How To: Breathe New Life into Old Hardware

Since tablets and smartphones were given in large numbers a few weeks ago as Christmas gifts, many people have less of a need for old hardware like laptops and desktops.  Why use a three or four year old computer when you can do so much with an iPad, Galaxy Tab, iPhone, or one of the many Android-powered smartphones?  It can be tempting to toss out old hardware, but that could add dangerous chemicals (like lead, mercury, and cadmium) to local landfills.  Instead of throwing away old gear, breathe new life into it by making a few simple hardware and software changes.


One of the most cost effective ways to get more performance out of older computers is to add RAM (Random Access Memory).  Computers use RAM to temporarily hold information like running programs, calculations, and other information.  When a computer runs out of RAM, it uses the hard drive to store this information.  Since it takes the computer’s CPU longer to read from and write to the hard drive instead of using RAM, not having enough RAM can result in significant performance problems.  You’ll need to use System Tools on PCs and the Apple menu on Macs to determine how much memory you have on your system to see how much you can add.

Desktops and laptops both have slots that hold RAM chips.  Accessing these slots on a desktop usually requires opening the case while laptops usually have an access panel on the bottom.  Input the manufacturer and model name of your computer into websites like Kingston or Crucial to determine the exact type and maximum amount of RAM your system supports.  These websites also contain detailed instructions for installing RAM.

Install a Graphics Card

While adding RAM can do wonders for the performance of your computer, adding a graphics card can help transform that desktop you bought when George W. Bush was in office into a gaming rig.  You’ll need to make sure your power supply has two PCI Express cables to power the graphics card.

Look for graphics cards that support DirectX 11 and have at least 512 MB of memory.  Installation is fairly easy.  You’ll simply need to power off the machine, remove the old graphics card, and install the new one in the PCI Express slot.

Remove Unused Programs

It’s easy to install a program to see how it works and then never use it again.  Doing this multiple times can leave behind several program lurking in the background of your computer that slow it down despite the fact that you never use them.

Use the Control Panel on a PC or delete the application bundle on a Mac to get rid of these programs.  Removing these programs also has the benefit of freeing up hard drive space in addition to making your hardware run faster.

Try a New Operating System

While removing programs can free up resources on an older computer, formatting the hard drive and installing a new operating system can make a computer run like you just took it out of the box.  Windows 7, the latest operating system from Microsoft, runs surprisingly well on old hardware.  I’m running it on a desktop I purchased in 2005, and it runs better than when I ran Windows XP on it.  Of course, make sure you back up all of your data before making changes to the operating system.

If your computer is more than five years old, then you may not be able to run any current operating systems.  I’ve found that the Puppy Linux distribution works well on very old hardware.  While it doesn’t have fancy effects or beautiful colors, Puppy Linux is great for an old computer that you want to use for checking email, browsing the internet, or working on documents.

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