eXPropriation: Repurposing old XP hardware

eXPropriation: Repurposing old XP hardware

Summary: Windows XP will soon be out of official support, and if you've taken the plunge and finally upgraded to a piece of modern hardware, one question remains: What to do with that old beige box? Here's a handful of options to help you decide which path to take.

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The great XPiration is upon us. Come April 8, 2014, Windows XP will be cut off from life support, just before it reaches its awkward teen years. No more security patches, and no more support from Microsoft. It is an ex-parrot.

header
(Image: stevenafc, royalty free)

XP has been a dead OS stumbling for a few years now, with mainstream support already killed dead in 2009. It lacks GPT support, meaning it can't use drives larger than 2TB. The widespread use of the 32-bit edition means large swathes of people can't address RAM sizes of larger than 4GB, and the poorly supported 64-bit edition isn't a great fix. Adobe is walking away. Hardware vendors will continue to focus driver support on Windows 7 and above.

So it's time to put the old XP box out to pasture, a box that could easily have been around for more than a decade. Let's say it's old enough to not justify installing Windows 7 or 8. We're talking new PC territory here, or acceptance that the cloud is descending fast enough to surround you in a choking haze of phones, tablets, and lightweight laptops, potentially cutting you off from Windows forever.

So other than giving it away, what do you do with the hardware that's left behind? Can it rise from the ashes, phoenix like, to take a new pedestal in your home?

Option 1: Put your disks in the XP box

harddisk
(Image: ilco, royalty free)

If things are still working and you'd rather repurpose your XP box into something vaguely resembling a computer, let's look at storage.

Network-attached storage (NAS) boxes aren't cheap. Thankfully, you don't need something new or powerful just to sit on a network and manage storage all day; just something with preferably a gigabit Ethernet connection. If you've got the physical space, fill your old XP box with large hard drives (if you're lucky to have enough ports to support it — and remember, XP doesn't support drives of greater than 2TB), get some sort of RAID going (whether via an expansion card, hacking XP to add software RAID support, Linux's mdadm, or just going the whole hog with FreeNAS), a web interface (like Webmin, if you don't like the idea of FreeNAS), and say hello to your home brew NAS. Centralised storage is yours, with FTP and SMB access, automated backup, Time Machine, iTunes server emulation, and more.

Which leads us to...

Option 2: Open source the box

opensource
(Image: cece, royalty free)

If you really want to get hands on, there's always the option to set up your own Linux (or whatever *nix you want) server. If you've never delved into this before, it could be a bit of a shock adjusting to the way *nix folks do things (especially when you inevitably end up at the command line), but it's a great way to expand your computer skills while giving your screaming muscles a workout. And who knows, maybe you'll grow an extremely fetching beard while you're at it.

Thankfully, the machine you'll be using will likely be old enough for all of the hardware in it to be completely supported. So now comes the question: Just what will you do with a Linux box?

Well, it could tie nicely into the NAS box option above. You could also run it as a dedicated firewall/router (providing you have at least two gigabit Ethernet ports) by installing an operating system like Smoothwall, ClearOS, or pfSense to get you started. You could even start having fun with neighbours who steal Wi-Fi.

Set up your own LAMP-based web server, maybe even toy around with some automated downloading software for 24/7 downloading, check out what you can control from your smartphone, and you'll soon have a nice little remote box that makes your internet life easier. If you have an older printer that can't be networked, it can be shared through this server as well.

If you're security minded, you could even deck out the house with IP security cams with motion detection, and connect it to your new uber box either via FTP or using something like ZoneMinder. And if you're a particular kind of special, you could even set up your own PBX box, but I fear that this is starting to get toward the pointy end of the niche.

If you want your Linux box to do all of the above things, rather than using a pre-rolled distribution, you may prefer to get down and dirty by installing a base system like Gentoo or Debian and learning ipchains, iptables, samba, webmin, mdadm, and everything else by yourself to build your ultimate custom box. Just be prepared to get deep into the guts of the system and massively expand your knowledge in a very short period of time.

