quality depends on the speaker system you use.

9. Try home automation using Hawking Tech gear

Home automation is another computing activity that does not need a powerful desktop or notebook computer. For the most part, you would be using a computer as a video surveillance system but you'd also be using it to automate other functions, such as turning lights on and off.

I used the Hawking Technologies HomeRemote Pro system with an older home-built desktop system running an AMD Athlon 64 processor with 3GB of RAM. The Hawking kit comes with a router that was easy to set up, a security camera that connects to the router over a wireless network and optional modules you can use for controlling lights and home appliances.

Old PC reborn

I went with the basic security kit with just the video cameras instead of the optional light and appliance modules. Hawking provides a security application I installed on the desktop. The advantage here is that this system can reside anywhere -- even in a hallway or a bedroom -- and show you a security feed without any other apps running.

After setup, I was able to see a video stream from a front door security camera (the Hawking HRPC1) and even view a night vision feed from a second camera (the HRPC2). The main advantage of using this Hawking system is that it can be expanded into many other areas of home automation -- you can configure the system to work with inside and outside lights, for example, and set it to turn off the lights when you go to bed. You can also tap in remotely to check on the security camera feeds or turn off lights.

I was impressed with how the security app ran for home surveillance -- I never had any crashes, and it was great to have the system running in a side room in my house so I could just glance at the PC to see who was at the front door.

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