This old PC: Put your dinosaur machine to work in practical and whimsical ways

Monday, October 23rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Doug Bedell / The Dallas Morning News

Dead computers find life in Jim Lower's home.

Discarded IBM PCs are transformed into litter boxes for his cat Sylvester. Beloved, but antiquated Apple machines become elegant "Macquariums" for exotic tropical fish living at 128 bps (bubbles per second).

"It's my art," says Mr. Lower.

This high-tech Heloise is formulating plans to turn discarded PC towers into flip-top garbage cans and unbootable Apple Powerbooks into ant farms in his Sarasota, Fla., home.

But, like the rest of modern America, Mr. Lower has found it challenging to develop creative uses for the expanding supply of compu-junk piling up in closets, garages and attics.

Without options for reusing old machines, more than 70 million computers will wind up clogging municipal dumps by 2004, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.

Many city sanitation departments, wary of mounting lead contamination from monitors and other hardware, are restricting what techno trash will be accepted for pickup.

In fact, a nationwide firm, Resource Concepts, has capitalized on new federal rules that prohibit governments and corporations from mass computer dumping. Resource Concepts is making millions by charging large companies hefty fees to haul away tons of 5-year-old desktop models for recycling.

Right now, home users can still discard computers in trash in most major cities.

"But it's really a gray area because they do contain pollutants," says Jim Glenn, Resource Concepts regional sales manager. "Policies on that are already changing, especially up on the East Coast where they already have tremendous landfill problems."

So the 30 million to 60 million of us who still have 286, 486 and other pre-Pentium computers face a challenge: What to do with this old PC/Mac?

Fear not. With so much free junk available, some of the best minds in the world are at work to solve the problem. Here are some of the top ideas from artful minds applied to this trashy subject.

Make it a Web appliance

The key reason we have so many obsolete machines is not processing power but bloatware. Operating systems are now crammed with features that many people never use but that require more electronic resources.

In the 1992 paper "Neo-Luddite Computer Solution," Virginia multimedia designer Peter Sugarman called for a rebellion.

"The computer industry is a chicken on growth hormones, sloshing around in a nutrient bath with its head cut off," Mr. Sugarman wrote. "Hardware is out of date as soon as it's installed. Program bloat is rampant, outstripping ever larger hard drives."

Sadly, it has taken years for someone to come up with alternative systems that stop the madness. Now several software companies, such as NewDeal, offer a compelling way to repurpose your beige box dinosaur.

NewDeal's software, available for trial at, looks similar to Windows and Office, only smaller and easier to use. It offers four levels of simplicity for its desktop icons, e-mail, browser, chat, a 100-kilobyte word processor, spreadsheet, database, drawing program, calendar, graphics, HTML editor and more.

Suddenly that 286 you're using for a doorstop can be wired to a household network to provide cheap Web connections anywhere in the home.

Clive Smith, NewDeal's founder and chairman, says the computer industry has alienated consumers and ignored a significant segment of consumers who don't want to dispose of older machines.

"The used car industry is six times bigger than the new," Mr. Smith says. "The only reason the used computer industry isn't bigger now is that Microsoft and others have pulled the software out of the market."

NewDeal is already pushing refurbished, cheap computers into educational institutions. Currently, he says, 100 school systems across the country are using his product, including all 73 schools of the Oakland, Calif., system.

Just emerging from a year of market-testing its packages, NewDeal is getting noticed. Networking visionary Bob Metcalfe has sung its praises, and Fortune has tagged NewDeal as one of its Cool Companies 2000.

"People don't want to get rid of working computers," says Mr. Smith. "And there's no reason to throw them away if you put our software inside."

Hold on to it

Sometimes those classics hold hidden value – especially old Apple machines.

If you've got a working Lisa, a pre-Macintosh Apple computer, along with manuals and software, it could command $300 or more on auction sites such as eBay (

Apple aficionados are known for their brand loyalty, and that's not likely to change. The sight of a functioning Lisa is enough to make many swoon.

"None of mine worked when I tore them up and made them into aquariums," says Mr. Lower. "But if they had, I'd be sick right now, seeing some of the prices they're getting."

For those with ancient Commodore 64 and 128 beasts, Creative Micro Designs ( in East Longmeadow, Mass., sells a surprising array of software and power-enhancing hardware via catalog.

Adding a lBank Street Writer word processor or Flexidraw graphics package to the old war horse can return it to the computer workforce. Despite running on 1980s Commodore architecture, many of the available word processors look as modern as any others sold today. Most come with spell-checker, macros, mail merge and spreadsheet functions.

Upgrade it

For people with later-model Pentium-based PCs – 100 MHz or more – upgrading the motherboard and CPU is tempting but fraught with economic peril.

In many cases, consumers will find modernizing machines to function with Windows 98 is more expensive than buying a cheap new system from mail-order discount houses.

