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HolidayBuyer's Guide
Laptops

7 cool ways to reuse an old laptop

Breathe new life into your dusty relic of a portable PC.

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OK, maybe not this old.

Matt Flynn

Everything old is new again. That applies not just to bell-bottoms and cassette tapes (seriously, tapes are staging a comeback), but also your old tech.

You've already learned how to repurpose an old tablet; now let's focus on that laptop you've kept in the back of your closet these many years. Even if it's a slow, virus-infested mess, you might be surprised at how much more life you can squeeze out of it. You probably won't have to spend any money, either.

But, first: Assess its condition

First things first: Does it boot? If it has, say, a bum hard drive, a cracked screen or missing/broken keyboard keys, it might be time for the junk/recycling heap. It's not difficult or expensive to replace a hard drive, but obviously there is a cost.

But if the hardware is still good, you've got lots of options. The most obvious one: reformat the hard drive and reinstall Windows. (You've already moved your data to your new laptop, right?) That's worth considering if you have the necessary media (namely a bootable Windows disc and/or flash drive), but it might not be necessary. In fact, assuming the machine runs an older version of Windows, it might not even be wise from a security standpoint. (Best bet if you plan to stick with Windows: Do a clean install of Windows 10.)

Let's take a look at some cool and practical ways to get that old laptop up and running again.

The old standby: Install Linux

Ubuntu

This is perhaps my favorite option, because it accomplishes so many things at once. When you install Linux, it overwrites (optionally, but preferably) your existing OS, warts and all. In its place is a fast-booting, virus-resistant, Windows-like environment capable of just about anything.

In case you're unfamiliar with it, Linux is an open-source operating system that can run thousands of programs -- including, notably, office suites like LibreOffice and OpenOffice. It can run browsers such as Chrome, Firefox and Opera; games, like Civilization V and Minecraft; mail clients, like Thunderbird; and Photoshop-level image editors, like GIMP.

Need a program that's only available for Windows? A tool called PlayOnLinux can probably run it within Linux.

If there's a downside, it's that some areas of Linux have a learning curve, especially when it comes to configuring certain settings. And you may encounter some compatibility issues with external devices like printers.

That said, I highly recommend giving your old laptop a Linux makeover. The only real question: Which version (or "distro," short for distribution) of Linux? There are lots to choose from, with Mint and Ubuntu being arguably the most popular, the former coming closest to replicating the Windows UI.

Not sure how to proceed? Stay tuned for a how-to guide on installing Linux.

Turn it into a Chromebook

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Welcome to Chromium, old laptop!

Neverware

What is a Chromebook but a regular laptop with limited processing power and a Google-powered interface that doesn't need a lot of processing power?

Thus, your old laptop should be more than up to the task of running that OS, which is called Chromium. Why choose that over Linux? In part because it runs nimbly on even the most modest hardware, and in part because it's Google through-and-through -- a fact that might appeal to Android users and others who partake of Google's ecosystem.

Indeed, if all you want from your old PC is a web browser and cloud apps, Chromium might be your best bet. And there are at least two free and easy ways to get it: Cub Linux and Neverware's Cloudready. I'm partial to the latter, but it's very easy to try both.

Make your own network-attached storage (NAS) system

If your old laptop has a reasonably spacious hard drive inside, consider dedicating it to a single, awesome purpose: network-attached storage, or NAS.

It's not a new concept; the idea is basically to connect a big drive to your home network, then make the contents of that drive accessible to all your devices: PCs, phones, tablets and the like. Even better, you can access the drive not just at home, but anywhere you're connected. Instead of dumping all your photos to the cloud, you can dump them to your NAS. Instead of storing movies on your phone, you can stream them from your NAS. Get the idea?

The oldie-but-goodie choice for this: FreeNAS. It's designed for sharing files both locally and online, and it offers media-streaming features as well. It runs off a bootable CD or flash drive, from which it sets up an IP address for your PC. Presto: Quick and easy remote access to the laptop hard drive.

Build your own home media center

Craig Simms/CNET

This is a slightly different animal than a media server. The idea is to turn your laptop into a media center that serves your TV, connecting directly to it for everything from recording broadcast TV stations to watching Netflix on the big screen.

I'll be honest: I don't see a ton of value in this option. Netflix isn't hard to come by, and many older laptops lack the horsepower necessary for DVR duty. (Plus you need a tuner, antenna, remote, so on.) Heck, if yours doesn't have an HDMI output, the project is pretty much done before it starts.

That said, if you want to give it a try, check out this tutorial on setting up a home media center with Kodi.

Donate its brain to science

Remember SETI@home? It's still a thing. In fact, it started being a thing so long ago, you might not recognize the name. SETI@home connects your PC to a distributed network, harnessing its processor to help analyze radio telescope data. In other words, now your leftover laptop can help with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

All you do is download the Boinc software (available for Windows, Mac and -- hint-hint -- Linux), then choose SETI@home from the list of available projects.

If aliens aren't your thing, Boinc also enables this kind of "volunteer computing" for things like medical research and climate analysis. The only cost to you is the electricity and (very minimal) bandwidth needed to keep the laptop running.

Turn it into a webcam

iSpy

Admit it: You've always worried that someone was using your laptop's webcam to spy on you. Turn the tables with iSpy, an open-source video-surveillance app for Windows. With it your old laptop becomes a surveillance camera, one you can use to monitor kids, pets, babysitters, the outdoors or just about anything else.

This could come in really handy if you want a cheap way to keep tabs on, say, a sleeping baby. On the plus side, iSpy is free for local use (meaning within your own home), but if you want to view your webcam remotely, the service costs $7.95 per month.

Turn it into a digital photo frame

"Say, didn't that used to be your laptop?"

Patxipt

For the serious DIY-er, there's nothing quite so satisfying as stripping down a laptop to its bare parts, then turning one of those parts into something cool -- in this case a digital photo frame. After all, that big, high-resolution screen should be put to good use, right?

There are lots of online tutorials devoted to this subject; I recommend the aptly named Digital photo frame from laptop on Instructables. It's pretty straightforward: take apart the laptop, put the screen into a frame, mount the guts of the PC behind the frame, now running a photo-frame software. But there are many other ways to go, so hit up your favorite search engine for more options.

Oh, and seeing as you've already stripped it for parts, put that hard drive into an external case and use it as a USB drive!

Do you have any other ideas for repurposing old laptops? Share them in the comments!