What you can do with an old laptop or desktop computer

Do you have a laptop or desktop computer you don't use anymore? Maybe it got really slow or even stop working altogether. Seems like everyone has at least one nowadays. I'm talking about the one in the garage or closet that's doing nothing but taking up space and collecting dust. Here's a few ideas on what you can do with an old computer, working or not.

A laptop and desktop computer ready for recycling
A laptop and desktop computer ready for recycling

What you can do with your old computer if it does work

Give it away

It your old computer is still working fairly well, giving it to a family member or friend is a great idea. I recommend that you get all of your data off of the computer and then create a new user with administrative privileges. Log off and then log back in as the new user and delete your original user profile. If you want to be sure your data cannot be recovered, run a disk defragmenter like Defraggler and then use CCleaner to wipe the free space.

Sell it

eBay and Craigslist can be great places to sell your old computer. If you have the original installation media or have made the recovery media, you can just reformat the hard drive and reinstall Windows. Just make sure you securely erase all of your data first. If you don't have the original installation media, you can clean it up. Just like giving it away, create a new administrative user, log off and back on as new user. Then delete your old user account and uninstall any software you don't want going with the computer.

Donate it

As long as your old computer is running fairly well, why not give it another life by donating it to your local school, church or senior center. Or you can donate to a non-profit organization like Goodwill and get a tax write-off. Either way, it will get reused. Just make sure you have or make the installation / recovery media, securely wipe the hard drive(s) and reinstall the operating system before donating it.

What you can do with your old computer if it does not work

Recycle it

Just tossing your old computer in the trash is a no no. In fact, in some states it's illegal. The materials used to construct it, like lead solder, can contaminate the ground in which it's buried. There are companies that will recycle the materials from your old computer. Just do a search for 'pc recycling' for a company in your area.

Part-it out

Odds are there are some parts of your old computer that can be reused. Here's a list of some of the components that could easily be reused:

Desktop computers
Hard Drives There are two different types of hard drive interfaces, SATA (7 pin connection cable) and PATA (40 pin ribbon connection cable). SATA is the de facto standard and is supported by modem motherboards. You can easily add a SATA hard drive to a new desktop, provided you have a place to mount the drive in the case, a spare connection on the motherboard and a spare power connection. PATA is a different story, as most motherboards nowadays do not support this type of hard drive. Best bet is to find an external enclosure for it and use it as an external hard drive.
CD/DVD Drives There are two different types of cd/dvd interfaces, SATA (7 pin connection cable) and PATA (40 pin ribbon connection cable). SATA is the de facto standard and is supported by modem motherboards. You can easily add a SATA cd/dvd to a new desktop, provided you have a spare 5.25" expansion bay in the case, a spare connection on the motherboard and a spare power connection. PATA is a different story, as most motherboards nowadays do not support this type of cd/dvd drive.
Memory Odds are any newer system will be running faster memory and you won't be able to use it. But there may be some who can. eBay or Craigslist would be a good place to sell it if you cannot use it yourself.
Expansion cards PCI, PCI-E and PCI-X expansion cards can be reused, if you have a spare slot on your motherboard and panel on the back of the case. Research the device first to find out if there is a driver for your operating system. With the change from 32-bit to 64-bit operating systems over the last few years, if the hardware has been discontinued, odds are there won't be a 64-bit driver for it.
Laptop computers
Hard Drives There are two different types of hard drive interfaces, SATA (7-pin connection cable) and PATA (40 pin ribbon connection cable). SATA is the de facto standard and is supported by modem motherboards. Most laptops only have space for one hard drive internally. If your laptop does have a second hard drive bay, all you need is the hardware and cable to add it in. If your laptop doesn't have a second hard drive bay, you can always put it into a case and use it as an external hard drive.
Memory Odds are any newer system will be running faster memory and you won't be able to use it. But there may be some who can. eBay or Craigslist would be a good place to sell it if you cannot use it yourself.

How to tell if your hard drive is SATA or PATA
How to tell if your hard drive is SATA or PATA

Creating stunning documents, spreadsheets and slide-shows with OpenOffice 4

With the cost of Microsoft Office going up, not to mention the subscription / non-subscription thing, it's nice to know there are alternatives out there. One of the best office alternatives has to be OpenOffice. And it just so happens that the Apache Software Foundation recently released a new version of their free productivity software, OpenOffice 4.

