What can you do with old computers? Reuse, recycle, or retire. Here are the decisions you make and the path to choose.
- Who should reuse, recycle, or retire a computer?
- Which computer is next to reuse, recycle, or retire?
- What can be reused, recycled, or retired?
- When do we reuse, recycle, or retire technology?
- Where would you reuse or recycle?
- Why reuse or recycle or replace?
Who should reuse, recycle, or retire a computer?
Everyone with a computing device should look at their devices each year and plan ahead for a replacement. Devices do break. You will have real problems recovering data from a broken device no matter what the sales people say. Planning ahead gives you the chance to prepare and test the tools you will need when the device breaks. You can also plan on replacing the device before the device breaks.
Many devices and software are offered with backup options or online storage, all aimed at locking you into buying a replacement of the same brand. The worst situation you can put yourself in is to be locked in. Always use independent backup software and hardware you can use to test recovery to any brand of hardware.
When the computer administrator and computer user are different people, they need to discuss exactly what will happen when the device breaks. There is no use having a backup and spare device in your office when you work in different countries each week. Based on that experience, I can assure you that same brand replacements are not easy to buy everywhere. Current airline excess baggage charges make it too expensive to carry a complete backup recovery system and spare device with you everywhere.
Life is easier when you are not locked in to a brand or model.
Devices have known lifetimes. Ask your friends how long their devices last. Look at industry figures for desktop computers, notebooks,and smartphones. Dell products are exactly at the average lifetime. Most Toshiba products are above average. Apple is slightly below Dell. Some brands, Asus for example, have expensive models that are better than Dell but they also make cheap models that are worse than Apple. Find people who have the same brand and same model.
Toshiba used to have two ranges, the Pro range that was up at the top of the reliability list and cheaper options that were down near Dell. Now the Toshiba range no longer makes that distinction. Several of the major brands follow the same pattern, mix rubbish with the good stuff. The problem of measuring quality is made worse by the fact that most of the products run along the same assembly lines at a Foxconn slave labour factory. Every batch can be different.
The one dividing factor is SSD versus magnetic disk. One of the most common failures is a broken magnetic disk after a bump or a fall. For notebooks, SSD is the big dividing line in reliability. Desktop computers can be configured with an SSD for the system disk then multiple magnetic disks for bulk storage plus frequent backup.
For notebooks, find a friend with the same brand, model, and storage device. Look for videos on how to replace the battery and disk. Do not buy a model where either replacement is difficult.
For a desktop, you want to find people using the same brand and model then check their storage configurations. Make sure it is easy for you to replace the disks.
Toshiba and some other brands make expensive models with metal cases and cheap models with plastic cases. The metal cases are far better for notebook reliability. There are exceptions. Some brands use plain aluminium instead of an alloy. Plain aluminium is too soft. Apple had a notebook with a fancy looking aluminium case but it broke easily.
Plan on the basis that your backup for a new device has to work from the instant you commit data to the new device. Make the backup easy or the user will not use the backup. Based on travelling the world and travelling to suburbs in major cities, Internet access is not reliable or even available in many areas. When it is available, it can be too slow to be useful.
Take a classic situation. You use Windows instead of a reliable user controlled operating system. You are in a motel room somewhere and need to report a major potential sale back to head office. You need their support. Everything has to happen before the head office staff leave for the night. In the middle of your typing, Windows starts an automatic update. Network access is slow. Microsoft make matters worse by connecting you to slow servers in other countries. After hours of waiting, you are forced to reboot. Unfortunately the update included some .NET stuff which means the reboot will fail. You are then facing half a day reinstalling Windows using the recovery disk back at your head office.
Take Apple and Samsung phones as examples of battery operated devices. Both use Lithium batteries. Lithium batteries use a chemical process that degrades the battery power with every use. Chemical batteries die after 1000 uses. Some new Lithium batteries can last 3000 uses but they are heavy and used only in cars.
For a long time, Apple phones required a charge twice a day. That is 700 times per year. Early Apple phones died in their second or third year due to the bad batteries. Apple forced you to buy a new phone instead of just replacing the battery. Expensive. This was part of Apple's plan to force you to buy a new phone every year.
Samsung batteries lasted longer and Samsung let you replace the battery at a reasonable cost. You could use their phones twice as long on the first battery and most of the life of the second battery. Somewhere toward the end of life of the second battery, you would get other problems including degraded screens and a lack of updates for the software on the phone. Put together the double battery life multiplied by two batteries, you get a long life from the Samsung phone and will probably replace the phone before the phone breaks just to get a new feature, like a better camera. Unfortunately Samsung are switching to locked in batteries.
