Learn networking. With two computers on hand, you can take a stab at making a LAN. All versions of Windows since Windows 95 have networking features built-in, so you won't need additional software. On the hardware side, you'll need an Ethernet card for your old machine (around $15, and your new PC probably already has Ethernet built-in) and either a network cable (from $2 to $30, depending on its length) or a hub or switch (about $40) with standard CAT5 networking cables.
The Windows Help files aren't too helpful, but there are dozens of excellent Web sites that walk you through the process. One of our favorites is World of Windows Networking (www.wown.com), though it can be a little overwhelming at first. A simpler page for Windows 95/98-only networking can be found at TunisiaDaily (www.tunisiadaily.com/answers/
networking.html.) You can also check out our extensive coverage of home networking at www.pcmag.com/networking and our issue of April 8.
It pays to learn the basics of networking first, because some of the other suggestions below are greatly enhanced when your old machine is networked to your newer one.
Make a multimedia player. Most computers have sound cards, and any system later than a Pentium 200 can run Winamp skip-free. Try installing your favorite digital-music software on the old machine. (MusicMatch Jukebox is the PC Magazine Editors' Choice in our issue of November 11.) If you want your MP3 or WMA collection to play on your living-room stereo instead of your computer, you've got a digital jukebox ready to go.
For basic music playback, you can connect your sound card's 1/8-inch stereo plug to a pair of RCA female plugs—labeled AUX input on the back of most stereos—with a commonly available Y cable, such as Radio Shack part 42-2551 ($7 list).
To integrate your PC with your home theater setup more completely, you may want a few more items. Buy a wireless keyboard/mouse combo for about $50 and you can control the show from your couch. A video card with a Video Out connector will let you hook your PC to your television, eliminating the need for a monitor. If you've networked your PCs, you can play music files directly from your main PC through the stereo.
Try multiplayer games. When your family members complain that you spend too much time playing PC games, you could simply cut down, or you can convince them to join you. Once your home network is set up, you can have mini-LAN parties any time you want.
The real trick is finding games that work well with your oldest computer. Perhaps the best choice is DOOM 95, which works fairly well even on a 486DX/66 system and runs smoothly on a Pentium/200 computer. As the name suggests, the game works within Windows 95 and later, and it supports several different types of networks. Free demos are available at Id Software's FTP site (ftp://ftp.idsoftware.com/idstuff/doom/
win95/doom95.zip), but a Google search for DOOM 95 1.9 download reveals many more reliable sites. You can find the full version, along with dozens of expansion packs, on eBay.
Install Linux. Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard about Linux, the free, Unix-like operating system for PCs. If you have ever considered trying it but were afraid of what it might do to your existing Windows setup, why not try it on a different computer?
Linux supports a surprisingly wide range of older hardware. In fact, sometimes the older the hardware, the better Linux supports it. There are versions, called distributions, that are suitable for very old computers, too. Debian Linux (www.debian.org) is well suited to slower machines, and it is also friendly and well documented enough for beginners. If you have a PC faster than 300 MHz or so, you may want to try Mandrake Linux (www.mandrakelinux.com,) which is considered the most friendly and comprehensive Linux distribution out there. It can feel a little slow on a Pentium/166, however.
If you have a broadband connection, you can download CD-ROM images of Linux and burn your own installation discs for free. Alternatively, you can purchase Linux for a small fee (ranging from $5 to $80) or buy a Linux book that comes with Linux discs. Check out PC Magazine's "Get Started with Linux" at www.pcmag.com/linux.
Make a printer/file/Web server. If your old computer is in good shape but just too slow for your needs, it may make a fine server.
If you have a few printers connected to a few computers, consider connecting all the printers to your old computer and setting up a network to your newer machines. This way, you leave one computer on all the time, which saves energy, and you'll be able to print from any networked machine to any of the printers.
Similarly, consolidate files if you and the users of your other networked computers are always trying to locate the same data. Finding MP3s and shared documents becomes a snap when there's only one household My Documents and My Music location. And you'll have only one directory to back up.
If you have broadband and a household router, your service provider may let you host a Web (or other) server, but be sure to check your terms of service. Even Windows 98 can host a personal Web page and hundreds of files for the occasional visitor to your site. Just make sure that you have updated your OS with the latest fixes and have a solid antivirus program and firewall in place. Apache is a free, high-quality server software package (www.apache.org).
Donate your unwanted PC to a local school. If you really have no use for an old machine or two, call your local school or school district. Many districts have minimum donation standards, such as accepting nothing older than a 486-based system, so be sure to ask. Some PC makers have their own donation programs. Dell, for example, works with a foundation that provides computers to disabled children (www.dell.com/recycling). Gateway buyers can request a recycle/donation form, which, when validated by a recycling center or charity group, entitles them to discounts on future purchases. (More on recycling below.)
Take it apart. Did you ever wonder how a CPU is connected to a motherboard? Are you not sure how to remove a hard drive? Do you want to practice inserting and removing RAM modules? An older computer is an excellent practice PC for maintenance and upgrades. You might want to keep it around just to perform trial runs before taking a screwdriver to your new $2,000 PC.
Strip it and sell the parts. Somewhere in the world, some small business or volunteer organization is getting by with old computers that work just fine. But when those machines break, getting replacement parts can be very difficult. Your old motherboard, video card, hard drive, network card, or other component could be invaluable to someone out there on eBay.
When posting your items for sale, try to include the full name of the component, including any part numbers, serial numbers, and FCC ID numbers printed on the part, because that's what a potential buyer will search for. Also, don't expect to make more than a few dollars on any item. The point here is to help someone else out, not make a killing.
Turn it into an aquarium. The classic repurposing of an old compact—and hopelessly broken—Apple Macintosh is to turn it into an aquarium, called a Macquarium. We're really talking about a fishbowl stuffed inside the shell of an old computer, but the effect is quite spiffy if you're into retro-technology or faking out your friends. Why have a screen saver imitate real life, when you can have real life imitate a screen saver? On the Macquarium page at Low End Mac (www.lowendmac.com/compact/macquarium.shtml), you'll find links to photos, plans, and even ready-to-purchase kits. The plans can be modified to work with any PC monitor.
Recycle it. If none of these ideas tickle your fancy, don't just throw your computer away. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (www.svtc.org) estimates that consumer electronics constitute 40 percent of the lead found in landfills, and other toxic materials, such as cadmium, barium, and mercury, are all found in PC components. Because of this, many municipal refuse and recycling companies don't offer curbside pickup of computer equipment.
Fortunately, computer-recycling companies meet this challenge. PC recycling is sometimes free; otherwise there may be a modest fee ($5 to $15). Call your city, town, or village hall to find out whether your area has a computer-recycling program. You can also search Google for computer recycling in your area, or check the Yellow Pages. Some computer vendors, like Dell and HP, accept PCs for recycling and reward you with gift certificates or discounts on future purchases.