The main screen inside of OpenOffice 4
The main screen inside of OpenOffice 4

For those who are not familiar with it, OpenOffice is a suite of office productivity programs that rivals Microsoft Office. It has everything you could need for creating great looking documents, spreadsheets and slide-show presentations. Here's a complete list of all of the programs included in OpenOffice 4.

ProgramEquivalent toProgram type
Writer Microsoft Word Word processor
Calc Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet
Impress Microsoft PowerPoint Multi-media slide-show presentation
Draw Microsoft Paint Graphic design
Base Microsoft Access Database
Math Design Science Mathtype Formula creation

OpenOffice 4 has some major improvements over previous versions. There's a new Sidebar that contains the most commonly used functions for that program, which can be docked, floating or completely hidden. There is also greatly improved compatibly with Microsoft Office documents. The drawing, graphics and gallery functions have also been enhanced, along with the copy & paste and drag & drop functionality.

The new Sidebar inside of OpenOffice 4 shown docked and floating
The new Sidebar inside of OpenOffice 4 shown docked and floating

OpenOffice does use Java, but it's not required for installation, as it can be added in later on. Compatibility with other document formats is pretty impressive, but Star Office is no longer supported. OpenOffice can automatically load / convert and convert / save Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint) and Design Science Mathtype documents. The only file types that it cannot save to is the Microsoft Office 2007 - 2013 .???x formats.

And since OpenOffice is open-source, there are hundreds of third party extensions to expand on the functionality of the applications. Add in a copy of GIMP or Paint.NET and you have a complete, and free, desktop publishing package.

OpenOffice 4 is available for the Windows, Linux and Mac operating systems. For more information on OpenOffice 4, just follow the links below:

Apache OpenOffice Open Source Project
OpenOffice 4 Release Notes
Download OpenOffice 4

Tighten your computer security with EMET 4

Seems like every day a new software exploit comes out. And of course your computer is vulnerable until a patch is released. Or maybe you have older software that doesn't have support any more. But you can still protect your computer from known exploits with the Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit 4.0 (EMET) from Microsoft.

The new user interface inside of EMET 4.0
The new user interface inside of EMET 4.0

EMET monitors programs for several known types of exploits using pseudo mitigation technology and is aimed at disrupting currently known hacking techniques. It is not meant to replace anti-virus software, but to work side-by-side with it. EMET adds on to the Data Execution Prevention (DEP) and Structured Exception Handler Overwrite Protection (SEHOP) protection that is already inside of Windows. If a program that EMET is monitoring tries to executes any these exploits, EMET can log it or terminate it.

Here's a list of the software mitigations that EMET currently monitors:

  • Structured Exception Handler Overwrite Protection (SEHOP)
  • Data Execution Prevention (DEP)
  • Heapspray Allocations
  • Null Page Allocation
  • Mandatory Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR)
  • Export Address Table Access Filtering (EAF)
  • Bottom-up randomization
  • Return Oriented Programming (ROP) mitigations

So how does EMET work? EMET acts as a shim between the program being monitored and the operating system. The monitored program thinks it's talking directly to the operating system, but it's actually talking to it through EMET. EMET comes with predefined profiles for some of the more common programs like Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer, Adobe Acrobat and Java. You can also add to the predefined profiles or create your own. I recommend that you monitor any program that can open files on or from the internet.

EMET also includes a Certificate Trust feature that checks the validity of websites, but it currently only works with certain versions of the Internet Explorer. EMET does have what Microsoft considers unsafe options to change, as they have been known to cause system instability. They are hidden by default, but can be invoked by changing a registry key. If you want to change it, the instructions can be found in the advanced options section of the EMET 4.0 User Guide.

When upgrading from EMET 3 to EMET 4, the configuration wizard prompts you keep your existing settings or start new
When upgrading from EMET 3.0 to 4.0 the configuration wizard prompts you keep your existing settings or start off new

If you have EMET 3.0 already installed, EMET 4.0 will automatically uninstall it and ask if you want to import the current settings or start off new (recommended). If you have any other version of EMET installed, you will have to manually uninstall it and remove its registry hives HKLM\Software\Microsoft\EMET and, if it exists, HKLM\Software\Policies\Microsoft\EMET.

