November 26, 2008 4:57 PM   Subscribe

Found an old computer in the basement. What steps should I go through to get it up and running?

Seems a previous tenant left a computer tower in the basement. It's from, at the newest, 2003.

I plugged it into power, hit the on button, and stuff whirred, and green lights came on. It doesn't have any cables, mouse or a monitor, and my access to a monitor will be limited to what I can borrow off friends for short periods (have a MacBook, if there's some neat trick to be able to use it as a monitor...).

What can I do to get this up and running (thinking of installing Linux or BSD) - what bits will I need to scrounge, what should I do to check that everything's in place hardware-wise etc.?

And secondly, what flavour of Linux/Unix should I install, and how can I go about making this thing useful beyond being a pretty neat geeky playground?

Basically, what's the ABC of going from pile of junk to functional in this situation?
posted by djgh to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Plug it in and turn it on.. Those are pretty much the steps :)

You'll want a monitor, obviously, but if you are in a city you just have to watch the streets. People are throwing away CRTs all the time! (craigslist and freecycle too, if that is your inclination). Keyboard/mouse too, those are harder to find on the street, but generic ones are just as common and worthless.

If it has a windows license key sticker, you may use that version of Windows on the machine. Linux is fine too..

With keyboard/mouse and monitor, you may still be missing important parts, or some may be malfunctioning, but you'll have to address that problem when you come to it.
(the ultimate boot CD can help diagnose problems)
posted by Chuckles at 5:09 PM on November 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you have access to a television, you could buy an adapter to use that as a monitor (assuming the video card doesn't have a TV-out already). Something like this, for instance.

Any old mouse and keyboard that fits the ports should allow you to get Linux going, so long as the CD-ROM drive works. I can't recommend a particular distribution myself, but once you've got the machine powered up and have some sense of what's going on inside, you might find this Linux Distribution Chooser useful.
posted by Clandestine Outlawry at 5:10 PM on November 26, 2008

Best answer: 1. Open up the case and make sure everything is secure. Jiggle the cards, cables, etc. Nothing should pop or fall out. If it's dusty, vacuum it out. Don't disconnect or remove anything you don't know how to put back in.

2. Round up a used CRT monitor, keyboard, and mouse - $10 or so at your local thrift store. Or free on Craig's List or Freecycle (sometimes.) Don't forget the power cables.

3. Power her up and see what happens. It'll probably boot right into Windows ME or something...

As for Linux, that's really a seperate question, as it's impossible to know what to recommend without knowing the system specs. When in doubt, Damn Small Linux will run on anything. I've got it running on my Casio calculator wrist watch right now, in fact I'm posting this answer from it.*

Unbuntu seems to be the poison of choice if the machine has 512mb of ram or more.

* Not really.
posted by wfrgms at 5:15 PM on November 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Try Goodwill for computer parts for old computers. I needed a monitor, keyboard, & mouse for an old computer that I built out of spare parts. Got a 20" flat CRT for $20 bucks and the mouse & keyboard for a couple of bucks each. Seems like an office had dumped everything in order to upgrade. They have all the cables you'll need as well.
posted by aristan at 6:45 PM on November 26, 2008

As Linux/BSD goes, I would install whatever you (and/or friends) are already familiar with, though note that OpenBSD's generic kernel (all drivers included, rather than requiring a custom kernel build) means that it's rather good at identifying hardware: everything it could possibly recognize, it will. That's a good starting point. (It's also an excellent Unix, as is FreeBSD.)

You'll need to actually install it (though that shouldn't take long): the kernel that boots for installation doesn't have everything included. Here's a list of the supported hardware, assuming it's a PC (i386), otherwise check the supported platforms page. Good luck!
posted by silentbicycle at 7:04 PM on November 26, 2008

Best answer: This is difficult to answer considering you dont have a monitor. Once up, I would do the following: (these are assume it boots up to either windows 2000 or xp)

Use compressed air to clean out the computer, especially the areas between the heatsink fins.

Check the s.m.a.r.t attributes on the drive. You can use speedfan for this. One (or more) bad sectors means the disk is garbage and should be thrown out. Also do a chkdsk.

Speedfan will also tell you how hot this thing is getting. If its getting too hot then you might need to invest in another fan. You dont want a machine where the previous owner took a couple fans out for his newer rig.

Find out what CPU and what kind of ram you have in there. CPU-Z does this very well.

Run memtest or the microsoft memory tester overnight. If there are any errors throw out the ram asap. If it has two or more sticks then try to identify the bad one by rerunning the tool with one only plugged in.

If all things check out then the ethical thing would be to run DBAN and completely wipe the disk. The previous owner's data will be deleted and overwritten making it impossible to restore.

Install the OS of your choice. Enjoy your dumpstered tower.

And secondly, what flavour of Linux/Unix should I install

I have had a lot of luck with the newest versions of Ubuntu, except for Dell Lattitude 1100s... grumble grumble Make sure you have 512 or more ram for this. For really old machines I go with puppy linux. Its more user friendly than damn small linux.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:11 PM on November 26, 2008

I'd find a monitor first, before fiddling about too much.

As to linuxes, if you're below 512Mb RAM I'd use Xubuntu, otherwise, Ubuntu or Mint.
posted by pompomtom at 7:57 PM on November 26, 2008

I have had a lot of luck with the newest versions of Ubuntu

Note that the stripped-down Xubuntu is an option as well.

I've had excellent luck running Zenwalk Linux on older machines.
posted by gimonca at 9:07 PM on November 26, 2008

If it's been sitting in a basement, it is a good idea to open up the case, as others have suggested, check that everything is connected properly and use a can of compressed air to remove the accumulated dust, possible bugs and the like.

On the monitor question, think of what you want to do with this machine. For example, if you will be using it as a home file / media server, you don't really need a monitor --- just borrow one for setting up, hide it away in a (properly ventilated) closet and run it headless .

As for installing Linux, if you have a decent amount of RAM (say, >512MB), most distributions should run fine on a 5-year old machine. Use XFCE for your desktop instead of other, more bloated options *cough* Gnome *cough* and you should be ok. I'm typing this on my home machine which is a 866Mhz PIII from way back when, and is perfectly functional for browsing, e-mail, media and light office use.
posted by ghost of a past number at 11:36 PM on November 26, 2008

It's probably a Pentium 3 or 4, 500 to 1500mhz, 128 to 512mb of RAM. You don't need to do anything special. Get the missing parts and treat it like a new computer. The one caveat is that if it has less than 256mb of RAM the live cd based installers of popular Linuxes like Ubuntu and Fedora won't run.
posted by PueExMachina at 6:02 PM on November 27, 2008

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