What to do with an old laptop?


Back in November we asked what you would do with an old unused laptop. If you have an old laptop that’s not doing much more than gathering dust, chances are you could put it to better use. You could sell it, but you probably wouldn’t get too much for it. Donating or recycling can also get it out your hair, but if you’d like to try something different, read on for some ideas.


Salvage usable parts

Not the flashiest choice, but potentially the most useful one. Just because the processor and RAM no longer meet your needs doesn’t mean that the hard drive, optical drive, and even the LCD screen should be thrown out too. All of these parts can be easily removed, and, with the exception of the screen in some cases, do not require total dismantling. When removing any of these parts, be careful to remove all mounting screws and carefully detach any cables before removing it from the case. LCD monitors almost always have a cable that attaches directly to the mainboard, and tearing it could render the monitor useless. If you wreck it, you’ll have to buy a new monitor to extend your desktop display.

Of course, you can also get a wealth of small parts from an old laptop, including screws, jumpers, heatsinks, cables, LEDs, and even keys from the keyboard. FRC Tech offers a good instructional page on the basics of dismantling a laptop, and a forum on ThinkComputers.com offers a comprehensive set of guides to taking apart many different Toshiba laptops.


Make a digital picture frame

A digital picture frame can be a great gift that you made yourself. Your mom would probably like it more than the ceramic pencil holder you made in the third grade. Unlike that time, though, you’ll have to decide whether the frame will show only preloaded images or whether it will access an online source like Flickr. PopSci.com offers this useful guide to building your own photo frame, as does Repair4Laptop.org.


Install Linux and make a media extender

Old laptops aren’t great at running memory or processor-intensive software, but they can make great Linux terminals. You could outfit it with Linux for exclusive internet use, data storage, or even for controlling other devices like a home entertainment center. Unfortunately you may also have to retrofit it with a larger harddrive or WiFi card to get better use out of it. Yesterday we mentioned both MythTV and XBMC as alternative frontends. This article at Linux.com has more information on building a Linux home media center. There’s also this guide by The MediaCenter Expert or this article by ZDNet’s George Ou.

Get creative with upgrades
Sure, you could do the standard mods and add WiFi or Bluetooth, but why not get adventurous with your modding? You could give the old laptop a snazzy wooden case mod, an extremely potent air-cooling system, or switch to the qwerty keyboard out for a Dvorak keyboard. Your imagination is the limit.

In the spirit of our previous post, what would you do?

58 thoughts on “What to do with an old laptop?

  1. Hmm, I was thinking just the opposite @raging. I have been enjoying the extended coverage provided after the expansion and addition of new authors however this post is not really in line with the more hardcore hacks this site tends to showcase. As you move forward, don’t forget your roots. This has been an amazing site for a long time and I hope it stays that way.

  2. i just obtained a dell d600 with a bustedd fan,fried battery, broken screen and no cd drive.. (1.6ghz/1gb/40-60gb) that i will be tinkering with soon

    if i find a LCD screen for my car, its going in there– if not, it’ll probably end up on my living room tv with xbmc on it until i can figure out a awesome but easy to implement idea

  3. I’ve tried to salvage the screen from a laptop before, only to discover that I had no data on how to implement it into a project. Otherwise I would have tried to build a supplemental monitor with it.

    Other than that, I have the parts(keyboard, trackpad, etc.) from the laptop, so i’m looking forward to the ideas in this post.

    I think some sort of controller, like a digital front-end for a mixer, compressor, etc. would be interesting, but I don’t know that I am at a stage where that would be possible.

  4. i’m currently building an emulator box from an old PII-450 laptop for playing old console games.
    great for looong toilet sessions and much much more.

  5. I use a old thinkpad in my kitchen to play music and display recipes when I’m cooking. I just put plastic wrap over the keyboard/nub so that water/crumbs/etc. doesn’t get it all gummed up. I’m thinking of mounting it to a cabinet door or the fridge so that it doesn’t take up my limited counter space. Also want to put xubuntu on it; win98SE is starting to crap out on me.

  6. You could create a custom digital multi probe/scope/meter/other digital and or analogue sensors, using the main board as a quasi embedded device, use only what is absolutely necessary ie mainboard, memory, display, trackpad + trackpad button/s, keyboard, battery hard drive (better yet flash memory as main drive) . Even some of the oldest laptops have good enough input output ports to allow for various instruments to be connected, and im sure there are a few gpio ports that could be used (laptops that have special physical buttons such as contrast brightness)

  7. I turned my old Hp laptop into an Car-puter. The laptop screen died and didn’t want to spend $300 to replace the back light. I just added some free software (In Car Terminal), a touchscreen, and an old microsoft streets and trips with gps reciever. The only mods you have to figure out are power,and deciding where to mount the laptop if you plan for permanent installation.

