This story has been updated. It was originally featured in the April 2006 issue of Popular Science magazine and involves outdated technologies and services. For current advice, check our regularly updated story about how to turn an old computer into a Chromebook or how to remove your computer’s hard drive and turn it into an external storage drive.

Got a four- or five-year-old PC laptop you’ve dismissed as useless? Bring it back to life with these tips, then use it as a spare web and email station in the kitchen or kids’ room.

  • Dept: PC Revival
  • Cost: $0 to $260
  • Difficulty: easy | | | | | hard (Editor’s note: 2/5)

Project overview

  • Start by checking the health of your hardware with a free diagnostic program such as #1-Tufftest.
  • If the motherboard or screen is shot, forget it. Replacing either one is more expensive and more hassle than buying a new system.
  • Lost your user manual? Try the manufacturer’s website.
  • Check eBay or Craigslist for used replacement parts.

1. Reinstall the OS

  • Free: The most likely reason that old machine is dragging: a bogged-down and bloated operating system. If you have the CDs, reinstall the Windows system it came with (a newer version of Windows will run sluggishly on old hardware). Otherwise, download a version of Linux—most are free and resemble Windows so closely that you’ll hardly know the difference. Linux is also less susceptible to spyware and viruses. Start with a Knoppix Live CD, which runs straight from the disc, so you can try it out and learn it without deleting Windows.

2. Boost memory

  • Free: Make sure that Windows Virtual Memory is on and that your hard drive isn’t chock-full. Also try adjusting Windows’s cache RAM settings using a tool such as Cacheman ($10 to $25;
  • Buy: Adding RAM is the most cost-effective way to speed up a machine, and it’s usually pretty easy. Just pop open a panel on the bottom and replace the existing module or add a second one if there’s an extra slot. Check your manual to find out the maximum RAM your laptop can take and what type you need, then buy it at

3. Get a new drive

  • Free: Run Windows’s built-in hard-drive utilities such as (in Windows 98) Scandisk, Disk Defragmenter, System File Checker, and Disk Clean Up, found under Start > Programs > Accessories > System > Tools. If you are reinstalling an OS, erase (reformat) the drive first.
  • Buy: Hard drives are typically simple to get at and replace, and a 40GB, 2.5-inch (laptop-size) drive can be had for less than $100. To reinstall an operating system, insert a Windows or Linux system CD and start up from it by following the onscreen instructions.

4. Save the battery

  • Free: Remove the battery and clean all the electrical contacts with a dry swab. Then try completely draining it and recharging it four or five times in a row. If that doesn’t help, place it in a freezer in a plastic bag for 12 hours. Remove it, wipe off any condensation, and let it sit for 12 to 24 hours before performing more charge/discharge cycles.
  • Buy: If you’ve lost the power adapter, replace it with a universal one, such as Belkin’s Universal 70W AC ($80;, that works with other gadgets.