Option 3: Media can give you more

xbmc
(Image: XBMC)

The home theatre PC (HTPC) was a concept that never really found its footing in the mainstream, tending to appeal more to enthusiasts. Those with only a passing interest would be liable to pick up a cheap network streaming box instead, which would probably also handle Netflix or other streaming services.

Oh, and a huge, very computer-like beige tower from the early days of XP that's likely wheezing itself to death, has no HDMI port, and takes hours to turn on doesn't sound like the best option for an HTPC when you can buy almost silent turnkey solutions that will fit in with your home theatre gear and boot in seconds.

But you could do it. Maybe even stick the white noise generator in another room and leave it on 24/7 to hide both the visage and the sound of a million wailing banshees controlling it via RF peripherals or with Android over Wi-Fi.

It is, of course, entirely possible that you're running something from around the Core 2 Duo era, in which case it's likely quite quiet, and in a reasonably attractive chassis that won't draw too much attention.

Regardless, the most sensible course of action is likely XBMC, which will run on Windows XP just fine. Far from its Xbox origins, XBMC is now quite the media application, spreading across multiple platforms. Which is great — if you're finding you just don't have enough grunt to run video smoothly in the Windows variant, you could try the Linux version without destroying your XP install as well, as XBMC provides a live disc to try things out.

The best bit? Barely having to do a thing to download fan art, pull synopses, organise TV series into seasons, or put movies into appropriate collections. With only minimal poking and prodding, XBMC does most of it for you by scraping websites for the info.

Just be aware that depending on the age of your hardware (it may not even have the SATA ports to take a Blu-ray drive, let alone support HDCP for the required playback), it may not be capable of 1080p playback. Pair it up with Sickbeard to organise your videos and rename them in a manner that XBMC will understand, and you're away. Just make sure that you set yourself up with an appropriate remote (whether MCE, an Xbox controller, or a smartphone/tablet) so that you never have to get up from the couch.

While we're talking media, you can pair this with the NAS idea to have all of your media in one place. Not just video, but audio, too. This way, if you've discovered that streaming services like Spotify don't have everything, if you're a FLAC aficionado, or if you simply prefer controlling your own collection, your music archive is available to any machine on the network. Pair it with a Sonos device, and suddenly all of your music becomes readily available anywhere in the house.

Option 4: Don't you know the gaming has arrived

joystick
(Image: steved_np3, royalty free)

If you're going to hook up your PC to your TV already for a home theatre PC, you may as well put some thought into its gaming capability as well. Sure, there's a chance it's old enough that it won't even like Half-Life 2, but old PCs are capable of a few gaming tricks other than running old games.

Well, they're still old games, but old games with a twist. We're talking emulators — whether for arcade, old consoles, or to make old games work well again. We'll leave it to you to ensure that you're behaving within legal limits, but a rule of thumb is that the emulator is generally legal, whereas you'll need to actually own the ROMs yourself rather than downloading them to stay in the good books. If you're of a particular retro bent, you may not even want to hook the PC up to a TV; you may wish to throw it in an arcade cabinet instead, and hook it up to some controls for the authentic deal. Whether upright or cocktail cabinet is entirely up to you.

Don't forget about dedicated servers, either; while modern games likely won't run on your old hardware, more often than not, the dedicated servers for such games have much lower system requirements (with some even running in a console environment). And lord knows that Minecraft runs on just about everything. If you had enough spare CPU cycles, you could even run a Ventrilo, Mumble, or TeamSpeak server to complete the deal.

Option 5: Cut a hole in the box

upcycle
(Image: Gabriel Dishaw)

Of course, any of these suggestions are utterly pointless if the machine is one step from death. In this case, you could throw it on the street for a clean-up day, or donate it to a hipster cafe as a modern art seat.

Despite popular jokes about using old machines as boat anchors, it isn't the best idea — PC cases generally aren't dense enough to assist with rapid sinking, there's nothing in the shape to really grip the ocean floor, and the drag in hauling the thing back up would be immense.

There's a few individuals out there, though, who have applied a little more effort into repurposing their old boxes. PC cases, for instance, make interesting mailboxes, beehives, and tables (yes, the boxes in the image aren't XP machines, but the same idea applies). CRT monitors can become all sorts of things, from cat beds to hamster cages, to even aquariums. Heck, even old hard drives can find fascinating new leases on life, like clocks, grinders, or a DJ scratch desk/jog wheel. Of course, if your hard drive still works, pairing it with a USB hard drive dock can also make for a handy backup disk.

The incredibly creative can choose to delve into computer sculpture to create amazing works of art. Or maybe you need some gold teeth?

If you're not feeling creative and can't give the thing away, you could always keep it handy in the backyard for some stress relief, Office Space style.

Option 6: Crunch; Option 7: ???; Option 8: Profit!

bitcoin
(Image: bitboy, MIT licence)

Depending on the age of your machine, its individual contribution to pure number crunching could be quite limited.

Still as part of a collective of machines, its spare CPU cycles could be useful for searching for aliens, climate prediction, medical applications, and more. The easiest way to contribute is through BOINC, which can handle multiple projects and scientific causes at once, although there are notable projects like Folding@Home that use their own software.

If you're not the charitable type, you could always just mine for bitcoins instead. And if you're into 3D rendering, After Effects or CAD, an extra node in your render farm for more CPU cycles always helps, regardless of how puny they may be by modern standards.

Got any other creative uses for old PCs? Let us know how you repurposed your old machine in the comments below.

Topics: Windows XP and the Future of the Desktop, Windows, Windows 8

Craig Simms

About Craig Simms

Focusing on PC hardware, accessories and business products, Craig Simms is responsible for identifying new opportunities for the reviews channels on CNET Australia and ZDNet Australia, to better serve the readers. He has written about a vast range of technology since 2001, covering the gamut from print to online, hardware to software, consumer to enthusiast, the gaming world to workstations.

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Talkback

32 comments
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  • No need to toss it at all.

    If you think about it, the vast majority of users computing requirements are completely met by Windows XP and the associated hardware it runs on. Email. Web surfing. Multi-media playback. You name it. Yes there are some applications for demanding users like Adobe Photoshop, Avid editor, Pro-E that could benefit from 64-bit addressing and more than 3 GB of RAM, but the reality is that they are a small percentage of users. Microsoft and the rest of the PC industry, like the auto industry, would very much like you to toss your perfectly usable computer and buy another one, adding to the existing mountain of e-waste on the planet and consuming and polluting yet more natural resources....all in the name of profit$$$$$. If it ain't broke, don't toss it. Don't fall for the spin-doctoring and marketing hype. Windows XP is all the PC 99% of humanity will ever need.
    anthonymaw
    • Bad idea

      The security model of XP is terrible, MS has proven it just can't keep it from getting infected with malware, and none of the AV vendors can either. Keeping a vulnerable old XP machine running and connected to the internet is NOT being a good Net Citizen. You are a Botnet Enabler and should be firewalled from the rest of humanity.

      The best thing web sites can do is check if you are running XP and blast up a big half-screen bar telling you you need to upgrade now, and eventually just firewall the idiots that keep running it.

      As for the article, if your machine is too pathetic to be reloaded with Win7, get rid of it. It's using WAY too much power for what it does. A modern super low power Atom based system saves more money in energy usage in a year (or two) than it the unit costs and is probably way faster.

