10 Ways to Upcycle Your Old Computer or Laptop

Great uses for your old laptop or desktop

Buying a new computer has one downside: you're stuck with the old one. Computers contain potentially dangerous chemicals and metals, so tossing an old computer in the garbage isn't a great idea. Plus, it's a waste to destroy a working, if slow, computer.

Upcycling your old computer gives its a purpose and keeps it out of the trash bin. It can even add a new device to your home, like a retro gaming console or security center, that you didn't know you needed. Remember, what's the worst that can happen? Breaking the computer isn't a worry if the computer was already going to the recycle yard. Let's give that old computer a new life.

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Make a Home Theater Media Center

A screenshot of the Plex media server interface


The computers now sliding into obsolescence are powerful enough to handle being a media center. Most computers sold in the last decade can control local playback or streaming of movies and TV shows. Using an old computer for media can unlock a wide range of streaming services and enables easy access to region-restricted content (through a VPN).

Plug your PC into your television through HDMI, add a keyboard and mouse, and you're ready to go.

If you want to dive into the deep end, you can download a digital media player like Plex and turn your old PC into a whole-home media server.

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Host a Game Server

A village in Minecraft's desert biome


Movies and TV shows aren't the only entertainment an old PC can host. Hosting a game server is another excellent option.

It might seem old-fashioned. Modern games offer free online play and, with many modern games, it's not even possible to host a server. There are exceptions, however. Terraria and Starbound are popular co-op games that have a dedicated server option. And, of course, you can make a Minecraft server.

The Valve Developer Community wiki has a partial list of games sold on Steam that support dedicated servers. Many PC games sold in the late 1990s and early 2000s offer dedicated server support, as well.

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Create a Cloud Gaming PC

Image of devices supporting Google Stadia


The computer you hope to upcycle can't likely play modern games, but cloud gaming unlocks new options for aging machines. They work like Netflix or Hulu, streaming the game to you instead of playing on your computer.

Nvidia GeForce Now, Amazon Luna, and Shadow Blade are some of the most popular cloud gaming services compatible with a PC. They each have advantages and disadvantages, but they'll generally work on any computer that can handle 1080p streaming.

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Turn It Into a Retro Game Console

Image of Retroarch main menu interface


Have a soft spot for older games? Upcycling an old computer into a retro game console is an excellent choice. It's simple, easy to install, and usually won't strain your old computer's hardware even if it lacks a dedicated graphics chip.

The key to unlocking retro gaming bliss is an emulator, a program that uses software to replicate the hardware of a game console. While you can track down individual emulators for the consoles you're interested in, your best bet is RetroArch, a program that acts as an interface for multiple emulators.

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Create a File Server

An image of the Filezilla FTP server software main interface


Now that we've had some fun, it's time to turn towards practical upcycling. A file server is a time-honored use for aging computers, and that's good news if yours is particularly old. You'll likely run into network hardware or port compatibility limitations before your old computer's performance is a concern.

There are many ways to create a file server, but free FTP Server software for Windows is the best bet for most people. It's straightforward, provides file access over a local network or the Internet, and won't cost a single cent if you stick to personal use.

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Use It as a Workshop or Garden PC

A computer in a shed

Vecchio Austriaco / Model Flying UK

Computers are delicate, so they're typically kept far from anything that might damage them. However, if you're looking to upcycle a computer, you're probably not as worried about breaking it.

An old computer in your workshop, garage, or garden shed can be handy. You can track project materials and access online resources without tracking dirt inside.

Don't restrict your use to work, however. An old computer is also fabulous for entertainment. Spotify's free PC app lets you select individual tracks, for example, something you can't do with the mobile app.

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Use It in the Kitchen

Apple MacBook on a kitchen table


This upcycling option is perfect for an old touchscreen computer. While touchscreens still aren't standard on every PC sold today, the touchscreen's popularity surged in 2013. Many devices in the first wave of touchscreen computing are aging.

A touchscreen is great for the kitchen because you can use it while your hands are somewhat dirty. It's not a good idea to browse YouTube after massaging a bowl of raw meat, but you can use a touchscreen with flour, sugar, salt, or even a bit of egg on your hands. A touchscreen is easy to wipe clean too.

A computer in the kitchen is handy for reading recipes, installing cooking apps, and converting measurements. It can also keep you entertained with Netflix, Spotify, or YouTube while waiting for your dish to cook.

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Use It for Video Conferencing

Image of Skype used on a computer and smartphone


A modern computer can easily handle video conferencing, but there are limitations. The position of your computer's webcam might not be ideal, and the software can feel intrusive or annoying if you're trying to multitask while on a call.

Upcycling your old computer into a video conferencing center solves all these problems. You can place it exactly where you want it, install the video conferencing software, and forget about it until you need it. You can even significantly improve your video quality by adding an external webcam.

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Improve Your Home Security

A laptop being used for home security

Intel Free Press / Wikimedia Commons

Smart home security is a hot new tech trend, but popular options from Nest, Arlo, and Wyze share a problem: a monthly subscription fee. This fee often charged per camera, can add up to $100 every year.

An old computer offers an old-school alternative. Instead of connecting cameras to the cloud, you can connect them to your locally hosted computer. You can avoid a monthly fee no matter how many cameras you connect. A locally hosted solution also avoids the privacy concerns some users might have about cloud-based home security.

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Contribute to Science

A radio telescope pointed towards the sky

Tony Craddock / Getty Images

Researchers often find that, despite the incredible rise in computing power over the past few decades, they're always in need of more. Some projects turn towards distributed computing to solve this, which lets anyone contribute over the Internet by installing a program.

This trend started in 1999 with the now-defunct SETI@Home. Today, the Folding@Home project lets you contribute to necessary disease research. Or you can choose from hundreds of other active projects, ranging from cryptography to Chess.

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A man working on computers donated to a school

John Moore / Getty Images

Upcycling is a great way to give an old device new life, but it doesn't always work. You might find that your old computer isn't up to even these simple tasks or that it lacks a feature needed to make your upcycling project work.

Don't toss the computer just yet. Instead, donate it! A computer is a must-have in today's world, but computers remain unaffordable for many people in communities across the globe. A quick Google search for organizations that accept donations can connect you with a charity that needs your old computer.

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