  8. Ah, the very first picture brings back sooooo many memories… I think a Toshiba Satellite 2100! We had a monochrome one for many years that functioned as just about anything: ran Windows 3.1 and later 95 and even 98, for all my experiments! I learnt Basic on that thing!

  9. hey, i’ve got a dell 6000 with a dead motherboard, the display has the same connector as my dell d600 with the broken display

    when i hook it up it blacks out the 1024×768 portion of the wide screen, but never displays anything.. i’m thinking i may need to swap some physical part?

    if anyone has any knowlege of how i could use a inspiron6000 display on a inspiron d600, or atleast a vaigue guide of how to do this general idea it would be of great help

    James@JamesHolden.com

  10. I have a Toshiba Satellite Pro CDS and it is win98 capable. I would like to use it as a RDP client so i can control my server with a PCMCIA wireless card, but as of yet I can not get to boot from the 98 CD..

  11. I used the screen bezel on my ThinkPad to add a USB hub. Two of the ports were ripped off for internal things (BT and eventually WiFi) and the remaining two have access to the outside for plugging in things. I only had one usb port to work from, so this was the best option. I have all the photos for an instructable, just haven’t done it yet.

    Does anyone have a how-to on figuring out the ground and signal on a cheapo USB bluetooth adapter? I need that to do external rabbit ears using the antennae from a router.

  12. When I upgrade my laptop I’m planning to use the old one as a kitchen computer: recipes, multiples timers, and music/tv/etc.

  13. I’ve just merged two old Toshiba 320cdt laptops into a single functional one with non-original 128 mb memory and a 20 GB HD. It’s going to be the “brains” of the go-to system (using Mel Bartel’s SCOPE.EXE)of the sphere-based ) 8″ dobsonian I’m building. (see http://www.sff.net/people/j.oltion/trackball.htm) Nice big display/full keyboard vs. dinky two-line display/tiny handpad of the commercial units. It will be joined by a Palm III with a Rand-McNally GPS to obtain precise location data and determine true North. I love old technology!

  14. I’ve used an old Digital HiNote laptop, and a Dell Inspiron with no screen as controllers for larger robotic projects, or to control cheap Radio Control cars with software PWM.

    I just write linux or windows code to interface the parallel port, build some PCB’s, generally add a few wheels and sensors and junk, and I’m started. Right now I’m working on an autonomous gps-enabled three-wheeled vehicle with the Dell laptop, but I’m still in the software-development phase. I have had successful remote control tests, using vnc over wifi, but the autonomy part of the equation means lots of coding.

  15. You can easily make a DIY Projector by simply unscrew the tft of the laptop leaving only the plastic frond and the cables connected, and place it on an old A4 projector. With a wireless mouse and keyboard you will not be disappointed :)

  16. im thinking of getting a touch screen kit for my old laptop, and mounting it into the car, so i have a 14″ touch screen gps, and mp3 player for my car :D

  17. Scott: if its got a floppy drive, go to bootdisk.com and get a 98 boot disk image, it’ll load up drivers for most cd roms, or give you the RAMdrive to load up your own dos cdrom driver. then run setup.

  18. Odd that this should get posted today, right when I was wondering what to do with this old Inspiron 4150. Read the post too late, though I’m not unhappy with what I did: full fledged Hardy Heron, which (surprisingly) natively supported every driver on the lappy. Runs great.

  19. I have a 500MHz PIII with a broken screen that’s hardly worth repairing, so I’m thinking of using the TV out and installing DOSBox with a few choice “vintage” games- ultimately my aim would be to hack a keyboard/joystick together and mount it in a cab. Imagine an arcade machine that played Doom :)

  20. I still have an old Toshiba 6100 Satellite, once I get my workroom, I’ll somehow integrate it into the worktop for multimedia purposes. zach’s idea is really good, perhaps I should add something like that to it as well :]

  21. After being bored with building several digital picture frames I decided to make a more intelligent device.

    I stripped down XP to run on 64MB RAM and installed Yahoo Widgets and a flickr/webshots background switcher. Now each morning I get a nice picture with a 70% transparent clock overlay, weather, calendar and a RSS ticker tape with news across the bottom.