      This goes for almost all the suggestions here. You are NOT saving any money keeping these old things running! The best thing you can do with an old machine is to send it to the recyclers.
      NixRocks
      • XP security does just fine unless you surf a lot of porn sites

        First, XP does just fine for many purposes without being connected to the Web. My church has a lot of XP castoffs that work just dandy for lesson preparation and office work. No need to pay all over again for Windows and Office when what we have just keeps ticking. The two XP machines that do connect to the Web do just fine as well, because most security problems start with unsafe practices like visiting dodgy websites, opening email attachments and downloading files. Since we avoid those things we don't have any problems with XP running until the hardware croaks.
        terry flores
        • asking for trouble

          So here is the deal. Everyone in the know (not you apparently) is holding their breath waiting for the first XP targeting malware to hit the streets once MS is committed to no longer release updates. You KNOW malware authors are holding off, waiting to release until the that date.At that point, it doesn't matter how careful you are, you are toast. It won't be "If" you get malware, it will be "When."

          And sure, if you have machines completely isolated from the internet, go for it. Run XP all you want. Just don't connect to the internet. Period. Ever again.
          NixRocks
          • Proof?

            Or do we need to supply you with a 44 Gallon Drum?
            martin_js
          • Reminds me of an old joke...

            A man jumps off the top of a tall building. As he falls past a window half-way down, someone hears him say to himself: "So far, so good...".

            Didn't you read the article about the "digital quartermasters" / "cyber arms dealers", published on November 13th?
            Zogg
        • xp

          I think actually ms will send malware as they usually do to destroyxp sp [epeople will get rid of it
          gunzmith
          • Whaaaa..

            They already have, the end of support pop up is annoying.
            Alienwilly
      • Stupid comment

        Come on!!! "The security model of XP is terrible, MS has proven it just can't keep it from getting infected with malware" Are you serious? I think that Windows is the more secure OS in the wild but it has a lot of malware targeted to it, so that yes it has malware but its because it is not realible its because its the most used OS used in this planet!!!! Windows 7 and Windows 8 are even more secure.
        Coco Punk
        • XP isn't secure

          Even Microsoft says so in their marketing literature for Vista, 7, and 8. And yes, the security model is terrible. MS knows it which is why they came up with UAC to attempt to make things a little better. Only the most ultimate "MS can do no wrong" fan boy would make your claim. Security researchers know better. Why don't you hean on over to SANS.org and lean from the experts.
          NixRocks
          • The security model is just fine.

            It's almost the same security model used in later versions of Windows as well as OS X and UNIX.

            IMO the ONE thing that "makes" Windows XP's security weak is the fact the default user is a member of the administrators group. As such the security model is effectively no longer in force (technical it's in force but the user is given full permission to everything so it may as well not be). Use a non-privileged account and Windows XP can be reasonably secure. I had no problems using Windows 2000 in this manner.
            ye
          • @ye Partially agree

            I agree that is the big one but there are other weaknesses that make it easier for malware to attack your system. First a less privileged account only limits the amount of damage malware can do. It doesn't necessarily stop the attack. XP introduced some new security concepts like DEP and memory randomization but neither are as good as in Win7 & Win8. The latter have issued improved technologies that further limit the attack surface.

            And besides once patching ends as soon as a new exploit is found, your done if you should visit an infected site. And even running as a less priveleged user doesn't always stop the exploit from succeeding.

            There is more to the security model than what you give credit for first paragraph. It isn't just passwords and privileges there a number of technologies for actively stopping malware and these have improved from Windows version to Windows version.
            DevGuy_z
          • It isn't terrible (I agree with Ye here) it just isn't as good.

            I take a middle road. I believe it is advisable to upgrade to Win7 or later especially because of the patching. However, I do not believe XP security is terrible. It remains fairly secure but less secure than Win7 or Win8.

