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Computer R.I.P.

Where do old computers go to die? Is there an afterlife for these fossils?

"What can I do with my old computer? Nobody wants it," the howl rose in my ears. "Do I just put it out in the trash!"

A friend recently asked that question and she's not the only one wondering. I hear the same question every month or two nowadays, and it's a recent development. Just five years ago, computers hadn't fully penetrated U.S. society and there was always somebody who wanted a hand-me-down box. But today, seemingly every home has a computer, and a cast-off, secondhand box is about as welcome as a discarded washing machine or toaster oven. Who has the space to store this unwanted stuff?

Another development: These days, people mainly want computers so they can go online and if your computer is so old that that's difficult or impossible, takers are exceptionally few.

But here's a rule to remember: There's always somebody who wants your old computer. Know this, too: Every two to four years, you'll have an old computer to deal with. That's about how frequently we replace office boxes. So this isn't simply an academic question. Soon you'll deal with it yourself.

And you have options. At least two:

  • Give it to charity. Check out these Web sites: www.heartsandminds.org and www.recycles.org. You'll find lots of links to information on how and where to give away your old computer. Schools top the list, but nonprofits are also hungry for boxes. In fact, charities are often more eager to get their paws on computers. That's because school funding usually includes money for computers, but charities frequently scramble for every dollar and anything that stretches their resources is welcome. A plus for you: Get a receipt for a donated computer, and it's a tax deduction. This year, for instance, I gave an old Apple laptop to the Salvation Army and will take a $300 deduction (saving me around $150 in taxes).

But. . . the plain truth is not every computer is wanted by charities. Most will turn up their noses at anything slower than a Pentium class Windows-based machine or a 6-year-old Apple. Why? Two reasons. It's devilishly difficult to tweak older machines to connect to the Net and impossible to coax them into running current software. They're odd men out and having them around does nothing good.

Are you out of luck if charities say, "No, thanks"? Not yet.

  • Give it to a friend. In my neighborhood, a fellow named Chuck is forever tinkering with computers-pulling memory from one, a hard drive from another, a CPU from a third. He patches the parts together and gives working computers to friends and relatives When a forgotten 286 computer, circa 1985, surfaced in a closet, I knew Chuck was the man who would want it. By now, he's probably used its parts in four more project computers, and you know, he's always grateful for any cast-off box. My advice to you is when nobody else wants a computer, find the Chuck in your neighborhood. There's always a tinkerer who wants this stuff. Just post an index card on a supermarket, community center or college bulletin board.

Of course, when people ask me what to do with their computers, what they really want to know-and what you want to know-is how in heavens could something that so recently cost so much now be nigh onto worthless? I know your pain. Moments ago I checked Yahoo! Classifieds to see what my 3-year-old Mac PowerBook might fetch. I paid about $4,000 for it. . . and today, apparently, I should do a dance of gratitude if someone offers me $750.

Ouch!

But reflecting on that misery is grist for another column. For now, just know that you shouldn't ever throw out a computer. There is always somebody who wants it-even if they won't give you a dime.


Robert McGarvey has covered the Web since 1995-just about forever in Internet years. He's the author of How to Dot.Com: A Step-by-Step Guide to E-Commerce. His columns appear in Entrepreneur magazine, HomeOfficeMag.com, TipWorld.com, and Porthole Magazine. Find out more by visiting his Web site, www.mcgarvey.net.

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