Many people find that they end up buying a new computer every few years. Buying a replacement can occur for all sorts of reasons, but you are often left with an old computer that still works, or that could be made to work with very little effort. You could get rid of it (see our article, Disposing of Old Computer Equipment). But you could also re-use it.
The Kitchen Computer
If the hardware is still basically functional, it is easy to turn an elderly clunker into what we call, for want of a better term, a kitchen computer.
What’s that? And why would you want one?
The easiest way to explain is to describe our kitchen computer, and what we do with it.
The computer sits under a counter in our kitchen, and uses an old keyboard and mouse that we had hanging around. We didn’t have a spare screen (actually, we did, but it didn’t fit on the counter), so we splurged and bought a new one (and a bracket to mount it on the wall). This was the most expensive part of the project.
The computer is attached to our router, so that it has Internet access, and is part of our home network.
Instead of Windows, the computer uses the Ubuntu flavor of Linux. This means that (a) all of the software is free, (b) the computer runs faster than it would if Windows were installed and (c) viruses and other security threats are not much of a concern. If you want to get into the guts of Linux, the learning curve is quite steep. But you don’t need to. You can learn how to use the machine happily in under 10 minutes.
What We Do With It
We (and our kids, and visitors who hang out in our kitchen) surf the Internet. We read the news, check train schedules, look up factoids to settle arguments, and do all of the other Internet-based stuff that we would otherwise do at our desks—all within easy reach of the kitchen table. Ubuntu Linux comes with the Firefox web browser pre-installed, which works in Linux exactly as it does on a PC.
We access our own computers. This is the real whiz-bang feature. With the help of some free software, Lisa and I can sit at the kitchen counter and control our office computers, as if we were there. This is particularly great for checking email or doing other work while the kettle comes to the boil.
We use it for backup. Our desktop computers are configured to treat a portion of the kitchen computer as just another hard disk. We copy our files to it on a regular basis as part of our larger backup strategy.
Finally, we have some geekier applications. The kitchen computer is our central repository for photos and music. Giles’ desktop computer does not need to be turned on for Lisa to grab a photo to send to a relative. And when it’s not being used for anything else, the kitchen computer runs a slideshow of (all of) our photos, which turns out to be strangely mesmerizing.
What it Costs
Cash out of Pocket. You will have to spend dollars to acquire any parts you need to make the computer functional, such as a new screen, perhaps a network adapter, and maybe a new or additional hard disk.
Electricity. We have set our kitchen computer to shut itself off late at night, and to turn itself back on in the morning, but otherwise it runs all the time.
Space. The computer, screen, keyboard and mouse all need somewhere to go, and space is often at a premium, particularly in a kitchen.
Noise. Older computers are often noisy, and did you really want a high-pitched whine in your kitchen? You can spend some money on quieter fans, but at some point the investment in making an old computer quieter is just not worth it.
Time. Setting up the computer and learning enough about Linux to make it functional is going to take at least a couple of hours. And there is some ongoing maintenance—mostly keeping Linux up to date, and keeping dust rhinos from choking your motherboard.
Setting Up a Kitchen Computer
Hold On a Moment!
Although not a difficult task, setting up a kitchen computer is not for the novice. If you don’t know how to burn a CD, how to get into your computer’s BIOS settings or what the word “boot” means (and you aren’t willing to do a little poking around on the Internet to find out), you should probably stop here and get a teenager to do it for you. If she breaks it, what do you care? You were going to throw it out anyway.
Also, have you retrieved all of your old data from the computer? If not, do it now, before you go any further.
Scout the Location
Work out where you will put the computer, the screen, the keyboard and the mouse. Is power available? How will you connect the computer to your home network—with an Ethernet cable, or wirelessly?
Get the Computer Ready
Take this opportunity to give the computer a good cleaning. Pop the hood, vacuum out any dust bunnies, and use a can of compressed air to blow dust out of the cooling fins (under the CPU fan, and maybe others scattered across your motherboard).
Acquire and install any necessary parts to make the old girl fully functional. If you must buy a wireless network adapter, be sure that the adapter is compatible with Linux (most are, and nowadays it will usually say so on the box).
The following description is very compressed. There is lots of more detailed guidance available on the Internet. The best place to start is probably www.ubuntu.com, but there are many other useful sites (you might trywww.howtoforge.com, for example). There’s a reasonably nice article and video on this at PCWorld.
First, obtain a copy of the desktop version of Ubuntu on a bootable CD (you may as well choose the latest stable version, currently 10.04, puckishly named “Lucid Lynx”). There are several ways to do this, outlined athttp://www.ubuntu.com/getubuntu. The quickest is to download an “image” (a file ending in “.iso”) and burn it to a CD.
Power up the computer and pop open the CD drive to insert the Ubuntu CD. You will need to boot the computer from the CD. Some computers will do this automatically, others will require some coaxing. More modern computers allow you to hit a key (often the F9 or F12 key) to get to a “boot menu” where you can choose to boot from the CD drive. Others may require you to go to BIOS setup (often the DEL key, or the F2 key), and change the settings so that your computer boots first from its CD drive. Poke around until it works.
