There comes a time when every computer has lived out its usefulness. What to do with old hardware?
Manage Your Risks
First of all, consider the risks. Running any Windows version earlier than Windows 10 is a huge risk. Older versions of Windows including: 7, Vista, XP, or 8 are no longer secure, are not patched by Microsoft, and will just expose you to a world of pain. If your computer is new enough to run Windows 10, you can pay to upgrade it (the free upgrade path ended long ago), but it will still be an old computer.
You can take it to your local Eco-centre for recycling. In Edmonton, these are all over the city and they take your computer for free. Computers for Schools will give you a tax receipt for your donation. There are also recycling depots set up in mall locations from time to time. But simply handing off your computer “as is” opens you to the risk of any documents, personal information, credit card numbers, and passwords being recovered by whoever eventually takes delivery of that computer.
You can remove the hard drive and give it to your kids to disassemble. (It is also an interesting educational activity to see how a hard drive is constructed and there are some very fun, rare earth magnets inside.) If you have no kids, sledge hammers can help you excise your COVID rage and also render the drive inoperable. For a more professional option, Atlas will provide a forensic level erasure of your hard drive complete with an audit certificate that the data cannot be recovered and return the scrubbed drive to you.
Give it a New Life
There are other options. Just because a computer is old to you doesn’t mean it has no value. With so many kids learning from home, and so many people working from home, a repurposed older computer may be a godsend. But if it can’t run Windows, what good is it?
There are other options. You could turn it into a Chromebook or install Linux on it. Both are great options for older computers and you can usually get good performance because neither option is the bloated, hardware intensive Operating System that Windows is/was.
This is a DYI project for you, your son or daughter, a family member or a friend; but installation media, information, and instructions are readily available on the internet. Conversion takes about an hour.
Google created Chromebooks as a hardware platform for its web browser. A Chromebook is a computer that basically runs a web browser but can also run Android apps. They are inexpensive machines that are great for remote learning, integrate well with Google Workspace (and Google Apps for Education) and have other features like touchscreens, USB and HDMI connections. They do however require a WiFi connection to provide any reasonable amount of functionality. Using the full Microsoft Office suite might be a stretch (although it does exist as Android apps), but Chromebooks work well with Google apps such as gmail, docs, sheets, slides, and the like.
While Chromebooks are a brand name and are purchased as such, there are “Chrome-like” implementations that can be installed on an older computer. One option is Neverware’s CloudReady. CloudReady is compatible with over 350 different older computers. Instructions are very easy to follow.
CloudReady gives your at-home-learner a machine with the look and feel of a Chromebook so they can share tips with their friends. Your older hardware, because it was built for older Windows, may even be more capable than new off-the-shelf Chromebooks.
Maybe you’re not familiar with Linux. Well, 90% of all Cloud servers run Linux, and 96% of the top million servers in the world run Linux. If you’ve ever used a Macintosh OSX computer, then you’ve used Linux. Linux comes in many “flavours” or varieties. They have names like SuSE, RedHat, CentOS, Apple OSX, to name a few. The one I’m recommending is Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a Zulu word meaning “a quality that includes the essential human virtues; compassion and humanity.” I like that sentiment.
Ubuntu also has a pleasant, easy to use graphical interface. If you’re used to Macintosh, then you’ll get how Ubuntu works; they share the same geneology. Ubuntu is a very lean OS. Even if your old hardware won’t run CloudReady, it will likely be able to run Ubuntu. And there is a Zoom package and other standard software available for Linux. You’re not going to find Microsoft software to run in Linux, but Web Apps like Google Workspace (Docs, Sheets, Slides, Meet, Chat, Drive, Gmail, Calendar, Contacts…) are right at home here. A different open-source office suite is also installed out of the box.
I tried to convert an old Toshiba Satellite L300D laptop (originally with Windows Vista) into a Chromebook. The computer wasn’t on the certified list for CloudReady and the install was unsuccessful. A Linux install was successful. I tried to install Zoom using a graphical installer and ran into problems. But Zoom also includes instructions for a command-line installer and that installed with no problems.
Both options can give your old computer a new lease on life. Both operating systems are free to download and install and there are no licensing costs. Both options are also more secure than an unpatched Windows system. Linux is used by so much of the Internet, and Chrome is a supported OS that is reliable and secure–in large part because it doesn’t store a lot of data locally.
Chromebooks can also be managed and integrated as part of a corporate Google Workspace account. Lost Chromebooks can be locked (or “bricked”) or erased remotely when they next show up on a network. I also found out today that both Ubuntu and Chromebooks can run Minecraft (as your child about that if you don’t know what it is).
But remember that your hardware is still old; it will fail eventually, but probably not today. Be sure to manage your data backup and expectations accordingly.
Old computers can be recycled, but make sure you manage the risks of having your data scrubbed first. They can also make good give-away gifts to children struggling with at-home-learning or family or neighbours trying to book time on the family machine to do their email. You can even put a recycled gift under the tree and impress your family with your enviro-consciousness. Bows not included.