Use your trusty but outdated computers
as Web workstations or charitable donations - Sept 30 1997

Last week, we wondered what could be done with the many millions of older- model computers we bought just a few short years ago --machines that in some cases are actually showing up in landfills, or marked "free to a good home" in garage sales.

(Yes, I actually saw a 1986-era IBM XT-clone in working order reduced to such a sorry state recently.)

It used to be that when businesses upgraded their hardware, they could often sell their older inventory to employees. Employees could then use the older machines at home for their own work, or to pass on to their kids. No more. Most employees who have a use for personal computers already have one, and kids want nothing less than the newest hardware to play the latest games.

We saw last week that for a relatively modest cost, some older computers could be upgraded with a faster processor chip (CPU), perhaps squeezing another couple of years' use out of them. This strategy will only work with some of the older models, however.

With others, the outlay needed to bring them within reach of modern models is actually more than the cost of a new unit. If you need to upgrade more than two of the components of your older machine (CPU, motherboard, RAM, video, hard disk, CD-ROM, etc.), you're probably better off getting a new machine.

But that doesn't mean the old machine is only fit for the scrap yard.

In many cases, you may simply be able to leave well enough alone, perhaps moving the older model to a less critical role. That 386 or 486 will continue to run its several-year-old word processor just as well as when it was new.

Even if you're upgrading to new versions of software on your new purchases, you may be able to continue to use the old hardware and software -- the Microsoft Office 97 CD, for example, includes a converter to allow users of Word version 6.0 or Office 95 to read and save in the new Office 97 file format. And the new Word Perfect version 8 simply uses the same file format as older versions. With this in mind, users of different generations of hardware and software can easily work together.

If your business has an Intranet (an internal network using standard Internet software such as Web browsers to share information), those older machines can make perfectly adequate terminals, perhaps finding a new use as a way for employees to get company information in lounges or other non-office settings. Workstation giant Sun Microsystems has discussed releasing software to allow 486s running DOS to function as low-cost Java terminals (connecting to a Sun server, of course).

Nevertheless, you may decide that the simplest thing is to get rid of your old hardware, perhaps to minimize the range of hardware and software that requires technical support. As we've said, you probably won't be able to sell them to your employees.

Consider giving them away.

Old, and perhaps useless to you, these computers can still find years of useful employment with a school, church group or charity. In some cases, though, businesses are finding it difficult to even give the things away (hence the landfill).

Parent groups in schools in Vancouver, for example, are hosting more and more casino nights, and using the profits to purchase new hardware able to offer multimedia and Internet access to students. And many schools are starting to look upon donations of older computers as a potential technical support nightmare; they, justifiably, are afraid that a free gift could actually cost them money they don't have.

For the last several years, the Science Council of B.C. (438-2752; has sponsored a Computers for School project. Working with volunteers from the BC Tel Phone Pioneers and other groups, they've collected donated computers, refurbished them and distributed guaranteed-working hardware to schools. Consider them for donations of your 386s, 486s, and recent- model Macs.

At the University of
's Career Services office (, manager Blair Grabinsky hopes to be able to offer students access to the Internet to help with job searches.

The federal National Graduate Registry offers a resource for students to post their resumes for potential employers. Grabinsky feels that the Internet is increasingly an important source for job-search research, and is frustrated by his department's inability to offer students Internet access on-site. They would welcome donations of 386/486-era machines. (822-6473).

Quick change of subject: many of us are starting to feel overwhelmed by e-mail. Mass mailings of junk mail (a.k.a. spam) only add to the frustration.

Users of the popular Eudora mail program might want to take a look at the 30-day free trial version of MailJail, an anti-spam filter:*

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan