The boneyard


— 2:59 PM on December 1, 2008

Like many of you, I often find myself with a surplus of computers and PC components. Whether obtained as hand-me-downs or merely casualties of an upgrading addiction, I always seem to have more machines than roles for them. Ideas of home theater PCs, media servers, backup gaming rigs, and even "hackintoshes" are constantly kicking around in my mind, but those would just be toys to me, not things I would actually use all too often.

Instead, unused computers tend to rot in my closet for a little while before I get tired of looking at them and simply give them away to friends and family. Just in the last couple of months, I've gifted out at least one quad-core setup, a couple of dual-more machines, and at least one laptop. While I'm sure this is netting me brownie points with their recipients, I still find myself wondering if I couldn't be doing something more philanthropic with my spare computers.

Who knew charities were so picky?
On the hunt for tax write-offs a while back, I looked into donating some of my oldest machines. My first stop was the local Goodwill drop-off site, but they told me they didn't accept computers. Other thrift shops didn't know where to begin with them, either, so I quickly gave up on that method of unloading PCs. The next step was to contact a few local schools, but the school districts in my area must not be feeling the state's budget crunch, because they weren't interested in used computers, either. I realize that accepting PCs requires an organization to have people on staff that actually know what to do with them, but there are dedicated charities for automobiles, which are just as difficult (if not more so) to service. Where are the PC charities?

Tossing "computer charities" into Google brings back hundreds of thousands of results, but many don't clearly state what happens to the computers. Making matters worse, of the organizations that I'd consider donating to, none have local drop-off sites. A good number of the charities also want only Pentium 4-class hardware or better, which is fine for the majority of my machines—but what should you do with slightly older computers? Sure, they won't play nice with Flash or other rich media content, but as long as they can be secured by running Windows XP or a modern Linux distribution like Ubuntu, I would think they have some utility. Office productivity applications alone open up a number of possibilities including resume creation, job training, and typing practice. Is there really no place for free Pentium II or III-class hardware? As a last resort, I've at least found local recycling centers that will take them if they can't be put to good use.

Crunching data for humanity
I've often thought about the idea of distributed computing—putting all of my extra PCs to work for the good of mankind. There are a number of organizations for this, but the two most popular seem to be Folding@Home and SETI@home. Folding@Home has the more noble goal in my mind, using the spare CPU cycles of thousands of users to analyze how proteins fold in the effort to learn more about the causes and potential cures for ailments like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. PC enthusiasts have been some of the biggest supporters, and our very own Team TR is a large contributor to the cause. You can head over to distributed computing forum to learn more about getting started.

SETI@home employs similar tactics, only instead of protein folding, computers are used to analyze radio telescope samples with the hope of finding evidence of extraterrestrial life. Helping in the hunt for ET certainly sounds like fun, but I'm left wondering about the practical applications. Nonetheless, it's still a charitable way to use your extra computers, and a fun conversation starter to boot. Also, as a math junkie, I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention GIMPS: the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search. This distributed computing project is all about the search for, you guessed it, Mersenne prime numbers. Their efforts have helped find the last twelve Mersenne primes, with the most recent finds containing over 10 million digits. If you've ever used Prime95 for stress testing, you're already familiar with their software.

So, why have I said no to distributed computing thus far? To be honest, I really don't have the space to run a number of extra desktops, and I'm more concerned with the energy implications. I live in an energy-conscious state, replete with rolling blackouts and pleas not to run household appliances during the day. Guzzling down expensive electricity with several spare PCs, albeit for the good of mankind, doesn't seem like the most responsible course of action. The desktops that I do have set up are shut off whenever not in use, and I do my best to use the most energy-efficient machines for the task at hand when possible. For those reasons, distributed computing with my extra computers seems to be out of the question. However, in an effort to get involved with Team TR, I'll likely set up the Folding@Home client for my PlayStation 3 in the near future, now that the weather's cooling off and demands on the local power grid aren't nearly as high.

At last, we come to the question: how do you deal with your excess PCs? Do you have a mad scientist lab in your basement for making digital photo frames out of old laptops, or have you found even more practical roles for them? Perhaps you keep an old machine in the kitchen to store recipes and watch YouTube while you cook. Maybe there's a great charity out there that I've missed, just waiting for all of my spare computing power. Is it time for me to stop being so philanthropic and turn to eBay, or even sell locally through Craigslist? Or is your home just a factory for protein folding, helping Team TR climb ever higher on the charts? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and hopefully one of your ideas will help me get my closet cleaned out before the rapture.

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