The PC upgrade cycle is a brutal, senselessly fast one. Problem is, every upgrade doesn't mean disposal for your old PC — it means suffering a much more depressing fate in the back of a dark closet. It doesn't have to be that way. Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses of dusty towers yearning to breathe free — we've got some ideas. It turns out that crappy old PCs are kind of a hot commodity nowadays; numerous software projects have succeeded in dressing up retired computers for purposes that often didn't even exist when they were first wheeled out of Circuit City. Here are a few suggestion for your dumpy old rigs:
Make a browsing machine for your grandmother and/or kitchen The most straightforward, obvious use for an old PC is to wipe it clean and install a lightweight, browsing-oriented OS. With a modest PC, you can run the web-app-inclined gOS, which is essentially a modern, stripped down Linux distribution with a modern web browser and lots of links to cutting edge online services. For older hardware, there's always Damn Small Linux. This superlight distribution will boot straight from a CD in about a minute on just about any box you can find — and it's fast. It'll make your Pentium feel like a Centrino 2. Until you try to play YouTube. What it can salvage gOS has room to breathe on just about anything from about 700mhz and 256mb of RAM. It's based on Ubuntu, so it's not the lightest distro, but it get good mileage out of your hard. DSL will run on anything, seriously. How you do it Download, burn to a CD and pop in in your computer. Both will ask you if you'd like to install or just run from a CD. Give them a try first, but you'll get your best results running from a hard drive.
Make a professional grade home router For people who want to rule their home networks with an iron fist, Monowall a FreeBSD-based operating system that flips any PC with two network cards into a superrouter. If that sounds boring to you, I completely understand — but if full bandwidth monitoring and control, easy setup VPNs and a complementary web server with a remote interface perk your ears up, then you should give Monowall a shot. And step outside for a few minutes a day. What it can salvage Got a 486? It'll work, with 64MB of RAM. If your hardware is less than five years old, though, you should probably aim a little bit higher than making a Linksys out of it. How you do it Again, this is a wipe>install situation. m0n0wall is based on FreeBSD, which is based on Unix. None of that matters much, though — the m0n0wall team has designed a pretty straightforward installation routine.
Create a media center PC There's no reason to spend money on a Windows Media Center PC if you've got an Athlon XP or Pentium 4 machine with an s-video port at hand, because you can do better with the free XBMC Live. Without modern hardware you won't have much luck playing back HD video, but virtually everything else — music, standard def video, streaming content — will play beautifully. The interface is very intuitive and gives a solid set-top box feel. What it can salvage Recently obsolete PCs. Don't expect to get a good experience on a 1GHz Athlon or Duron system, but anything newer can handle the load. How you do it Like most of the other hacks here, this one is a start-from-scratch project. If you want to run it within Windows or Linux there is also an option for that. The full, OS-replacement XBMC Live is ideal, however.
XBMC Live download XBMC HowTo Note: Boxee is a much more polished and feature-rich fork of XBMC that runs on Linux and OS X currently, but it's in a semi-public alpha. Use this link for Gizmodo readers to skip the line a bit and get invited into the alpha.
Run a server An obvious use for old PCs for years, running a web server has now gotten easy enough for anyone. Apache is the de facto free web server, but it's a pain to set up. Enter XAMPP, a super-simplified click-and-run version of Apache. Forward a few ports on your router and get yourself a static DNS and you've got your very own website, with as much space as you've got on your hard drive and as much transfer as your ISP will let you get away with. If you have no need for a website, you can host your music, video and files for easy access from anywhere. What it can salvage Anything that can run Windows or Linux, gOS and Damn Small Linux included. You can reach waaaayy back into your closet with this one. How you do it It's a matter of running the installation routine on your chosen operating system — there's no drive wiping or OS installing involved.
Dealzmodo Hacks are intended to help you sustain your crippling gadget addiction through tighter times. If you come across any on your own that are particularly useful, send it to our tips line (Subject: Dealzmodo Hack). Check back every Thursday for free DIY tricks to breathe new life into hardware that you already own.