8 Practical Uses for Your Old Laptop


This holiday, you pull the wraps off a brand new laptop and open the lid to your shiny new mobile companion. The first thought you might have is to consider which apps you should install first and what's the fastest way to load the up the hard disk with music and movies. Of course, you inevitably have to think about your old laptop, and what price you can sell it for on Craigslist. But before you dump an old laptop or retire it to the den of forgotten gadgets, here are eight practical ideas on how you can extend its life.

1. Run a Home Server for File-Sharing

One sensible use for a last year’s netbook is to turn it into a network-attached storage server. This allows you to store files on the hard drive, assign user groups, and access the drive over your home network. Most of the popular NAS applications -- such as Openfiler and Nexenta -- provide a few options for how you install the NAS software. You can load it up as a distro that actually takes over the laptop or as a client that runs in Linux or Windows. These open-source tools are similar to Microsoft Home Server and many offer a Web-based console to control the NAS from a remote computer, so once you set up the NAS on your netbook, you can leave it to sit idly next to your router and never have to even open the lid.

You’re getting the most out of the processor, RAM, and internal storage while using a new laptop for other purposes. Another advantage to using a netbook is that, because of the architecture of the Atom processor, the disk speed access is more than adequate for a NAS. Additionally, power consumption is a trickle on the Atom compared to a full-blown desktop processor, so you are getting good performance and low power use. The caveat is that netbooks and notebooks aren’t designed to run 24/7 like a dedicated server, so you run the risk of your netbook running out of steam and burning out.

FreeNAS might not have the most extensive feature-set; it is by no means a replacement for Windows Server in a business setting. But it does provide the basics you need for a file server and supports many of the latest protocols including iSCSI, a common standard for business users, and FTP for setting up a remote session for file transfers. The best way to get started is to download the ISO file available at www.freenas.org . Use the Windows 7 built-in ISO burner or IMGBurn -- just double-click the file, insert a blank CD, and burn the disk image. We used a Lenovo S12 netbook for this. You'll need an external CD drive for any netbook; we used a Plextor PX-610U drive. (You can also use an IMG file and write the file to a USB key but when we tried this it did not work with the Lenovo S12.) On the netbook, load the CD and press the boot options key when you first turn on the computer -- with the S12, the key is F12. Select the USB drive and follow the options to install FreeNAS. Here, you can choose to add FreeNAS to a partition as an embedded install or you can just use the entire disk (which uses FreeBSD for the OS).

Burn the FreeNAS ISO file to a blank CD, boot your laptop, and install the server.

We used the embedded install for our project. Once installed, you will see a simple menu where you can assign an interface and set the IP address. Once you know the IP address, you can move over to a remote computer -- connected through the same router -- and type in that IP address to access a Web setup for the NAS. (You may need to assign that port on your router.) Use the login "admin" and password "freenas" to access the NAS initially and change as needed. We won't walk through all of the steps required to turn your laptop into a NAS -- follow this guide for more details .

Your NAS is now ready for access form any computer, and you can make drives as needed, use the assigned disk space for file storage, set up an iTunes streaming server, configure media sharing for video game consoles, set up BitTorrent, add an FTP server, and configure additional disks such as external hard drives or even multiple USB keys in free USB slots.

FreeNAS is simple to set up and install, and once it's working, you can remote-connect over the Web.

2. Install an Experimental OS

An experimental OS allows you to venture beyond the comfort of Windows. You should consider turning an old netbook into a simple yet fast-booting e-mail and Web machine. Or, you could use your old netbook to see what Google is up to with their new Chrome OS. The word "experimental" has a few implications, and one of them is that you never know how something will work, and even if you do have the right hardware you may find that the OS crashes so often it is not worth the effort. One key here is to plan a good portion of time for troubleshooting and an easy way to get the old laptop back to a useable computer. That said, there is great satisfaction is actually getting one of these new OSes up and running.

Two of the best Linux distributions to consider are Moblin ( www.moblin.org ) and Jolicloud ( www.jolicloud.com ). Both offer good guidance for not only finding the latest builds and burning it to a USB flash drive or CD-R, but also good documentation for installing extra software and tweaking the OS for your own tastes. Jolicloud in particular offers a new paradigm for installing software (it work more like an iPhone where you see a bunch of apps and just click one install button) and syncs well with the cloud. Moblin is meant to liven up older netbooks that don’t run Windows fast enough.

Both Moblin and Jolicloud have been out for a while and are not nearly as experimental as Google Android or Google Chrome OS. We tested the Android OS on an Aspire One D250-1613 that can run in a dual-boot mode which supports both Android and Windows XP. (To switch between them, you run an Android program from Windows or click a large arrow from Android to retreat back to Windows XP.) Google says Android is meant for any device, but on a netbook the OS has a decided look and feel of a smartphone.  You can pan the desktop left and right to see additional desktop space -- which is a space saving measure on the small screen but not as practical on a netbook.

Android OS is experimental -- it works more like a smartphone interface than a desktop OS. Just be sure to right-click to access menu options, such as compose a new e-mail message.

