10 Worthwhile Ways to Breathe New Life Into Old Computers

I don’t like to throw away an old computer unless it truly no longer works. A computer might not work any more for a specific purpose, but as long as it can still do something, I try to find a use for it. In fact, if I have a good idea floating around in my head, I’ll even look out for inexpensive older desktop computers and laptops on places like Craigslist, take them home, reformat them, and put them to some specific use. Back in the day, I also used to go to public sales at the local university where they sold outdated computers, buying them for these kinds of specific purposes.

This is a great way to take something out of your closet that’s just gathering dust and is probably on its way to the landfill and turn it into something useful again. There are many, many uses for old PC hardware that go beyond writing an email or checking a website.

Here are 10 great uses for old computers, laptops, and tablets.

Kitchen Computer

A computer in the kitchen is a great tool for looking up recipes and listening to streaming audio while cooking. It’s a purpose that’s wonderfully suited for an older tablet computer or an old laptop or even an old desktop if you have an off-counter place to store the hardware and have a few longer cords to use.

Simply wipe the computer and start from scratch with a basic operating system on it, then put a few applications on there like Paprika and AllRecipes for recipe research, Kindle if you have some cookbooks in Kindle format, and some audio apps like Spotify and a podcast manager.

A great setup for this would be an older iPad with these apps and a pair of Bluetooth speakers. Simply run a power cord to that old iPad, set it up so that it’s standing (perhaps using an old cover, if you have one), and put some inexpensive Bluetooth speakers in your kitchen that the iPad is always connected to. Fire up a music or podcast player and get some audio running in your kitchen, then look up a recipe. Sit the iPad off to the side so that you can see the recipe while preparing the meal and enjoy the audio that’s streaming from the iPad.

Guest Computers

If you have an old desktop computer that you can stick at a desk in an out-of-the-way corner, or you have an old laptop, you can simply reinstall a very basic version of Windows, install a bunch of security updates, and set it up so that it can be easily used by guests for things like checking email or social media or looking up websites.

Personally, I find that this is a perfect use for Linux, as it can run on very old hardware and it can provide a secure, Windows-like environment for people to do basic web browsing and web-based email checking. Zorin is a wonderful free place to start if you want to try this out, as it’s intended to be as much like Windows as possible. If you want something that emulates a Mac really well, try Elementary OS. (More on this later.)

Here’s a great guide for setting up a guest account on a computer of almost any kind.

Try Out Linux (or Another OS)

If you’ve ever wanted to try out an alternative to Windows on a PC, an old PC is a perfect place to do it. You can simply wipe out the operating system and install something new in its place.

There are a lot of alternatives to Windows out there. I’m a particularly big fan of Ubuntu Linux as a starting point, but Zorin is another good option if you’re coming from Windows, or Elementary OS if you’re coming from a Mac.

What’s the advantage to even trying another OS? They’re free. The options above, at least, are very stable. It’s very secure unless you’re trying to do something specifically with it that makes it less secure. If you’re trying to learn how to program a computer, it’s a brilliant environment for that, as it usually has everything you need to learn a bunch of computer languages.

Entertainment Center

Another great option is to turn your old PC into a home entertainment center. Windows does this extremely well – the Windows Store allows you to download apps for all kinds of streaming media and then displays them on a menu that’s really easy to navigate with a remote. The only thing you’ll probably need is a Bluetooth remote control and possibly a cable or two, though having a keyboard and a mouse attached to the computer might be useful sometimes, too.

Once you have this set up, it functions much like an Apple TV or an Amazon Fire stick except you’re not locked into being presented the content from those providers first. Rather, you can pick and choose what you want to see first and it’s easy to change options and interfaces if you’re familiar with Windows. This is a great way to start if you’re interested in cord cutting.

Another nice feature of this is that you can create a “screen saver” of sorts for your television, where you essentially turn on a “slide show” application and it can display all kinds of family pictures that you’ve accumulated on your television while you’re not using it.

Speaking of which…

Digital Photo Frame

If you have an older laptop or tablet, or you have a smaller flat screen monitor and a small PC or Mac you can stow somewhere nearby, it’s easy to turn those items into a digital photo frame that can just continually display family photos or other images that you’d like to be displayed. Many flat panel monitors can be easily wall mounted with their cords dropped through a small drywall hole, for example, or a tablet can be set up on a table with a cord running down to a power supply.