            Once patching stops it becomes a different story and over time it will be increasingly vulnerable. But so would Win8 if you stopped patching it.
            DevGuy_z
      • A Better Idea

        Correction Nix,
        "The security model of" M$ "is terrible"

        But I must admit the 2 new W7 & 8 boxes we purchased out of curiosity have remained very secure...mostly because we don't bother turning them on other than briefly each month for the never ending M$ Security patch cycle.
        However we remain quite comfortable with, & prefer to continue using our 4 malware free dual-boot XP/Linux computers for as long as we choose to do so.
        No way we'd trust any flavour of Windows to be secure enough for banking & fail to see the point in constantly struggling to adapt to an unfamiliar GUI for little if any apparent benefit for our required purposes.
        Sultanabran-
        • Question on Dual Boot

          I have a question for you since I am thinking of doing something similar. So I am thinking of dual booting my XP box with Ubuntu. Linux will meet my needs, however, my Sonos Desktop controller requires Windows. I have read that Wine no longer allows the Sonos desktop to operate on Unbuntu due to some upgrades Sonos made to their software. Long story short, dual booting leaves me in the predicament that only 1 OS is operational, thus while booted in Linux the house is dead to music as the Desktop controller is down.

          My question: how much risk is there in creating a VM that supports Ubuntu vs. dual booting and letting XP connect to the internet for supporting the Sonos requirements. Never surfing the web on the XP VM, keeping avast running on both instances and use Linux for everything else? Would this work? I have a 2.8DC PentiumD with 3GB RAM, I assume that XP and Ubuntu running at the same time may cause some performance issues.
          Kaplanmt
      • No Win7, how much does taht have to be repeated

        > ...if your machine is too pathetic to be reloaded with Win7, get rid of it.

        How many times does this point need to be reiterated: ***WIN7 IS NO LONGER AVAILABLE FOR SALE!!!!!!!***. Unless you want to run some dodgy and probably illegal copy of Win7 from feeBay or Amazon, you have to look at compatibility with Win8. And *that* starts to eliminate a whole lot of perfectly serviceable hardware. And considering were are still mired in the midst of an economic depression, no one has the spare cash to cough up on new hardware.
        jelabarre
    • Agree

      Be good to secure it though! there will be those who work to keep it going as was the case with earlier 9x versions of Windows, lets see what happens.
      dookus
  • Other Uses

    I have two HTPC units I built specifically for my entertainment centers. They double as backup units for my NAS units. But both were already on Windows 7 and are 2nd generation i5's.

    However, relevant to the topic is I was actually considering picking up secondhand some old underpowered (by modern standards) 8.9" or 10.1" netbooks (ideally same make/model)... take off the old Windows XP, max out the ram and up the HD's to far larger, say 320gb or 512gb, and change them to specific use systems.

    I have a lot of older software that is just sitting around meant for a wide variety of platforms that is either not warranted, not practical, or not possible to bother with on a modern system. Software that is too specialized or unneeded or unwarranted on more modern machines but that a simple underpowered Intel Atom or similar netbook cpu could handle easily.

    I was considering using the netbooks to preserve and run that old software in small units in case ever had to reference it again.

    Consider, one unit with a upgraded HD (say 320gb or 512gb) and maxed out ram (2gb for most netbooks) could specialize in running old OS emulators and virtual machines. And have running DOS Boxes and other OS environments.

    Another could run old game software (not modern games, only a moron would use an ATOM type on modern games) and game emulators...

    A third could be used as a testbed or open source systems. Like installing Android and/or Linux on it (probably both for dual boot).

    All could be swapped around, and take very little space. Then have a generic USB doc with a sound bar and a USB joystick and optical drive. Could replace a lot of older hardware, and be compatible with a lot of stuff from many eras of computing.
    pcheintz72
  • Really shouldn't be using XP for XMBC

    You mention in that section that a Linux version is available - that really should be the focus, given the networked nature of an XMBC box, and that XP won't get any add'l security updates.
    daboochmeister
    • XBMC...

      I use it with Xubuntu but run it often as it's own desktop environment. It's brilliant for streaming HD video on a slow computer. I have it on my modern laptop which I constantly connect to the TV via HDMI. It's perfect for a home cinema solution.
      James Stevenson