Re-purposing laptops: I want more than a picture frame.
April 2, 2009 8:30 AM   Subscribe

When it comes to re-purposing old laptops, it seems like the only option people really talk about is to turn it into a picture frame. There's got to be more that an old iBook can do... right?

My girlfriend has a 5-year old iBook G4 running OS 10.3 (Panther) which has simply outlived its usefulness as an every day, primary computer. It's got 256mb RAM and a small-ish hard drive but can't handle Office, iTunes, or Firefox (let alone any 2 of those at once) without breaking out the color-wheel-of-death.

I bought her a new MacBook last month which she loves but she is refusing to get rid of her old iBook. I have a slightly newer (about 4-years old) iBook of my own that I am selling on eBay but she is not interested in parting with her "old friend." I don't understand her need to hold onto this old laptop, nor do I seek to dissuade her of the notion. I asked her if we could possibly try to figure out some way to re-purpose it rather than let it sit on a shelf gathering dust and she agreed, now the question is, what to do with it?

I've seen threads about this in a number of places (including here and on lifehacker) but it always seems to come down to file server or picture frame. Our house has a server (Ubuntu 8.04, reasonably speedy) and we have no need for a digital picture frame. I was thinking about using it as a firewall (but it only has one NIC) or as a thin client but I'm not sure where to start. I used to run Ubuntu PPC on my old iBook but kept running into issues due to the x86 vs PPC architecture. The other idea I had was as a "kitchen" computer for recipes and watching TV/streaming radio while cooking, but we already use her new MacBook to do this and that seems to work fine.

In the end, I think we've got enough computers in our house, but she wants to keep this one. So... I turn to you, dear readers. What possible use can we squeeze out of my girlfriend's "old friend"??
posted by alexherder to Computers & Internet (21 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Install OS9, and make it a dedicated retro gaming box?
posted by scruss at 8:38 AM on April 2, 2009

I like scruss' suggestion. Another option is to still use it for watching stuff. You can watch two things at once, and you can bring the old laptop with you on trips and use it for a DVD player.
posted by theichibun at 8:45 AM on April 2, 2009

Mine is used for a Television.
posted by redandblue at 8:48 AM on April 2, 2009

Install an app like MacGourmet and a silicone keyboard cover and use it as a kitchen recipe computer. I would also pick up a little more RAM—you can go to 1 GB on one of those old Macs for about $40 these days. That will let you run iTunes at the same time without the "rainbow" cursor.

I wouldn't install OS 9 to make a gaming box; there are lots more emulators for OS X (even just 10.3) that will work fine on that machine. I used to use them all the time on my 400mhz PowerBook G4 to play SNES and Gameboy games.
posted by bcwinters at 8:52 AM on April 2, 2009

Mount it to the wall in the kitchen and set it up as a news/weather/info/shared calendar/grocery list hub.
posted by mikepop at 8:55 AM on April 2, 2009

Nthing the suggestion to use it as some kind of kitchen reference center--whether just to display information or to look up recipes.

If its just not powerful to run anything meaningful for those purposes, could you use it to VNC to another machine in the house--while still leveraging its convenience elsewhere?
posted by nita at 9:08 AM on April 2, 2009

Best answer: Well, for one it's RAM-starved. 256MB is the biggest problem it has. If you stuck another module in it, brought it up to 512MB or so, you would have yourself a very nice "netbook." Actually, it'd probably be better than most of the netbooks on the market right now, and assuming it's the 12" iBook model, not much bigger.

Ubuntu has a distribution specifically aimed at PowerPC machines and iBooks are one of the more common platforms to run it on; if you blew away MacOS and replaced it with Linux, it might feel snappier — especially with a low-requirements variant like Xubuntu.

I think you'll be surprised what a difference going from 256MB to 512 or whatever that machine's max is. I used a 600MHz G4 iBook as my primary portable machine up until a few months ago, and it ran Mail/Firefox/TextEdit/Terminal like a champ. (Only reason I replaced it was because I decided I wanted to be able to do fairly heavy photo editing while on the road.) Modern applications require tons of RAM but in many cases don't demand that much from the processor.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:15 AM on April 2, 2009

I like to keep an old beater laptop around for miscellaneous odd jobs. Take out to the garage for a wiki-how on changing a spark plug, or keep it in the kitchen for that cookie recipe.

If you want speed, load a light linux OS and use it exclusively for web-based use.
posted by JuiceBoxHero at 9:24 AM on April 2, 2009

Best answer: I just reinstalled the OS on an old ibook, filled the drive halfway with kids videos and kids songs in itunes. I will be packing it up this weekend to send to my 2 1/2 year old niece so she can get used to the idea of a computer and so she can watch sesame street/listen to goofy kids songs and feel like she is being just like mommy. I did upgrade the ram to 640 and had to change the frame rate of the videos from 30 to 15 for the video not to be choppy.