Good notebooks have replaceable batteries. Fashion accessory notebooks may have the battery soldered in place to make replacement too expensive. Cheap notebooks may have replaceable batteries but may also have "push together" cases that break no matter how you open them. Avoid the fashion brand and look for battery replacement videos before buying cheap.
A backup computer
If you buy the replacement before the existing device dies, the old device can be reused as a backup for the new device. If you keep the old device and the new device in sync, the old device can be switched into use immediately. That gives you time to shop around for your next device when the new device needs replacement.
You can use a desktop as a backup for a notebook. You can backup to a computer used by another member of your family or other workers in the same organisation but you do need to learn about security for multiple logins.
You can learn about what is needed for a working backup then create a working backup on a machine with a different configuration. You need to learn about controlling the "boot" process and multiple user security.
USB 3 makes backups to external devices easy. USB 3.2 (also called USB 3.1 gen 2) makes external backups so fast, you can plug them into a spare computer for regular use as a boot device.
Reusing and recycling can be easy
Almost anyone can reuse a computer with a little assistance or training. Something simple, like cleaning a fan or replacing a battery, can be taught in a few minutes. Safely opening up a notebook computer takes a little bit longer. There are videos online for everything. Before you buy a new device, look for videos on how to perform those basic maintenance tasks.
Recycling a computer by replacing disks is the next level up and requires a few hours training on static electricity, operating system installation, and configuration of an operating system. You usually include an update to the latest version of an operating system except for Windows where the latest versions, Vista, 8.0, and 10, are worse than the versions they replace, XP, 7, and 8.1.
Anything more complicated is usually not worth the effort. Retire the computer. Use theold computer as a backup or strip out any parts that could be spare parts for your other computers. Dump the rest in a recycling bin for technology.
A broken power supply can be replaced and it involves mains electricity, which excludes beginners without careful supervision. Everything else runs at voltages too low to kill the careless experimenter. You might kill the computer with bad handling. The highest internal voltage is 12 volts, way below the lowest fatal voltage of 90 volts.
Notebooks and handhelds have lithium batteries. Lithium batteries burst into flames when mistreated. Look at all the iPhones burning people's hands and setting fire to homes. Look at the Apple ear buds burning human faces. A recent Samsung Galaxy 7 phone had Apple's burn syndrome. Always charge a lithium battery using the manufacturer's supplied charger.
Buy replacement batteries only from reputable shops. Take used lithium batteries straight to a lithium battery recycler. If in doubt, return the battery to the shop where you purchased the device containing the battery. Check the brand has a recycling program before you buy.
Which computer is next to reuse, recycle, or retire?
Computers with one or more years of dust in the fans need a clean and this is a good time to reconsider their use. Computers making any sort of noise might be near failure. Any computer with a five year old magnetic disk is close to failure and should be on your recycle list. Any components that are ten years old are about to fail or are wasting energy. Computers without USB 3 cannot connect to modern devices.
Dust accumulates in fans. Clean your computer's fans at least once per year. Use a small vacuum cleaner nozzle. When your computer makes a whining noise, clean the fans. If the fans still make a noise,replace the fans or think about the age of the other components.
When your computer makes a whining noise or a clicking, find the source of the noise and replace the noisy hardware because noise means failure will happen soon. Fans are the only things you can fix by cleaning when they are noisy. If the noise of a fan continues after cleaning, replace the fan.
Clicking from a disk means the disk is failing and will die soon. Some disks click when new because they have a really bad design. It is not worth trying to tell the differences in clicking between a disk with a bad design and a disk that is failing. Return the new disk and buy a better disk.
A five year old disk can be replaced by a new disk that will have more speed and a higher capacity or use less power. A new disk might have compatibility problems due to changes in the disk interface. You can also waste money by placing super fast new disks in a slow old computer that will never let the disks achieve their maximum speed. Talk with someone who knows disks.
You can also waste the speed of a new computer by transferring an old disk to a new computer. Copy the data from the old disk to a new disk, use the old disk as a backup for a few months, then retire the old disk.
In a notebook, the disk interface is fixed. Desktops have expansion slots to allow the use of new technology, things like M.2 disks. The desktop motherboard might limit the speed of the new device. Talk with someone who knows disks and motherboards.