Almost all operating systems have an app of some kind that will continuously display photos from a folder on an endless loop. Just fill up that folder with the images you want to see, start the app, and leave the display sitting there showing the images. One great strategy is to point the photo display program at a shared folder on Dropbox so that you can continually update the photos without making any changes to the device at all. It just runs forever, displaying the loop of images.

This is a great use for an old tablet or for a small older PC or an old Mac Mini. They’re up to the task of running such a simple program for a very long time without interruption, and it uses very little power.

Gaming Rig

I currently have two older machines working for this exact purpose. One is an old PC that’s currently running Steam OS and attached to a television. It plays a wide variety of PC games that are controlled with a normal USB video game controller and shows on the television. It plays a bunch of games from my Steam account.

Another is a home-built Raspberry Pi device (basically a micro PC about the size of a credit card) that exists solely to run emulations of really old video games from my childhood years. It also has two controllers attached to it and hooks up to a television. Here’s how this was done – I received the components as a Christmas gift a few years ago. (The legality of video game emulation of abandoned software titles is in a grey area – just stay away from games that are currently available elsewhere, because that’s not a grey area.) You can do this with an old PC as well.

These consoles essentially function as video game consoles attached to the television, except that the consoles are just old PCs and the games are really cheap. You won’t be able to play the latest and greatest 3D jaw-dropping graphic games with this setup, but you’ll have access to tons of incredibly enjoyable titles.

Security Monitor / Video Surveillance System

One of my good friends repurposed a PC so that all it shows is a constant stream of the input from six different video cameras on his property. Three of them are for home security and the other three are for wildlife monitoring. He keeps it running all the time in his home workspace so he can see if anyone comes to the door.

While this does require some investment in cameras, using an old PC to monitor the video coming from those cameras and perhaps relay the video to a service that allows you to view the video remotely on your smartphone is a great use for an old PC, as it can definitely handle that kind of work.

For example, let’s say you work from home and want a camera by the front door and a camera in the nursery and a camera off the back deck to watch for wildlife. You could easily set up an old PC to constantly stream video from all three cameras for you in your workspace.

If you’re interested in doing this, here’s a great guide for turning your old computer into a video surveillance system.

Make a Starter PC for a Family Member or a Friend

Let’s say that you have a family member or a friend who would love to have their own personal computer to use for things like email, social media, and web surfing. This is a great use for an old computer. You can simply do a fresh install of Windows (or your preferred OS, like Linux mentioned above), install basic security software and a good web browser, and hand it over to them.

This is a great gift for a child who is starting to reach the age where they need to get homework done on a computer, an adult who might not be able to afford a PC of their own, someone in a retirement home who can use the Wi-Fi there to get online, and so on.

Often, for people who need such a computer, a gifted computer like this is a godsend and can make a great positive impact on their life. If you keep it simple, it shouldn’t require much effort or much maintenance on your part, either.

Donate It

Another use for an old computer that’s just sitting around your home is to donate it. There are many, many charities that can put an older computer to good use, whether for an additional desktop computer for office work, a print server, or something else entirely. It may even be repurposed and given to someone in need.

Before doing this, you would want to carefully clean the entire computer to the best of your ability, inside and out, and wipe all data thoroughly from the computer using a tool like DBAN. The goal is to make sure that wherever the computer winds up, it’s not going to retain any of your personal information.

Don’t just dump a computer on the front step of an organization, either. You’ll want to talk to that organization first and make sure that they actually want the old computer and have a good use for it. Otherwise, you’ve just dumped an additional problem on a charity that’s probably already struggling for time and resources.

Use It for Distributed Computing

One final thing you can do with an old computer is use it for distributed computing. There are many projects out there that will happily use the processing power of your computer to take on a complex data analysis task for the benefit of mankind.

Perhaps the best example of this is Folding @ Home, which is a project that uses computers in people’s homes to do data crunching needed to come up with cures for diseases. The analysis required to come up with many disease cures requires an absurd number of calculations, so the problems are split into tiny pieces and distributed to computers all over the world running the Folding @ Home application.

This is very easy to do, as once you have it set up and running on a PC or Mac, you can just leave it running in the corner without even a keyboard or mouse or monitor installed. It’ll run automatically, swapping data with the Folding @ Home servers and crunching those numbers. It will eat a bit of electricity in doing so, but the processing power is incredibly valuable in terms of being able to solve major health problems.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.