Elevating a 100 MHz machine to the meager 233 MHz Pentium II level can require a new motherboard (about $50), processor (about $50) and accessories. If you don't perform this surgery yourself, the labor at custom shops can quickly make the entire ordeal financially unfeasible.

Beyond that, says John Staples of Computer Junction, Dell, Compaq and other popular packages don't allow much latitude for upgrading their older products.

"In many cases, name-brand computers have such proprietary products in them," he says. "You can't just upgrade a 166 to 800 MHz because you can't replace the motherboard. It's proprietary to the box."

Scavenge it

For those with a little savvy, old computers can be the source of replacement parts and useful add-ons to high-end home systems.

Rip into the box and pull out the floppy drive, CD-ROM and hard drive. Hard drives can be added to new systems to add storage capacity for MP3, video and other space-eating files.

Mr. Staples has many clients who have found them useful for system backups. Others turn them into games-only drives for their children.

"That keeps the kids away from the operating system, where their installations often cause damage," Mr. Staples says.

Turn it into a TV

With a functioning Windows 95/98 computer, the simple addition of a high-end graphics card can transform that old computer and monitor into a new TV.

ATI's All-in-Wonder video card and a similar Hauppage product are popular alternatives to destruction that cost less than $100. Make sure to check the minimum specifications before you buy.

Linux learning box

The Linux operating system may be difficult to learn, but its impact on the Internet is undeniable.

Most Internet service providers are run on Web servers powered by Linux. It is the platform of choice for hackers and computer programming graduates now merging with the new Internet workforce.

The Linux operating system is available free for download in various configurations on multiple Web sites, but consumer-grade versions can run easily on an old IBM-compatible 386 with 8 megabytes of RAM and a simple 3.5-inch floppy drive.

The graphical desktop of XWindows provides a friendlier interface than the lean, traditional text-only Linux mode, but it requires more hard disk space.

For children who show programming promise, that old PC can be the ticket to a bright, productive future.

Many commercial Linux packages, such as the new Linux 7.0 ($29.95), require CD-ROM drives for installation. Most come with a version of the popular Apache Web Server, which is automatically set up during installation.

With several months of self-education, a novice can gradually transform that old beige box into a valuable home network Web or intranet server.

Novel alternatives

American ingenuity is evidently hard at work on beige box trash. "People have been turning old cars into sculptures for years now," says Mr. Smith. "Why throw away computers?"

Some of the more creative uses are on display in specialty magazines and on Web sites. They include:

•Macquariums. Mr. Lower, the Big Daddy of the genre, has built more than 50 of these attractive alternatives. His Web site ( has drawn attention – and buyers – from as far as Switzerland.

"I don't do this for a living or anything, but I've thought about it," says Mr. Lower. Details of his construction plans are free. Mr. Lower also gives away his cat box specs.

Elsewhere, Carl Blake of Waterloo, Iowa, sells MacAquarium plans from his MacAquarium retail outlet and Web site ( He is apparently the first person to locate a steady supply of colored iMac cases for his iMacquarium creation.

•Terrariums. Mr. Blake markets plans for converting Macintosh shells into havens for pet spiders, snakes and plants. "To see the old Macs being thrown away was a serious problem," says Mr. Blake. "Something more could be done to extend their active life cycle."

•Manufacturer recycling. Not all old PCs have trade-in value. With some computer makers, such as Gateway (, you can trade in your old PC when you buy a new one.

If your old PC doesn't have any trade-in value, you can still receive money for it. With the new Gateway Your:)Ware recycling program, qualified buyers will receive a rebate of up to $50 when they purchase new PCs and donate or recycle their old PCs.

The International Association of Recyclers maintains a search engine for recycler companies and locations at

•Compu-totem poles. Some inventive sculptors have begun fusing old monitors and PC towers together in a stack resembling a futuristic totem pole with keyboards as arms. In California, compu-totems are being used in homes and offices as coat racks.

•JerkyCade. Some dude named Jerky has put up complete instructions on turning old PCs into impressive arcade-like consoles. See the JerkyCade in all its glory at

Donate it

It's getting harder to persuade even charitable organizations to take compu-trash. Some are just swamped with the stuff, so it's best to call to see if they want it before loading up the car trunk.

To find out more about these organizations' needs, check out Goodwill ( or the Salvation Army (, a new service, has created an online service for sharing computer hardware. Freeboxen makes it easy to post your unwanted hardware and give it to a thankful recipient. You can also use Freeboxen to claim the hardware that people are giving away.

When all else fails, sell!

Some people will buy anything. Take advantage of their esoteric desires by offering your once-expensive treasures for sale.

Online outlets for used computers, both working and nonworking, abound on the Internet.

One of the most visited sites is PeteWeb (, "The Home of PC Refurbishing."