How to keep your ‘vintage’ tech alive

It may be old, but it's not dead yet.
Vintage gadgets like computers, keyboards, and a GameBoy sit on a table under pink and blue lights.

With the right care these gadgets can be more than paperweights. Lorenzo Herrera / Unsplash

The march of technology turns every gadget into an antique, but some withstand the test of time—or can at least be upcycled for a while. Older game consoles, iPods, and other “vintage” tech can often still play music, run games, and perform other tasks. They’re also usually less costly, so if you’re looking for a deal, something a bit dated might be the way to go.

Why vintage tech?

Despite the non-stop production of newer and neater stuff, older tech has its advantages.

Americans crank out around 44 pounds of electronic waste per person each year, much of which is hazardous. So, by maintaining or reusing your devices for as long as possible, you’re helping the planet.

Older tech is often perfectly capable of doing basic tasks like word processing, or can easily be reused as an alarm clock, a speaker, or for some other task you don’t want to buy a new widget for.

You can even keep old tech around to experiment on. If you want to root your fancy new Android and give yourself complete control over what stays and goes on your phone, for example, it’s a good idea to try it on an old phone first. That way, you can work out the kinks without bricking your new toy.

Keep it or scrap it?

Before getting to work on something old, consider whether it’s compatible with your newer technology. In 2016, when Nintendo unboxed an original Japanese Famicom from the early 1980s, the company had to use a TV nearly as old to prove the console still worked. There’s a reason: The Famicom came with both a coaxial connection and a “twin-lead” connector to attach to more modern TVs.

Today, though, manufacturers are phasing out these connectors, and new TVs may not properly scale the Famicom’s tiny image (256 by 240 pixels) to their enormous 1920-by-1080- or even 3840-by-2160-pixel screens.

Also figure out the overall “fixability” of your device. Apple products, for example, are often assembled with glue, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to replace defective components. Other items may not have parts available at all, forcing fans to turn to eBay, or in some cases, 3D printing.

Finally, get a sense of the potential risks posed by your old hardware and software. Nostalgia, or thriftiness, can’t get in the way of common sense, says attorney Michelle Schaap, chair of Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi PC’s privacy and data security group. She warns of “putting lipstick on a pig.”

“Let’s suppose you want your kid to have a computer on which to do his or her homework. If you are picking up an old computer—or one with legacy software on it—if the computer will never be connected to the internet, fine,” Schaap says. “But as soon as you start connecting to the internet through old, unpatched devices, you are inviting a potential disaster.”

Schaap’s motto is to “patch early and patch often.” If your tech is no longer supported by the manufacturer, don’t buy it. She also points out that these risks extend far beyond gadgets uncovered on eBay or at yard sales.

“Smart systems installed in homes in the early 2000s had default passwords, and nobody, including the homebuilder and the original owner, knew they were supposed to change it,” Schaap said. “Default passwords for these systems were, and in some cases still are, available online, so if you buy a house built in 2005 with one of these systems, and the password hasn’t been changed, somebody can remote into your house.”

Software update (often) required

If your “vintage” hardware is less of a dinosaur and more just a bit out-of-date, install the latest updates and give it a shot at the task you want it to do. Despite the iPod Classic’s retirement in 2014, for example, it’s still compatible with iTunes, but you’ll need a 30-pin cable to make it work.

In other cases, revert your elderly device to factory settings or swap out the software entirely.

“When I’m speaking to business owners, I say, ‘You’re upgrading to the newest, greatest, and latest equipment. Before you donate or return the equipment, who’s wiping the data?’” Schaap says. “Sadly, the response is often, ‘Somebody is supposed to wipe that?’”

Be ready with alternatives, even if the original software works. Old computers, for example, may not be able to handle Windows 10, even if you can install it. And if it won’t support Windows 10 at all, you can wipe the system and replace it with an operating system like Linux. And as always, if you’re unsure of the security of a device you’re connecting to the internet, be careful about what data you put on it.

Take a hard look at your hardware

Of course, sometimes your yard sale find is dirt cheap because it doesn’t work or the owner can’t find a part. Older electronics are often perfectly fixable, and even a rookie can give their find a quick check-up.

If you pick up a used computer, protect the previous owner by removing hard drives and other memory devices. If you can’t return them, destroy them with a bulk eraser or data-erasing software. This is also a good step to take if you’re planning on selling or donating your own old computer. Don’t assume computers are the only risk, either. Copy machines, routers, and pretty much anything with any form of data storage and an internet connection may need a deep clean.

Invest in some anti-static material and insulated tools before you open anything up. Electro-static discharge, or ESD, remains the electronic engineer’s mortal enemy and older devices can be completely destroyed with one shock from an uninsulated tool. Ground yourself with an anti-static wrist strap, as well.

Look up technical manuals. The literature for vintage electronics is often available online in some form, and you may be able to find useful information such as official schematics, circuit diagrams, and parts lists. Even if you can’t fix the problem, knowing what’s missing, or busted, can help you diagnose the issue.

Give your gear a thorough cleaning. Dust is one of the worst things for any electronic device and it’s likely your vintage tech has never been cleaned at all. Carefully open it up and remove any dust you find with canned air. Avoid touching components, as even items like cotton swabs can leave behind fuzz and gunk you don’t want in there.

While the hood is open, visually inspect the parts. Look for parts that are corroded, loose or show other signs of being broken. Remove any batteries you see and replace them with fresh ones. Look for any amateur repairs that might be a problem, such as large globs of solder sitting on more than one connection, and check circuit diagrams and schematics to ensure all the parts are still there.

And remember, if you’re not comfortable doing the repairs yourself, there’s a booming industry of restorers and refurbishers who can get it up and running. Either way, there’s no reason to throw it out when you can still boot it up.