  22. I actually combined both of the ideas given in the article. With a Dell Latitude Cpx with a non-working HDD and a $12 shadowbox frame, I now have a Geexbox media center (http://www.geexbox.org)
    It will do photo slideshows, as well as play audio and video files and DVDs.

  23. Hey,
    what about GPS? I would love to have a good old fashioned map with a dot showing where I am. I’ve seen a bunch of stuff on hacking google maps and cheap GPS recievers ($10 bucks). Anyone know how to cobble all of it together? I have TWO craptops.
    By the way, they’re nice for programmming AVR’stoo.

  24. One advantage of these older laptops is they’re using parallel-ATA drives. Just buy a cheap (laptop)-ATA => Compact Flash adapter and some cheap CF-card with a few GB’s of storage and you’ve got a perfectly silent drive, which is much faster in reading than the regular old drives. Only writing is slower.

  25. the best thing i have done with one of my old laptops was to do a car mount with it with the intended use as a proto-platform. from there i have used it in a variety of different car ‘hacks’ such as laser range finding (front, back, front left, front right, back left, back right), in car internet using CB radios, GPS (coupled with java speak audible direction handling, interfaced with google maps), and object tracking using a webcam and rotating mirror. my main interest now is setting it up to play dvd’s and emulated gaming systems (for passengers) with a split display.

  26. I have an old Dell CPxJ laptop with a broken screen. I was hoping to turn it into a “slim desktop” (ala http://www.macmod.com/content/view/1118/2/). I don’t have the 5/8″ white plastic pieces around the house so I went to TAP plastic for a quote: almost $50 for the material and labor (cutting and smoothing out the corners). Decided to pass.

    Now the laptop is running a stripped version of XP (via torrent) driving an old 17″ LCD as a digital photo frame.

    I would have used Linux but I didn’t want to deal with having to find the right drivers for the USB WiFi card (anyone with suggestions on this please let me know).

    One comment for those modding their old laptops into digital frames – your CCFL (backlight) may be coming to its end of life. I noticed it on an old Dell Inspirin 8000 with an LCD that is gradually growing dim. If you want to keep the frame around for a while might want to consider a newer *external* LCD.

    Finally I want to note that Weird Stuff in Sunnyvale CA has a lot of working (and non-working) laptops. I saw some for as low as $15 (broken LCD, no HDD, no mem). Good luck going through the pile.

  27. I’ve got a Dell Latitude 610 doing nothing, but I haven’t found any use for it.
    A photoframe seems like wasting energy and I don’t like computers in my car :-)
    Really dunno what to do with it besides using it as a frisbee…

  28. Hmm i was thinking of redoing my laptop rig. last laptop had issues with life but would boot up fine. using the guitar port. and a copy of russian xp and guitar rig was able to make a simple guitar rig. sounds suprisingly good once the presets were tweaked out. lot better than th line six software that came with it. computer is a dell 1.6 gig 512 ram. all onboard video and sound. i removed the wifi system so it never tried to get online.

    retrofitted into a old Sunn Head the hardest thing to work out (never got it 100% bug free) was the popup screen. there was a guy online who showed how to convert a usb joystick into a pedalboard for the line six stuff. interesting work.

  29. I have an old Toshiba Libretto 50ct. Tiny. I would like to work on it but cannot figure out how to interface with it. No Floppy, CD, USB. It has a PCMCIA slot that I could use with a network card but the drivers for the card are on floppy. It is running 95 right now but I want to put a slim version of Ubuntu on it, add memory, and replace the hd with Compact flash cards.

  30. i have an old compaq armada 3500. any suggestions of which version of linux would be best to use on it? i’m hoping to use it for file storage and internet access and who knows what else. i want something close to a unix system too. y’know for oldschool-type hacking cause i’m curious =-P. and what do i need to do to install it? i’m currently running windows NT; can i leave it on there or would it be best to do away with it?

  31. Great article….but some great things were skipped. I am embarrassed to say how man laptops I have, everything from the very old to the very new. But I have only ever bought one new laptop. The rest are salvaged or built from parts.

    On old laptops you can often upgrade the processor and RAM, sometimes even the graphics, to beyond what the OEM speced for it. Sometimes it takes some custom BIOS editing, but often it’s a “drop in”.

    What do I do with old laptops? I use them! I am typing this on one that came from somebody’s garbage a few days ago. It had Best Buy and Circuit City service department stickers on it….obviously they couldn’t fix it. I did….and loaded Ubuntu on it (it had a tired XP installation on it).

    People are paying good money for things like EEE PCs and Mac Air UMPC’s….just to do simple internet and documents! Let me tell you, such tiny laptops are floating around, often for free….because people don’t know what to do with them.

    USE THEM!

    I have at least one laptop in every room of a fairly large house….and in both my cars….and a handheld PC on my motorcycle. Most of them were free or dirt cheap….like five bucks.

  32. Boy, I’ve done a lot with them:

    1.) Created an autosampler for a spectrophotometer by cobbing the computer to free CNC G-Code interpreter (TurboCNC) running in dos to drive steppers. The stepper driver ran off the parallel port and a was a kit from HobbyCNC for a foam RC airplane wing cutter. This whole thing ran without even an HD – it was floppy based. It all fit way under 1 meg. G-code is great for control in non-cnc applications. It’s stable and widely understood and documented. A lot better than single mfr. proprietary control languages in many ways.

    2.) Simply upgraded the proc and memory way beyond the original specs on a 1998 Thinkpad 600e with a few solder hacks (see Wim’s Bios site for details) and ran Ubuntu for perfectly usable performance other than gaming. Even plays DVD’s cleanly.

    3.) Converted into a router with floppy based Coyote Linux.

    If you can hack dos and QBasic apps you can do tons of stuff with old laptops in control applications — they have plenty of IO capability and enough computing power to handle all kinds of things — certainly steppers. The need for modern power came mainly from GUI requirements, but are largely uneeded in control applications. Just about any computer can drive a motor or read a port. Floppies are more reliable than old hard drives, and usually all you need to doall kinds of work. A lot harder to replace a failed HD Platter than a floppy disk. Usually you can fit both a language, an app, AND data on a floppy if you just get archaic in your thinking.

  33. I had a old Toshiba 486 Laptop now getting stuck in this post I am tyrying to convert it into a CD/DVD Player as Scren is fine and other things are fine too just I need is a CD/DVD Rom Drive and then remove it’s O/S and load DOS and there is a unique application that can play any media CD’s in MS DOS. Hope it will work out.
    Vibsden

  34. HI
    , does anybody know how to by-pass the battery on a compaq 1200 laptop so I can run it on ac only ? Aslo anybody have any simple projects that I can do with old computors ? THANKS I,m a 65 years old retire handcap with time on my hand . please ideas to my E-Mail bobbiebayr@aol.com

  35. Im turning my old Toshiba into a tablet PC, yes it’s stupid,
    yes it’s dumb, but at least I have something to do with it
    now. Getting the Earth’s sorted out is extremely hard !

  36. If I could find the right adapters and LCD display converters, I’d hack me a Commodore 64 DTV into my old Toshiba Satellite laptop. I can’t get parts inexpensively for it, and Toshiba is so asinine in their customer service department. And, sending it in for repairs nullifies my modding!…

    If anyone has suggestions on hacking the display to show the DTV stuff, contact me via e-mail.

    Thanks.
    Aryu Limitless
    aryu.limitless@yahoo.com

  37. I’ve got a couple of old laptops setup as C64 machines. My old ACER 1.6 ghz 1ith 2GB RAM and 35GB Hard drive makes an EXCELLENT Commodore 64 (With the help of a few C64 emulators for XP).

    I’ve got the GB64 collection, the GEOS Collection, and an “expanded” Apps collection, ALL on the ACER.

    I also have an old Compaq 1247 with GREAT sound. So that’s my portable MP3 Player!

    JB

  38. JB’s got a great idea! Set your laptop up as an emulator, so you can run all of your old favorites from your C64 days or Vic20 Amiga/ atari collecovision, intellivision days. Sweet!

    I’ve got 6 old laptops all acquired from the garbage and all working and fixed. I use them for various fun things, playing around and generally I guess wasting time with them figuring out what software will work with them.

    Another great idea is to learn C programming on them. I’m pretty sure any laptop will do. The frontend DevC++ should work fine. Or learn C++, they are still very common programming languages. Or pick up some learning software somewhere and let your kids play around with it. Give them a jump in the tech world.

    There’s lots of things you can do. The year after those people have thrown out their laptops are probably wishing they’d held on to them … ah well … in my opinion, the day any piece of technology becomes totally useless is when the hydro shuts off. Then again there’s always solar panels heh heh heh.

  39. I was wondering if there was anyway you could take some parts out of a very old toshiba laptop, and a Dell Latitude D600, to build a new one? one has a great motherboard, the other has a good RAM and a good harddrive, and a good system. its kinda dumb, but i need a new laptop like really cheap and i came up with that idea and have no clue how to do it.

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