I have an old ibook that acts as my dvd player/media machine - I output the video to my tv and I can watch whatever I have saved on the drive, or what's playing in the dvd player on the ibook. I resorted to this after killing yet another dvd player from Best Buy and gave up on them entirely.
posted by 8dot3 at 9:26 AM on April 2, 2009

I keep my old laptop with my tax documents. YMMV.

But some interesting ideas: ant farm, flower pot, hold scissors/pens in the top top part, jewelry box (would involve removing all the guts and getting some glue/velvet in there or something)..
posted by shownomercy at 9:33 AM on April 2, 2009

Set it up as an alarm clock/bedroom stereo?
posted by chairface at 9:46 AM on April 2, 2009

You can set it up as a server, hook it up to your TV and watch movies off of it. No Hulu, but you can use VLC and play just about any file on it.
posted by monkeyman82 at 10:41 AM on April 2, 2009

Max out the memory and then see how it goes-- depending on what iteration of the g4 ibook you have, the maximum memory is anywhere between 640MB and 1.5GB. Again, depending on which particular version of the iBook you have, it would probably cost somewhere between $20 and $80 to max the RAM out.
With, say 1 GB of ram and ubuntu PPC 8.04, you've got something fairly comparable to a low-end netbook, speed wise, but with a bigger screen, full keyboard, and an optical drive.
posted by kid_dynamite at 11:59 AM on April 2, 2009

Nthing music jukebox.
posted by alms at 12:35 PM on April 2, 2009

Loaded up with a minimal Linux distro (ie. xubuntu), a machine like this will continue to be usable (even without a ram upgrade). Also, it can easily made to serve any number of single purpose functions:
  • media player with xmms or amarock
  • synthesizer / drum machine with rosegarden or hydrogen (just attach a midi keyboard or drumpad)
  • internet kiosk with firefox or opera
  • word processor with abiword or openoffice
  • audio recorder/editor with audacity or ardour
  • personal email/web server (for smaller loads, of course) with postfix or apache
  • file server / network storage / automated data backup (with some configuration of your primary machines) with samba or nfs
  • rendering node for speeding up blender or cinelerra on your main machine (would you call this a "render kitchen garden" as opposed to a "render farm"?)
  • run mosix on this and your main machines and enter the world of cluster supercomputing.

posted by idiopath at 12:47 PM on April 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Well, you could turn it into a dedicated retro-gaming box - SNES, MAME, etc. If you're into that kind of thing. But seriously - if it's more likely than not to be gathering dust then you need to get rid of it. Can you stand to let it gather dust for a couple of months and then restate your case for dumping it?
posted by O9scar at 3:07 PM on April 2, 2009

I turned mine into a streaming Internet Radio and music player (mostly RealPlayer) before I finally sold it on eBay last month. iTunes 6+ can access shared libraries from other computers, handy since the HDD was only 20gb.

It was 7 years old by the time it could finally be pried from my hands and still going great!
posted by wingless_angel at 5:02 PM on April 2, 2009

The recipe-software is a great idea if either one of you are cooks, but I prefer YummySoup to Mac Gourmet. YummySoup also has a great large-print mode so you can easily read it from the counter.
posted by tejolote at 1:29 AM on April 3, 2009

Response by poster: Wow. Thanks for all the great responses. I shared this thread with my girlfriend and I think a Xubuntu install is in our immediate future. Her "old friend" will be kept in the kitchen for music and recipe purposes and as a "guest" computer for people who come and visit.

@idiopath - The phrase "render kitchen garden" is just too clever. I truly laughed out loud at that. Sadly administering a PPC render node in a farm (or garden) of x86's is more of a pain than it's worth but it's a good suggestion.

@shownomercy - I've actually been meaning to buy/build her a jewelry box and this could actually be a great idea for when it's truly useless as a computer. I could put a mirror in place of the LCD, but somehow leave the backlight. This will probably take more planning, but what a great idea.
posted by alexherder at 7:12 AM on April 3, 2009

alexherder: on the off chance that you do video / 3d rendering work, blender and cinelerra don't really care what kind of processor each node is running, they just send data out and wait for data to come back; though, yeah, a general purpose cluster would be a bad idea if all the other machines are X86, good point.
posted by idiopath at 10:44 AM on April 4, 2009

Buy an external hard drive enclosure and turn the laptop into a NAS.
posted by abbat at 4:51 PM on March 27, 2010

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