1)Turn it into a firewall
Even the dustiest old 486 can be used as a hardware firewall, standing as a permanent barrier between the internet and your main computer to prevent any undesired information requests from reaching your important data in the first place.

Give m0nowall a try. Setup is too lengthy to explain in just a few words, so follow the helpful guides on the site to get it up and running. There are a few things you'll need to know about your internet connection, such as which category it falls into. Most broadband ISPs in the UK use either static IP or PPPoE.

This is the kind of information you'll usually find on your ISP's website, but if you have no luck there you'll have to contact them directly. M0n0wall's system requirements aren't excessive: it requires a minimum of 64MB RAM, a Pentium-class processor (you can get away with a 486 CPU if your internet connection is less than 10Mbps) and minimal hard drive space; in fact, the firewall can be run directly from a bootable CD/floppy drive (the latter is used to store your settings).

2)Use it as a backup device
Rather than ending up with an ever-growing, 20ft pile of CD-Rs, simply copy all of your important files from your main PC to your old one regularly – a £10 USB flash drive will do the job nicely. Alternatively, if your PCs are on the same network, you can use the free version of SyncBack from www.2brightsparks.com (click Downloads > Freeware) to back up your files automatically every day.

3)Play classic games
Classic PC games from the 1980s and early 1990s don't always run on Windows XP because they're designed for the archaic text-only DOS operating system. So have that old PC dedicated to running DOS. If you have the original install floppy discs or can find them on eBay, great; otherwise give FreeDOS a try. You'll find that most old videogaming systems can now be emulated by special software.

MAME is the most widely used and recreates old arcade machines and their games. Download the latest version of MAMEUI, connect up a USB gamepad and, if your CPU can muster 100MHz or above, you're away. You'll need to supply your own game ROMs – a number of legitimate ROMs can be found at www.mamedev.org/roms. Other ROMs on the internet haven't been cleared for use, so they're illegal. If you're really keen, you could even buy a classic arcade machine (for around £200 on eBay) and then fit your old PC into it.

4)Convert it into a test machine
If you regularly fall foul of viruses and the like, consider pressing your old PC into service as a test machine. You could even use it specifically for opening attachments or downloading programs from the internet, thereby creating another layer of security and removing your main PC from the front line. It's also worth using your test machine for installing software, whether you want to compare a number of programs without cluttering up your main machine or you need to make sure a program won't cause any problems.

5)Set up a home security system
Any old webcam can be used for makeshift CCTV. The latest Creative models include software to capture video or pictures upon motion detection, go to its website to view the entire range. Just make sure you pick a model that uses the Live! Cam software, such as the Live! Cam Video IM (£20) or Live! Cam Optia (£40). If you already own another make of webcam, try webcamXP, which runs on Windows XP or above.

6)Make a games server
If you play online multiplayer games with a group of mates, it's preferable to play on your own server rather than hop onto a random one that's probably a continent away, thus introducing lag and the whim of moderators you don't know.

Enter your PC: use it as a dedicated server that only has to deal in web traffic, so it doesn't have to load the game itself and doesn't need a fancy 3D card or a beefy CPU. Most games have an option for a dedicated server in their Start menu folder – load it up and you're away.

7)Give it to charity
We may be living in the internet age, but that doesn't mean for a moment that everyone in the UK, let alone the world, is computer-enabled. Ask if any local schools or charities would be able to make use of your old PC. Ensure your computer's in good working condition beforehand, because if they have to spend money, resources and time getting a broken machine back on its feet, it will be counterproductive. There are also various organisations dedicated to collecting old PCs for the disadvantaged, such as Express Link Up.

One thing to look out for before disposing of your PC is the data stored on your hard drive. Even if you format the drive, the data can still be recovered, so use a tool such as Eraser to delete all your personal details.

8)Make a jukebox
Even the hoariest processor is capable of playing digital music in WMA or MP3 format, and a venerable 40GB hard drive will quite happily store thousands of tracks. So rig up your old PC to your hi-fi and you've got yourself a jukebox. If it's an old laptop you're using, that's perfect, but one thing you don't want is a giant CRT sat on top of your amplifier if you're using a desktop PC.

Here's an alternative. Put a shortcut to Windows Media Player (WMP) in the Startup folder on your Start Menu, so the program will autoload. Create a new playlist containing every song on the PC and then set WMP to random playback mode (Play > Shuffle or [Ctrl] + [H]).

9)Deter thieves
A ten-year-old, coffee-splattered beige PC with a 486 sticker, placed in a highly visible spot in your home, will appear so valueless that thieves won't think you have a computer worth nicking… Just make sure that the real one's kept out of sight of prying eyes.

10)Use it as a television
Your decrepit computer itself may be next to useless, but its old 19in CRT monitor could be perfect to use as a second television. Get yourself an external TV tuner, such as the AVerTV DVB-T STB7, plug an aerial cable into one end and the VGA lead from your monitor into the other – and you've got yourself a fully functional TV. The STB7 is a digital tuner, so it will work after the analogue switch-off, but you can pick up both analogue and hybrid models from AVerMedia too.

11)Recycle it responsibly
According to a UN study, the manufacture of a new computer and monitor uses 240kg of fossil fuels, 22kg of chemicals and 1,500 litres of water. To make matters worse, the government estimates around 1.8 million tonnes of electrical and electronic waste is generated every single year.

That's an awful lot of material, so it makes sense to keep as much of it out of landfill as possible.

To find a computer recycling centre near you, visit http://tinyurl.com/d2asb. If all of this sounds like too much hard work, you might like to consider giving the PC away via Freecycle, or even taking it to your local household waste centre so that it can be disposed of responsibly on your behalf.

12)Assist a silver surfer
Why not bequeath your dear old computer to your dear old great-aunt? Never mind that it can't play back high-def video, as long as it can browse the web, display digital photos and run a word processor. For a beginner, it'll make the perfect entry point to the world of everyday modern computing.

13)Make some money from it
Old PCs lose value at an incredible rate, so if you do have something to sell, don't sit on it. If you have a component that's relatively rare, you might be able to fetch a few bob for it on eBay. Your best bet for getting slightly more than the pitiful online rate for a second-hand system is to advertise in local newspaper classifieds and the like, because their audience is a lot less tech-savvy than eBay's. As a result, you might be able to get a higher price for your old equipment.

14)Help find a cure for cancer

Distributed computing is one of the most philanthropic uses for an old computer. Essentially, it's for scientific projects that require a huge amount of processing power to crunch the reams of data they generate, such as analysing DNA to help find cures for diseases such as cancer, or reports from space telescopes scanning interstellar static for signs of alien life. A computer signed up to one of these projects receives data to analyse over the internet and then dedicates its spare processing cycles to the task.

15)Use it as a video recorder
Many modern TV tuner cards, such as the Hauppauge WinTV GO-Plus, only require a 100MHz processor to play live TV, although your chip will need to be capable of around 700MHz if you want to use your old system as a video recorder, too. If it's up to scratch, then you can record shows at DVD quality, plus schedule recordings by using online programme guides. TV tuner cards are supplied with software to play and record live TV in Windows, but you'll probably want to watch shows over a TV rather than a monitor. Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition would ordinarily be the best option for this, but you can't buy it on its own and your old PC won't be able to cope with it anyway. Thankfully, there are alternatives. If you want a freebie, try MediaPortal or check out either ShowShifter (£30) or SageTV ($80, around £40) – all designed to work on a TV screen.


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