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What do you do with an old computer?

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Before using that hard drive as a file server, consider the efficiency

Posted by Blaine Kyllo

I've been working with computers for years. I'm no technical wizard, but I can find my way around an operating system. And back in the days when I used Windows computers I was known to open up the case to add RAM or change out a hard drive.

In fact, when I bought my first Apple computer, in 2004, I chose a G5 tower over an iMac because I wanted to be able to upgrade the components to keep the computer as current as possible.

But things have changed.

These days, technology advances so quickly that within a couple of years there was no component I could replace that would make that G5 — so revolutionary when I bought it — as fast and powerful as the most basic model being sold.

I could buy a new computer that was many times faster and more powerful and it would be considerably cheaper than the one I had purchased only two years earlier.

The era of the disposable computer

Now when friends and family ask me for buying advice about computers, I tell them not to pay for the fanciest model available. Buy the computer that is better than what you've got, and is no more than what you need.

Tony Mauro agrees with me. The Power Smart engineer said that many people will find that they're replacing computers in three to four years, and the new computers are invariably cheaper and more powerful.

Of course if we all follow that advice, we'll be living on mountains of unused computer equipment. And I don't want to have to spend my days navigating from a broken keyboard past a wall of circuit boards to get to the bathroom behind the mouse pile.

Reusing computers

The second rule of disposal is "reuse" (the first is "reduce"), so instead of tossing my old computer in the garbage I wanted to find a way to put it to use.

I thought it might make a good file server, which stores information used by a computer. Perhaps it would be good for keeping backups of my data so I wouldn't have to worry about losing my photo albums and music.

But when I learned that the tower uses between 240 and 600 watts of electricity to operate, I realized it would cost me so much to operate, I could almost buy a new computer with the money I'd save on my electricity bill by using it as a doorstop instead.

A visit to the Apple Retail Store proved it. Even the newest tower computers, which are only used by individuals and organizations that require massive storage and memory, have become dramatically more energy efficient in the seven years since I purchased my tower.

Computers are becoming more efficient

Tony says that a side effect of computers getting smaller and faster is that they use less electricity.

"A circuit board is just a bunch of copper wire," said the Power Smart engineer in a phone conversation. "Really small copper wire, and the smaller the circuit board, the smaller the distance the copper wire needs to travel and the less electricity is needed."

It's like driving a car. Drive a longer distance and you'll use more gasoline.

A new Mac Mini computer is one of the most energy-efficient computers in the world, consuming less than 13 watts when idle. It's only 7-inches wide and 1.4-inches thick. And it's about seven times more powerful than the G5 tower I purchased seven years ago.

When I mentioned to Tony that I had thought to use the G5 as a file server, he chuckled, and said it was important to use computers for the tasks they were designed for.

In other words, using the G5 tower as a file server was overkill. Tony said it was no different than the people that use an old PC with a home theatre setup. "It's like using a sledgehammer to put a screw in the wall," he said. "It's not the right tool and is awfully oversized for the job."

Donating old computers

When I asked Tony what I should do with my old computer, he said the best option would be to use it as a computer.

"In many households, it would be great as a teenager's first computer," he suggested.

I don't have anyone in my household who can use the G5, though. But there are others who can.

Free Geek in Vancouver takes all computer equipment, working or not, in any condition. Volunteers at Free Geek break down computer systems, properly disposing of components that are no longer usable, and building computers out of the components that are.

London Drugs will also take donations of computers that are less than 5 years old for delivery to Free Geek.

Older computers can also be donated to Computers For Schools B.C., which arranges for systems to be refurbished for use by schools, libraries and community programs.

Companies and businesses with multiple systems to dispose of can work with Green4Good.

Protect your data

Free Geek, Computers For Schools and Green4Good all pledge to properly erase all hard drives so that your personal information and data are protected.

But it's a good idea to format your hard drives before giving away old computers. Or ask your electronics retailer for a program that can do it for you.

Recycling computers

As a last resort, I could always recycle my old computer.

Tony said that recyclers break down computer systems, removing precious metals for resale, disposing of heavy metals appropriately and recycling plastics and other metals.

The Recycling Council of British Columbia will tell you exactly where you can recycle your computer. London Drugs will also take your old computer if it was purchased there.

Blaine Kyllo is a North Vancouver-based freelance writer and regular contributor to bchydro.com.