Got an old PC gathering dust in the closet? Clean it up, make a few modest upgrades, plug it into a high-speed network, and you'll be surprised how useful it can be.
That's been my project over the past few months. I took an old Celeron 400, with Windows 98, and turned it into Lou's Kitchen Sink Computer. It sits on my counter and serves admirably for Web browsing and music playback through my stereo. The LCD monitor also functions as a TV set.
The KSPC is an exercise in thinking differently about computers. We're getting away from the high-powered, pricy, do-everything workstation, to the more modestly configured for special purposes. I hesitate to draw a line on what's worth fixing up, and what's not. As long as your expectations are modest -- sorry, no gaming action -- I suspect the cutoff is around 300 megahertz, but your own preferences may vary. In fact, I wasn't sure I'd be able to tolerate the pokey old Celeron until I tried it.
The first step in recycling an old computer: Reformat the hard drive and reinstall Windows. Over time, PCs accumulate various software dust bunnies that can dramatically slow them down. Redo Windows and ditch most of the software that comes with it, and you'll be surprised how sprightly an old PC can become. Remember, the less you do with it, the better it will run
With Windows 98 and later, the procedure is straightforward. You use Windows to create a bootable floppy disk that contains formatting software. Then you wipe out everything on the hard drive and start afresh. (Hey, backup is your problem -- my computer was sitting in a closet).
Open the Control Panel, and click on Add/Remove Programs. Click on the Startup Disk tab, then click on the Create Disk button. You'll be prompted to insert a diskette, and Windows will proceed to copy everything you need to start in MS-DOS and format the drive. It will also install a driver for your CD-ROM, which will then enable you to install Windows from its CD.
There are some tricks and traps here. If you're using Windows 95, poor thing, the program will create a bootable disk but won't install the driver for your CD. You have to modify some files by hand. See www.compusmart.ab.ca/fenske/ support.htmwin95 for details.
Before you go any further, make sure your boot setup and floppy drive are working properly, and that you can use the CD after booting from the floppy. I mean, this is an old computer, and there's no telling what's out of whack. For the same reason, you definitely want to create a fresh startup disk and not rely on an old one that is possibly damaged.
Once the boot disk is created, test it to see if you can access your CD-ROM drive. To do this, restart the machine with the floppy disk in the floppy drive, and when the machine restarts, choose "Start with CD-ROM support." You should see the dreaded "A: " with nary a window in sight. Type in "d:" and hit Enter. The letter should change to "D: ", at which point you know you have a functioning CD drive. Now go back by typing "a: " and then "format c:" and hit Enter. The computer will then spend a while chugging through the drive, reformatting it. Remember: THIS WIPES OUT ALL INFORMATION ON THE HARD DRIVE. If there's anything you want to save, back it up first. Once format is complete, put your Windows 98 CD in the drive and type "d:setup", then Enter, to reinstall Windows.
The reinstall should improve performance, but there are a couple of other upgrades worth a look. For $15, it's worth adding 128 megabytes of RAM to a 64 meg system, but don't go overboard here because you can't reuse 4-year-old SIMMS memory modules with a new motherboard.
On the other hand, you can always use more storage, so a big hard drive (80- and 120-gigabyte units can be had cheap) is a good investment in the future and can always be transferred to a new PC, or reused if you upgrade to a state-of-the-art motherboard and processor. If you plan to archive your music CDs in an uncompressed format, figure on about 500 megabytes per album, or one-tenth that amount if you use MP3s.
A good LCD monitor should last you through two or three upgrade cycles. This is a very competitive and fast-changing market, so there's a fair number of discontinued models out there at bargain prices
When I'm in the upgrade mood, I usually take my time and keep an eye on a couple of Web sites to find refurbished and remaindered gear at steep discounts - as little as half what you'd normally pay list. The absolute best is www.hot-deals.org, which publishes great deals on computer gear that its readers have found, along with all sorts of rebate deals that can be applied to any product from a given vendor. I note that a recent bulletin features a Maxtor 80-gigabyte hard drive for a mere $69, after rebate, which is right in the ballpark for a cost-effective upgrade.
For memory prices, check out www.crucial.com. Crucial has an excellent online system for figuring out which type of memory module you'll need. You can usually beat their prices at half.com or eBay, but I usually don't find it worth the effort to use a less reliable supplier.
Ubid.com is another favorite for any kind of electronics gear, but you really have to know prices before you shop there. A while back, I picked up the display unit I use with my Kitchen Sink computer, a 15-inch Cornea Systems LCD with TV tuner, which was a bargain at around $300. I see there are still a couple available. Factor in shipping costs because they're usually pretty steep.
The trick to upgrading an old PC is to spend your money wisely on stuff you can use on your next-generation PC upgrade.
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