SSDs often have write speeds far slower then their read speeds. You might buy an over engineered SSD to get a decent continuous write speed. As an example, M.2 NMVe SSDs have read speeds too fast for old computers. They can have a short burst of write speed similar to their read speed then drop down to a write speed as little as one tenth their read speed. That slow write speed can be lower than the speed of a ten year old computer. You might choose to buy a more expensive SSD to get a faster continuous write speed.
A desktop computer that has only USB 2 can be reused by upgrading to USB 3. Typically you buy a USB 3 PCIe add-in card for your computer. About $30. For slightly more, you can get the faster USB 3.1 gen 2. A good card installs easily in minutes. Your computer is reused without any other changes.
Notebook computers do not have PCIe expansion slots. Any notebook computer old enough to not have USB 3 is also likely to have a failing battery and other problems. Plan the purchase of a replacement. The old notebook could be recycled as a print server or for some other light duty. Repairs usually cost more than the machine is worth. Retirement is the usual option.
What can be reused, recycled, or retired?
New solid state disks will probably outlast new notebooks and be suitable for reuse in future computers. Almost everything else will die with the notebook computer. Allow 3 years for the battery replacement, 6 years for the notebook replacement, and another 3 or more years of using the SSD as an external disk in a USB case.
For desktops, you can reuse disks and optical drives in new computers as spare drives. I have lightly used optical drives that are ten years old and still working reliably. Dust on the laser is the main problem when used in an unfiltered environment. Corrosion from the salt air is another we have here by the sea.
A lightly used disk will last up to ten years but will break at any time, a good reason to use it as a spare workspace, not as your main disk. At some point, newer disks will save you money by using less electricity but in most cases, that takes more than ten years. Old disk will be too small when you switch from still pictures to video. Old disks are too slow compared to SSD. You would not recycle an old disk as an active disk in your main computer. Keep the old disks for backup computers and external disks.
Power supplies can be reused as good brands are reliable and the interface changes only slowly. Check the connectors. Do they fit your new motherboards? If not, retire the power supplies.
Memory and other similar components never fit new model computers.
Desktop computers contain a lot of metal that can be recycled as scrap metal. Some brands are really easy to take apart for recycling of the metal.
The plastic parts of desktops are rarely marked for recycling. Notebooks are mostly plastic and often have the major parts marked. Commercial recyclers just crush the whole machine, burn off the plastic, melt out the copper, then melt out the iron.
Magnetic disks contain wonderful powerful magnets you should recycle as toys for teens or as fridge magnets.
If the computer as a whole is working well, you can donate it to organisations that help the disadvantaged. I offered a donation once and they said "yes we need it" followed a day later by "we received 200 computers from a company, more than they could handle in several years".
When do we reuse, recycle, or retire technology?
New model technology is either faster or uses less power. Some components remain compatible for many years while others change over two or three years. The power saving is rarely of use compared to the environmental impact of manufacturing a new computer. The speed is usually only of use when you change your use of the computer. The extra speed is of no use if you just read email. Faster graphics processing might be of use when you start playing a new generation of games or switch from editing still images to editing video. Editing video will benefit from faster storage.
A three year old computer can usually be reused without hardware change. Clean the fans. Install the latest version of the operating system. For Windows users, you can avoid some of the Windows upgrade slowdown pain by upgrading to Linux or by staying on an older version of Windows.
A five year old computer needs new disks and a new battery if battery powered. Before you recycle a notebook by upgrading the disk, or battery, check for cracks in the case. Move the computer around and check for squeaks in the case. Cracks and squeaks indicate internal damage that will cause a failure. Do not waste new hardware on cracked computers.
Anything older can be run as is until it breaks. Set up backups as described above. A magnetic disk to SSD can give an old computer a big jump in speed for many uses. The new SSD can then be migrated to a USB enclosure for reuse.
Upgrades are not worth the effort except for a Windows to Linux upgrade, which may restore the original speed of a computer slowed down by all those Windows .NET updates. The Windows 10 monster can be attacked by an upgrade to Windows 8.1. Unfortunately the even better Windows 7 is not available.
Think about the time frame for replacing a broken computer. If you can work without a computer, you can let the current one break then buy a new one then recover your files from your backups. Some people need their computer every day. An every day computer will be replaced before it dies. You can then use the old one as a backup for a while.
How often do you replace your company car? One year? Three years? Five years? The cheapest computers are like rubbish car brands, replace them every year the same as you replace your Ford. The cheaper models in the better brands last about the same as the cars that you replace every three years. The good models in the better brands are like Toyotas and Volvos, you use them six to ten years then give them to a family member for the next six to ten years.