If you’re a bit more daring and have the right hardware, you can try using Chrome OS on your old netbook. Most of the information about how to compile the OS and whether it will work on your netbook is at http://www.chromium.org/chromium-os, and you will need a bit of programming experience to get it working. Fortunately, you can easily find pre-compiled IMG files that you can load onto a USB key to boot up the OS.

We prefer the build that Dell put out for the Dell Mini 10v, available at http://linux.dell.com/files/cto . This build is super-simple to use. Just download the single IMG file then use Win32DiskImager (available here ) to load the IMG file and write it to a spare IMG file. Note that this IMG file requires an 8GB key or larger or you will get an error when you try to write the file.

Insert the USB key in the Dell Mini, power up, and immediately press F12 to access the boot disk menu Select the USB Storage option and press Enter. You will see the Chrome OS log in screen. Type “dell” for both the username and password and login. Press CTRL-ALT-T to access the terminal mode. Then, type:

% sudo /etc/mount_rw.sh
% sudo insmod /lib/modules/2.6.30-chromeos-intel-menlow/kernel/net/wireless/lib80211.ko
% sudo insmod /lib/modules/2.6.30-chromeos-intel-menlow/kernel/drivers/net/wireless/wl.ko
% sudo depmod -a
% exit

This loads the Wi-Fi driver. Reboot the Mini by holding down the power button for a few seconds and then wait a second and press and hold again to boot up (using the USB key again) and login. You will have to wait a while for the built-in Wi-Fi to load, but eventually you can go to the upper right corner and select the second drop-down menu from the right and select your Wi-Fi network. Of course you can also just connect an Ethernet cable but that sort of defeats the purpose of having a fast-loading netbook!

Download the Dell Chrome IMG file, burn to a USB key, and boot your Dell Mini into Chrome OS

3. Stream Transcoded Video to Video Game Consoles

Another really smart use of an old laptop is to use it as a media streaming server, especially one that is dedicated to a specific video game console such as the Sony PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. TVersity ( www.tversity.com ) is one good piece of streaming software but the best option for PS3 (and Xbox 360 owners) is PS3 Media Server ( http://ps3mediaserver.blogspot.com/ ), mostly because of how well it works for streaming high-def video.

Note that you will likely need an Intel Core 2 Duo processor-powered machine to support 1080p streaming, but can get by with a slightly lesser laptop for 720p video files. Even then, one reason that using an older laptop works so well for streaming videos, photos, music, and anything else you can throw at the console is that you really need a dedicated machine to transcode unsupported file types. (If you already have a home server or a NAS, you might still consider using an old laptop for a console streaming box because an atom-based server will also chug a bit when you stream high-def files.)

Make sure you open the ports for media sharing -- on a D-Link router, it is under the Port Forwarding tab.

There are just a few steps required to get the PS3 Media Server up and running. Download the latest build install it in Windows. There isn't too much to configure, but you will likely need to open port 5001 for the IP address of the console (not the laptop). This allows the console to find the media server. Next, make sure you enable media streaming. On the laptop, go to the Network and Sharing Center and go to Change advanced sharing settings and enable media streaming. To play WMA video files on the console you will need to go to System Settings and enable WMA. While there, check to make sure the Media Server option is enabled. The PS3 Media Server from your laptop will show up as an option under the video, music, and photo sections of the PS3 XMB interface.

PS3 Media Server shows you all activity on the server, including current connections. If you have trouble getting the PS3 IP address to work, try using the force IP setting.

4. Turn Your Laptop into a Virtual Guitar Amp

Here's one of the most fun uses for an old laptop: turning it into a guitar-ripping audio workstation! Now, one word of caution at this point -- audio recording does require a fast PC with loads of RAM; using an older laptop that might not have the fastest processor will still work for basic MIDI programming, connecting an audio interface and controlling a virtual amp, or for basic track recording in a sequencer, but for full multi-track audio recording we recommend a high-end rig with a fast hard drive.

Line 6 makes a great UBS audio interface that comes with virtual amp software.

To turn a laptop into an amp, you need three main components: a way to connect the guitar or other instruments, speakers that provide enough power for your axe, and virtual amp software. We prefer the Line6 POD Studio UX1 audio interface ( http://line6.com/podstudioux1/ ) because it is simple to use, works well with Windows, and is just heavy enough to sit flat on your desk when you connect up your Fender. The POD also comes with a free program called POD Farm for emulating common amps, such as the Marshall JCM-800. For speakers, you will want to use something better than the small desktop speakers that came with your PC. We used a set of Alesis M1 Active MKII speakers. Make sure the speakers use quarter-inch cables to connect up to the audio interface. If your speakers use thin 3.5mm speaker cables or even a USB connection, be careful because your guitar can overpower them.

Riffworks T4 is the free version of the Sonoma Wire Works virtual amp software.

Next, for virtual amp software, the best program we've found is Sonoma Wire Works RiffWorks T4 Free ( www.sonomawireworks.com/T4 ). This app works similar to POD Farm but offers recording features and the ability to feed audio loops and recordings to other programs. For MIDI recording and track recording, the best app to use is Reaper ( www.reaper.fm ) which is available as a free trial. For Linux users, you can use Ardour ( www.ardour.org ) which is an open source tool.