EMET 4.0 works on the following operating systems:

  • Windows XP service pack 3 and above
  • Windows Vista service pack 1 and above
  • Windows 7 all service packs
  • Windows 8
  • Windows Server 2003 service pack 1 and above
  • Windows Server 2008 all service packs
  • Windows Server 2008 R2 all service packs
  • Windows Server 2012

EMET 4 does require the .NET 4 Framework to be installed. Also, for EMET 4 to work properly on Windows 8 and Server 2013, Microsoft KB 2790907 must be installed.

For more information on EMET from Microsoft, just follow the links below.

Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit
Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit 4.0 download page

Six ways to make Windows 8 easier to use

Repairing computers for a living requires working on different versions of Windows. Windows 8 must have the most changes out of all the Windows releases I've seen in the last decade or so. It seems like what worked in previous versions of Windows doesn't work in Windows 8. So here are six ways to make Windows 8 easier to use.

1. Create Shutdown, Restart and Logoff shortcuts

Microsoft made shutting down and restarting Windows 8 kind of hard. You have to go to the Start screen and log-off before you can get to these options. Just seemed like too many steps for me, so I just created my own shortcuts and toolbar for shutting down, restarting and logging off.

How to create log-off, restart and shutdown shortcuts on the Start screen in Windows 8.

2. Start menu replacements

Windows 7 style Start menu in Windows 8 using Start8
Windows 7 style Start menu in Windows 8 using Start8

If you're a die-hard Windows user and find the Start screen just doesn't work for you, there is hope. There numerous third party shell menus out there like Start8, Classic Shell and Pokki's Windows 8 Start Menu. Get one and Windows 8 will feel just like Windows 7.

3. Power users command menu

The desktop and laptop versions of the Windows 8 Power User command menu
The desktop and laptop versions of the Windows 8 Power User command menu

This is one of the Windows logo key shortcuts for Windows 8 (see below) but I think it deserves to be listed separately. It contains links to some of the most used programs inside of Windows. From the Control Panel, Computer Management and an Admin Command Prompt, if it's a commonly used Windows program, you'll probably find it here. Add it works on both the Desktop and Start screen.

PressTo
Windows logo key + X Open the Power User command menu. There are over a dozen different apps you can run from this menu.

4. Start screen hidden search feature

Most people find it hard to find programs on the Start screen (Windows RT). But there is one cool feature that actually will help you search for programs. If you go to the Start screen and just type the first couple of letters of the name of the program you're looking for, Windows RT will bring up the Search charm with Apps pre-selected. Remember that there is no box or form field associated with this feature, you just type.

5. Windows 8 Keyboard shortcuts

The Windows logo key Windows logo key has been around since Windows 95 and with every new version of Windows, Microsoft just adds more key combinations .There are now forty (40) different Windows logo key shortcuts in Windows 8.

Windows logo key shortcuts for Windows 8.

6. Windows 8 restart options

Windows 8 restart option screen
Windows 8 restart option screen

It used to be when you had a problem with Windows, you could press F8 at startup and get to the boot options. This was the primary way to start Windows in Safe Mode or boot to other media. But with newer computers using Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) and Windows 8 booting faster, pressing F8 at boot is really hard, if not impossible. But there are a couple of ways to get there once Windows 8 is started. Note: If you want to boot from removable media, make sure that the media you want to boot to is attached (USB) or inserted (CD/DVD) before proceeding.

If you are logged off:

  1. On the logon screen, in the lower-right hand corner, tap or left-click the Power Icon. Hold the Shift key down while you tap or left-click on Restart.
  2. On the restart options screen, tap or left-click Troubleshoot.
  3. Tap or left-click on Advanced options.
  4. From here you can choose what startup settings you want to use or boot to a bootable CD/DVD or USB drive.

If you are logged on:

  1. Press the Windows logo key Windows logo key + C to bring up the Charms bar.
  2. Tap or left-click Change PC Settings.
  3. Tap or left-click General.
  4. Scroll down to Advanced startup and tap or left-click Restart now.
  5. On the restart options screen, tap or left-click Troubleshoot.
  6. Tap or left-click on Advanced options.
  7. From here you can choose what startup settings you want to use or boot to a bootable CD/DVD or USB drive.