My Toyota is twenty years old and running perfectly. My notebook is about to turn nine and works beautifully with just one battery replacement. I did upgrade the disk but that was to only to increase the capacity.
Where would you reuse or recycle?
Old computers use more electricity when compared to a new computer of the same capacity and speed. You would reuse the old computer where energy is cheap and plentiful. You might reuse old computers during the day in an office or school running on solar power. For other uses, you need to balance up the electricity use.
In a remote country area dependent on expensive diesel power, you might have looked at computer upgrades to reduce power usage. Today it is cheaper to install solar power in most locations. A notebook can charge up during the day and run overnight without additional expense. A desktop would require a battery supplement for use with solar in the evening.
Pretend the whole world of energy is measured in watts. For this discussion, we are really talking watt/hours but we will just call them watts. Imagine an old computer using 200 watts per day. You are presented with the chance to buy a new computer that uses only 150 watts. You save 50 watts per day multiplied by 220 days of work per year. That is 11000 watts saved per year. The manufacturing and shipping of the new computer might have used 25000 watts. You would have to use the new computer over two years before you save the energy wasted in the manufacturer of the replacement computer.
For a desktop computer, you can save a heap of power by replacing your old LCD screen with a new OLED screen or LED LCD screen. There is far less energy wasted in the manufacture of a new screen. A modern OLED screen saves up to 60% more than an old style LCD screen. Screens should be replaced if they are not OLED or LED LCD. The rest of your computer can wait because the power saving will be far less, compared to the energy wasted manufacturing the new device.
Do you live in an area with frequent brownouts? The power keeps dropping too low to run your desktop computer. A new notebook might replace your desktop and simply switch to battery power when the mains supply fails. You can usually replace any desktop with a notebook for everything except very large disks and fast graphics. Buy a UPS when you have an unreliable power supply and need a desktop with large disks or advanced graphics. For everything else, an upgrade to a notebook can work.
In very damp climates, hot climates, and anywhere near salt water, you need devices designed for those environments. Intermittent failures can be the first sign of corrosion. The only solution is to throw out the corroding computer and buy a replacement designed for your location. look at "fanless" computers and computers designed for tropical conditions.
Why reuse or recycle or replace?
The first reason for change is speed. Your current computer is too slow. You can reuse your current computer for a less demanding task and buy yourself a fast new model. As an example I used before, you need more speed when you switch from editing still images to editing video.
There are many components in a computer. Some components are easy to replace with new models offering improved speed. Some are locked into the computer. You need to talk with an expert about whatever you do that is new and what upgrades you really need. As an example, editing video requires more storage, faster storage, more memory, and faster graphics. You cannot change all of those in a notebook. A desktop might let you change all of those but the result might have a bottleneck that prevents you making effective use of all the upgrades.
A fast new SSD is just one fifth the cost of a new computer. This is the first and often the only hardware upgrade I recommend. You save money and reduce resource wastage. You should look at this for any computer that has not suffered physical damage.
The next reason for an upgrade is capacity. This is another disk upgrade. Disks double in capacity every few years. If your computer is three years old and running out of space, you can replace your current disk with a new disk offering twice the capacity at an improved speed. Cheaper computers will not have the maximum capacity from the start and can be increased in size several times over.
A new screen is another upgrade. People who work in video are moving from 2K video to 4K video and need higher resolution screens. With most modern desktop computers, you can upgrade the screen and replace the computer's internal graphics processing by adding a dedicated graphics card for a couple of hundred dollars. You would also add a larger disk because 4K video requires more space. You only need a new computer if the computer is so old or cheap that the processor cannot handle the extra data flow.
There is also the USB 3 consideration. All my old computers have USB 3, indicating that USB 3 existed for so long, you are unlikely to have a computer without USB 3. Thunderbolt and other connections arrived after USB 3. You might need one of the newer connections. You can add them to desktop computers with add-in cards. The twice as fast USB 3.2 (USB 3.1 gen 2) is here. USB 4 is about to arrive with double the USB 3.2 speed. I am updating my desktop each year with a new USB add-in card and matching cables.
Apple tends to screw every dollar out of Apple customers by deliberately stopping customers from buying alternatives. Outside of the Apple and North Korean dictatorships, you have freedom of choice among many alternatives. The alternatives have multiple interfaces, or converters, to let you use the latest device with a slightly older connection. This gives you the chance to reuse your computer for a while until you find something truly better.