Reaper is an outstanding digital audio workstation tool that works well for MIDI and audio recording.

We used an Acer 5738PG-6306 laptop for setting up the audio station. The basic setup requires that you connect the UX1 to your laptop using a USB cable. Next, run quarter-inch cables out to the speakers. Connect your guitar, a microphone, or a MIDI keyboard to the quarter-inch input on the front of the UX1. Run POD Farm or Riffworks and set up the virtual amp software by choosing an amp and setting effects. There are large buttons on the top of the UX1 for controlling volume levels. Once you have it all set up, you can use Riffworks to record audio and make MP3s and crank out some guitar riffs.

One quick way to turn an old laptop into an audio workstation is to install the Ubuntu Studio ( www.ubuntostudio.org ), which has many of the latest audio tools, plug-ins, and libraries for create MIDI and recorded audio tracks.

5. Create a Music and Movie Ripping Station

One of the best uses for an old laptop is to turn it into a music-ripping station. This a great secondary purpose for a laptop because you barely need to look at the screen (you just insert the disc and walk away), you can set options so the rips go directly to a network drive, and you can position this station in an area where you often have music CDS, such as the living room.

Our preferred CD ripping tool is EAC, and you can read our guide about using it here .

For ripping DVD movies, Handbrake ( www.handbrake.fr ) is probably the best tool for ripping DVDs and it is free to use. Read our Handbrake guide here .

6. Join a Distributed Computing Project

Distributed computing projects like Folding@Home have been around a while, but they still need more volunteers. Dedicating your old laptop (and at least a portion of your Internet connection) to one of these projects is a charitable act, because the software typically runs only when you are not using the laptop for other purposes.

Folding@Home, for example, sits in the system tray and waits for idle periods (you can configure the amount of priority), based on Windows system processes. Folding@Home works best on dual-core processors but will work on just about old laptop -- you can even find downloads for Linux and Mac.

Find a project that you can get behind and join their cause!

You can see real-time information about which work unit is active and when it started.

7. Organize Your Photos

The digital camera craze is still in full force, especially with the under-age set using Photobucket.com and Facebook to share their snapshots with each other. With an old laptop, you can set up a photo workstation for processing all of those images. Many laptops -- even those from a few years back – have built-in card readers, or you can find a cheap external one. As a photo organizer, the laptop becomes an easy way to pop in a camera card, offload photos, import them automatically into a photo organization tool, and then either saver them to a network drive or upload them to an online location if needed. This communal photo station makes it easy for everyone in your home to free up space on their camera cards and get back to taking more photos.

Pictomio is a world-class image organization and tagging tool that competes with Adobe Lightroom.

Pictomio ( www.pictomio.com ) is a great free image organizer with features that mirror what you would find in commercial programs like Adobe Lightroom. You can organize images, edit EXIF data (which shows what camera was used and shot settings), add geotag data for where the photo was taken, upload images directly to Flickr, Facebook, and other sites, and generally just get a good handle on which photos you have in your collection.

One way to use the tool in a group setting at home is to create a folder for each user and then dump files off a flash card to that folder. Pictomio can also tag images automatically so you can make photos more searchable. The tool lets you create slideshows and photo albums, but is a bit limited in terms of adding effects to images. For that, we recommend the free Paint.net app ( www.getpaint.com ), which is as close as anyone in the open source community has come to a Photoshop clone with support for layers, red-eye removal, and distortion effects.

Once you have this photo workstation up and running, it will help you organize not just the image but your photo workflow.

8. Set up Home Surveillance with Motion Sensing

Using an old laptop for home surveillance makes sense, especially if you are dedicated the PC to the task. You can position the laptop at a doorway or even outside (in warm weather) to see if anyone has come to the door or tried to break into your house. Many laptops have a built-in webcam, and with home surveillance tools you can receive an e-mail automatically if there is a disturbance.

Once Yawcam senses motion, it can save webcam pictures to a network drive.

One of the best tools for home surveillance is Yawcam ( www.yawcam.com ), a free program that works with most external webcams from companies like Logitech and Microsoft, and also the internal webcam on laptops. We tested it on a Sony VAIO NW notebook and Yawcam recognized the webcam immediately. There are large buttons for enabling the camera functions, including motion sensing. When the app senses motion, it will send a photo from the webcam to you as an e-mail. Yawcam can also dump a webcam image out to a file server or an FTP site for easy access.

Another great option for home surveillance is to use a third-part Wi-Fi camera and feed the video footage to a spare laptop. For example, you can use the D-Link Pan and Tilt Wireless N Network Camera (DCS-5230) and install it at your front door. Then, you can load the included D-ViewCam software on your laptop. When FedEx brings you a pack, you can instantly see what it is -- you can even install up to 32 of the DCS-5230 cameras around your home and see the video thumbnails on one screen.

Yawcam senses motion and can alert you by sending an e-mail with an attached picture.

Got any other great uses for old laptops? Share your projects in the comments section below!

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