Once you have booted your computer from the CD, Ubuntu will provide you with a series of menus to guide you through the installation process. You can read up on these options on the Internet. Or you can just do whatever seems to make sense. Don’t worry about it–if you turn out to have made a bad choice somewhere along the line, you can always re-install and try something different. Most of the installation is automated, but it will take a while.
One thing to note: during set up, you will be required to provide a password. Remember that password—you will need it often.
Once Ubuntu is installed, the computer will need to be re-booted. This may happen automatically. If you altered BIOS settings to force the computer to boot from your CD drive, now may be a good time to change them back.
Setting up the Wireless Network (If Applicable)
If the computer is connecting to your home network wirelessly, you will need to supply Ubuntu with your wireless settings: the name of your wireless network (the “SSID”, which Ubuntu may have detected automatically), the kind of security it uses (usually “WEP” or “WPA”, again Ubuntu may detect this automatically) and your wireless password (you do have a password on your wireless network, right?).
You can now go ahead and use Firefox. Just double-click on that familiar orange/blue circle at the top of the screen (towards the left), and away you go. If you don’t see the icon, click on “Applications” (at top left) choose “Internet” and then “Firefox Web Browser.”
While you are in the Applications menu, you may want to cruise around to see all of the amazing stuff that comes pre-installed with Ubuntu.
To use the kitchen computer to control another computer in the house, you need to (a) get that other computer ready to be controlled and (b) set up the kitchen computer to do so.
Get the Other Computer Ready. These instructions are for Windows computers. It is probably possible to do this or something similar with a Mac, but we don’t know how at present. In Windows XP Professional, setting up remote control is under Control Panel/System/Remote, where you check a box to “Allow users to connect remotely to this computer.” In Vista, try Control Panel/System/Remote Settings and select “Allow connections from computers running any version of Remote Desktop.” In either case, you will need to note the “full name” of your desktop computer, your user name, and the password you use to log in to the computer (if any).
Sadly, this easy route does not work for the “Home” version of Windows XP, which does not come with the Remote Desktop Protocol installed. But there’s an alternative. Download and install a “VNC server” fromhttp://www.tightvnc.com/. The site has nice documentation, which we will not re-hash here, but merely note that you should set a password when asked, and remember the password.
Get the Kitchen Computer Ready. If you are connecting to Windows Vista or Windows XP Professional, you need a program called “Terminal Server Client.” If you are connecting to a VNC server running on Windows XP Home, you need the “Remote Desktop Viewer.” To install either (or both) of these, click on “Applications” (top left of screen) and choose “Add/Remove…” There is a search box—type in some part of the name of the program you need and hit enter. The program will appear in the search results. If the application is already installed, it will have a check mark next to it. If not, check the box, and follow the instructions to install the software (you will need your Ubuntu password).
Log In. To log in to your other computer from the kitchen computer, open the relevant application (under Applications/Internet). If you are using Terminal Server Client, you will need to fill in the “full name” of your computer for the “Computer Name,” RDPv5 for the “Protocol,” your desktop computer user name for “User Name,” and the Windows password. The program will remember these settings the next time you open it, but you may also want to save them if you use the kitchen computer to access more than one other computer. You can fiddle with the settings so that when you log in to your desktop computer, your Windows desktop occupies the entire screen of the kitchen computer. But if you do, be sure to remember the key combination “Ctrl-Alt-Enter,” which you will need to end the session.
If you are using Remote Desktop Viewer, you will be presented with a screen that has a list of available “host” computers on the network. You should see your Windows XP Home computer among them. Click on this, fiddle with the settings (full screen or not, etc), and enter the password you set when you installed the VNC server. In this program, the key combination to get out of full-screen mode is Ctrl-Alt-Shift-F.
Finally, to set up your kitchen computer to share its hard disk with the other computers on the network, you need to set up “Sharing.” The following instructions work for Ubuntu 9.04–they should still work for 10.04, but we have not checked. First, check to be sure that file sharing is enabled: go to the “System” menu, select Administration/Services, and look for an entry called “Folder Sharing Service.” If the entry is there, but not checked, hit “Unlock,” enter your password, and check the box. If the entry is not there, you will need to install the Samba server: go to the “System” menu again and select Administration/Synaptic Package Manager; enter your password; hit the “Search” button, type “samba” in the search box and press enter; look for “samba” in the list of results, check the box beside it, and press the “Apply” button.
Now go the “Places” menu, and click to open your “Home Folder.” In Ubuntu Linux, this folder (and its subfolders) is where you usually store all of your personal stuff. Create a new folder to share, or pick an existing folder. In either case, right-click on the folder, choose “Sharing Options” and check all of the boxes. The folder you have shared should now be findable from Network Places in Windows. To allow files to be copied into that folder from your other computer, you may also need to right-click the folder again, choose “Properties,” “Permissions” and set “Folder Access” under “Others” to “Create and Delete Files.” (You could also configure file sharing to require a password, or allow different people access to different folders, but that topic is relatively complicated and beyond the scope of this article).
You’re all set!
From time to time your kitchen computer will warn you (via the “Update Manager”) that it should be updated. Follow the instructions. This is painless, and worth doing regularly. Otherwise, maintenance is the same as for any other computer: shake the crumbs out of the keyboard from time to time; swipe the screen with a lint-free cloth, and maybe some screen cleaner; and every few months, unplug the power, open the case, and blow out the dust.