And if you would like enable the Advanced Boot Options menu, you can do that too. Just remember that there is no timer on the Advanced Boot menu anymore. If enabled, Windows 8 will wait for user input every time the system starts. How to enable the Advanced Boot Options menu at start up in Windows 8.

How to check your desktop computer for failed capacitors

Is your desktop computer running slower than normal? Does it randomly or constantly freeze up or restart? Or maybe it doesn't boot to the operating system or even boot at all. If so, your computer could have a failed capacitor.

Every computer repair shop has their own set of standard procedures and we are no different. The very first thing we do when someone brings in a desktop computer is check for blown capacitors. With a quick visual inspection, we can spot a costly computer repair. And you can too. Here's how to inspect your desktop computer for failed capacitors.

Symptoms of bad capacitors

Now before you go and take your system apart, let's take a look at the symptoms of a failed capacitor. Does your computer have any of the following problems?

  • Runs slows
  • Randomly freezes up
  • Randomly / constantly restarts
  • Won't boot to an operating system
  • Won't start at all

If so, it might be worth the time to take a look inside your computer.

Types of capacitors

Visual differences between water based and polymer based electrolyte capacitors
Visual differences between water based and polymer based electrolyte capacitors

There are primarily two type of capacitors used on computer circuit boards (motherboards, graphics cards, etc.), water-based electrolyte and polymer-based electrolyte. The majority of failures I have seen are with water-based capacitors, but polymer-based do fail too, just not as often. During the years of 1999 thru 2007, millions of faulty water-based capacitors were produced by some Taiwanese manufacturers. The electrolyte will evaporate and turn into a gas, thus bulging the case, and in some cases, leaking.

Checking for bad capacitors

Top view of a row of failed capacitors
Top view of a row of failed capacitors
Side view of a failed capacitor
Side view of a failed capacitor

The following can be performed with the computer in-place, provided you have enough room. If not, you will have to move your computer to a location that does. Take a photo of where everything goes first, then completely disconnect all cables that attach to it.

  1. Power down your computer and
    • Remove the power cord from the back of the power supply (in-place inspection)
      or
    • Disconnect all cables (relocated inspection)
  2. Open the case.
  3. Remove any obstructions, like fan shrouds, so you can view the entire motherboard and other add-in cards.
  4. Using a flash light, visually inspect all capacitors on the circuit boards (motherboard, graphics card, etc.). You may need to physically remove some of the add-in cards to inspect them. Visual symptoms include:
    • Bulging or cracking of the vent on top
    • Casing sitting crooked on board as the base may be pushed out
    • Electrolyte that may have leaked out on to motherboard (rust colored)
    • Case is detached or missing

What to do if you find a bad capacitor

If you do find a bad capacitor, there are three (3) options. First thing, if your computer is still operable, backup your data ASAP (see links below). There are a lot of factors involved in deciding which option to choose, age of the system and cost being the two major ones.

  1. Repair the motherboard
    You can replace the bad capacitor yourself (see link below) or have a trained professional do it for you.
  2. Replace the motherboard
    EBay is a great place to find a refurbished motherboard.
  3. Replace the computer
    If you've been looking for an excuse to get a new computer, you just found one. Or maybe two or three.

For more information on failed capacitors:
Capacitor plague - Wikipedia

For more information on how to replace failed capacitors:
Recapping your own motherboard - Badcaps.net

For more information on how to backup your computer:
Windows XP Backup
Windows Vista Backup
Windows 7 Backup
Windows 8 Backup

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Track free space on your computer with SpaceMonger

Track free space on your computer with SpaceMonger

One of the software tools I use quite often client systems is SpaceMonger. SpaceMonger is a tool for keeping track of the free space on your computer. It shows graphically the size of each folder and file on your computer.

SpaceMonger

Each file or folder on a given drive is displayed in a box in the main window whose size is a relative comparison to all the other files in your system. So, for example, if the "Windows" box takes up 90% of the screen, the "C:\Windows" folder and all its sub-folders and files are taking up 90% of your "C:" drive.

SpaceMonger runs on Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7 RC1.

Click here to download the latest version


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