Last weekend I rescued an old friend. She was once popular and even trendy, but for the past couple of years she had been living alone in a basement. She looked good despite a growing collection of dust. The rescue made both of us feel good, especially since I was able to put her to work.
You may have an old computer or two in a closet, basement or attic. I put my old machines there, too, but usually it's only because I don't know what else to do with them. I’m not quite ready to throw them on the junk heap.
There are better ways.
For one thing, you can always give the computer away. A quick Google search of the terms “donate computer" will help you find groups no matter where you live. Donating is a fine and generous act. Over the years I've donated at least six computers to groups or people.
But in some cases, you may also be able to put an old computer to work right in your home. That's what I did with my basement rescue. It now serves as a helper in my ham radio room, keeping track of contacts I've made and looking up locations of the other radio operators I visit with on the air.
While I suspect most of you won't be doing anything like that, there are plenty of more ordinary uses for an aging and underpowered computer. I'll give you some examples.
My wife and I love to cook. Most of our recipes are scrawled on slips of paper. My chilli recipe, for instance, is gradually disappearing under a coating of chilli powder and cumin. Any working computer— no matter how old—would do a great job as a kitchen computer. Besides storing recipes, it could keep inventories of what you have on hand and then create shopping lists. With wireless access to the Internet, it can send those lists to a printer on your network, or roam the Net to hunt up new recipes.
Of course a kitchen—with its heat, water and grease—isn't the most hospitable location for a computer. So locate it well out of the line of fire and also make sure it's connected to an outlet with ground fault protection (nowadays most bathroom and kitchen outlets have that protection, just be sure). Most office supply stores sell plastic dust covers for computers, and that's an excellent idea for a kitchen computer.
If the computer eventually breaks down because of the environment, well you haven't lost much—especially if you're able to connect it to a network so that your recipes are stored away in another location.
Another great use for an aging computer is as a guest and kid machine. That way your own information is safe from prying eyes or careless use. If it breaks, well, again, you haven't lost much.
My uncle, an electrical engineer who spent part of his career working on operating systems, keeps one computer isolated from his home network. Information stored there is completely safe from hackers. And if a destructive virus or worm slips by his protection, the computer in isolation hums on with no problem. So it becomes a storage point for financial records and sensitive material. Properly backed up, it does a great job. In most cases, your old computer can do that just fine. A more recent computer with a large hard disk could even serve as an online backup server. In many cases, that's asking too much from an antique. It all depends on what you have on hand.
The great thing about all this is that by letting an old machine share part of the computer load in your home, you are freeing up your best computers for the most important work—killing space aliens and playing online canasta.
©2008/The New York Times