Currently there are several new features in notebooks that I want. Currently there are no notebooks offering everything I have in my old notebook plus everything I want in the new notebook. If I purchased the best of the new notebooks, I would have to rip open the case and replace the disk just to get capacity with speed. The new computer will still be missing important features. I will wait for the new 4K OLED models next year, buy one with the smallest SSD, then install an SSD of my choice.
How do you ??? I could explain the details of how you reuse and recycle. The details vary by hardware brand, model, and operating system. I have only a few combinations of brand, model and OS. Look online for instructions. Do not trust any one set of instructions. They are often out of date. Read several and compare the details.
Find someone with the same hardware, someone with experience of upgrades. With their guidance, create several backups of your current computer then work on the upgrades one at a time with backups in between.
Clean the fans every time you open the case. Put a clean-the-fans entry in your diary for next year.
Backup the disk two or three times. Replace the disk. Restore a backup to your current computer with the new disk. If you cannot restore to the same computer, you are in trouble.
Now you are ready to install the latest version of your operating system. The process will depend on the operating system and often on the version. Your friendly local expert will guide you through the process. The backups you made earlier should be designed to help you upgrade.
Backups come in three sizes. The first is the whole disk. You copy the whole of the existing disk to another disk of the same size. You take out the existing disk and keep it as another complete disk backup.
The smallest backup is your data. You backup all your data but not the operating system or the rest of the disk. You use this type of backup when moving to a new computer or to a new version of your operating system. You should always make this type of backup every few days in case your disk breaks.
The data backup will be small because you started the data backup a long time ago and each new backup will copy just the changed files. The backup disk will be large because it has all your data plus several versions of changed files.
In the middle is the operating system backup that backs up your operating system but not the whole disk. In Windows, there is backup that backs up your operating system without your user data but it backs up to the same disk, making the backup useless when you replace the disk. On a Windows computer, you have to make your own system backup. On Windows, you also have to make a copy of Windows to when you want to install Windows on the new disk. Microsoft's backup system for Windows is too complicated to explain properly here.
For Linux, I make only a couple of unencrypted whole disk backups because you can access all the system files and user data from those disks. Encryption is a whole extra level of complexity that again varies based on operating system and configuration. When you try to restore from the encrypted backups, you have to use exactly the same version of encryption software.
Hardware component replacement is best performed under the supervision of an experienced person. They can introduce you to static prevention. They usually have the odd size tool you need for notebook computers.
Your time is valuable
There are hundreds of online videos on hardware and software upgrades. Your computer might be the same model as the one in the video but from a different batch with a completely different internal structure. How much of your time will you spend on learning how to perform a bunch of potentially tricky operations? What about all the trips to the shops to buy different tools?
Research can help you find the variations on your computer. Research can help you order any specialised parts or tools on one hit. Discussing the project with experienced people can help you avoid the big delays when you find something does not work or you need one extra item.
Do you send it to the shop?
I hear endless stories all the same. Someone wants a disk upgrade. A shop guarantees to do the upgrade for a fixed fee including copying all your data to the new disk. The computer arrives with the new disk but not your data. The shop did the wrong type of backup or the wrong type of copy or the wrong type of operating system upgrade.
When you ask for the old disk, they might tell you the old disk is broken. They do not tell you about their careless handling of your old disk.
I think some shops hand all upgrades to the new kid with no experience who then follows some rubbish published on the Internet. Given the high turnover of kids in computer shops, they never learn the right way.
You might be lucky and have a good shop near you. Either way, research the project yourself so that you can ask the right questions. You do the research before taking your car in for repair and before letting someone insert body modifications. Treat your computer the same way. And make your own backups!!!!!!!!!!!!
Do not hand your computer over until you talk with the person who will perform the work. Ask them the steps they will take and the backups they will make. If they cannot explain everything, find a different shop.
Your time is worth more than the old hardware. Anything that makes your computing noticeably faster is good for you.
Reuse is best when practical. Reuse your existing computer with, perhaps, a small upgrade, is far better than recycling that hardware with all the massive costs of crushing the components and remanufacturing. If you cannot reuse, donate the computer to someone who can.
Reuse with a bigger faster disk for the easiest hardware upgrade. SSDs are far better when that is a viable option.
You can add new cards into desktops to solve capacity, connectivity, and many speed problems. A better screen will help improve your work.
You can also reuse with a newer or better operating system but do not expect too much from the upgrade, outside of security improvements. The one big operating system advance is replacing the monster Windows 10 with Linux.
Retire everything else. Strip out components like SSD for other uses. Recycle the remaining hardware in those special technology recycling bins.
Avoid anything that is really time intensive because your time is worth more than the old hardware.