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Fixing Your Computer is Easier Than You Think 

by Rachel Crowell
October 18, 2017 | Living

The cliché “knowledge is power” exists for a reason. When something goes wrong with our computers, many of us don’t know enough to determine if they’re DOA or just need a little TLC to get back up and running. 

Tom Gilmore is in the business of fixing up computers that previous owners mistook for lost causes.  He revives donated computers for Free Geek, a non-profit organization based in Portland, Oregon, that connects people with free technology.

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Why recycle computers?

Today, access to technology is key to success, but not everyone has equal access to digital tools many of us take for granted. Free Geek's mission is to “(include) everyone in our digital future.” The organization accepts donations of used computers and other technology. Then volunteers, who are provided with free training on computer repair, make any needed fixes.

The fully-functioning computers are then donated to non-profits, used to reward Portland-area kids for their community service, sold in the organization’s thrift store or given to dedicated volunteers, Gilmore said. Not only is this helping people, it's keeping computers out of landfills, a boon for the environment.

Fix it before you pitch it

Have you given up on your computer? Before you recycle it, take a second look. In Gilmore's experience, people often mistakenly discard computers that are a few years old but still run okay. Some of the computers Free Geek ends up with have problems their owners could have fixed on their own.

One common reason why people discard their old computers and buy new ones? Slow performance, Gilmore said.

If you’re frustrated by your computer’s consistently slow performance, Gilmore suggested these DIY improvements before you ditch it.

1. Speed up your computer by cleaning it

A dirty computer is a slow computer, Gilmore said. Give it a good dusting every once in a while.

“If a computer has been in use for a number of years, and has never been cleaned, then it can cause all sorts of heat issues," he said. "When a computer gets hot it will slow itself down (on purpose) in order to produce less heat. If the system still gets too hot then it will automatically force a shutdown to cool off.  

“By vacuuming dust clumps out of the fans (especially the CPU fan) we can alleviate much of the thermal throttling, and therefore speed up the computer.”  

2. Prepare, then wipe your computer’s hard drive

“After years of use many (hard drives) fill up with software that is rarely (or never) used by the owner," Gilmore said. "Over time this buildup of old stuff slows your (hard drive) down and will ultimately wear it out.   

“For someone attempting to revive an old computer, completely wiping it and re-installing the operating system (Windows, Mac OS X or Linux) can be a very effective tool.” 

But DIYer beware–this process completely erases all the data on your computer. Back up any important documents, precious photos, videos or other unrecoverable assets to an external hard drive before starting this process.  

3. When you do re-install an operating system, choose a Linux one

The platform you interact with on your computer—its menus, settings and icons—is its operating system. It's what makes a Mac a Mac and a PC a PC—one runs an Apple operating system, the other runs Windows. But not all operating systems are created equal. And your options aren't limited to Apple or Windows.

“The biggest thing that Free Geek recommends to breathe life into an old system is install one of the many Linux operating systems," Gilmore said. "Linux is an open-source operating system that is available to all at no cost.

“Linux is typically a ‘lighter’ operating system than Windows or Mac OS X which inherently can allow the computer to run faster. This is because there are typically less programs running in the background utilizing the limited resources your computer has available."

There are many Linux operating systems to choose from, which can be a bit overwhelming. But that also means there's one that can fit your needs, he pointed out. Free Geek installs Linux Mint 18 on the donated computers it refurbishes "because it is relatively similar to what people are used to."

Getting rid of your computer?

If you've determined your old machine is beyond help and it's time to replace it, consider your options. You could buy new off the shelf, of course. But if you’re feeling adventurous, use Gilmore’s suggestions to make an older computer new to you, or learn how to build one from scratch.

Adopting a feral computer 

If you've decided to buy an old computer and see what you can do with it, Gilmore recommended these steps to avoid any surprises: 

- Make sure the computer powers on.

- Open the back of the computer where the internal components are located. Start checking for factors that could affect the computer’s performance, such as excess dust, coffee or other spills, or an appearance that suggests the previous owner didn’t take good care of the machine.

- Search online for side-by-side images of good capacitors and bad capacitors on the motherboard. Use these images to look for bad capacitors.

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Turn to free resources for building your own 

Whether building from scratch or further improving the condition of your adoptee, Gilmore recommended YouTube channel Paul's Hardware to learn about everything from basic computer systems to how to build gaming computers.

Gilmore recommended PC Part Picker for checking that parts are compatible, whether you're hoping to use them to fix your existing computer or assemble a new one. The website includes build guides aimed at a variety of users, skill levels and budgets.

Each guide includes a description of the parts used in the build. Some also include links to videos of similar builds. While each build guide includes links you can use to purchase parts, once you've identified the parts you need, you can also search Ebay, letgo and similar sites for used parts, Gilmore said.  

Remember to stay safe

Building a computer might not sound like an extreme activity, but handling some components comes with safety risk.

You are the best judge of your own skill level. When in doubt, ask a more experienced person for advice, or post-pone the project until you are confident you can do it safely on your own.

Gilmore recommends taking these safety precautions: 

- Never, ever open up your computer’s power supply. For real. Even when the computer is unplugged, electricity can be stored in the power supply. People have died doing so. 

- Wear nitrile or latex gloves to avoid coming into contact with potentially harmful chemicals found in computer parts.

- Only work on your computer in an “electrostatic-discharge free environment.” You can create this by wearing an electrostatic discharge wristband, also called an "antistatic wrist strap" (like this one). Wear this wristband around one wrist and attach the strap’s alligator clip to something else to create a ground. Doing this not only protects you, but also prevents electricity from frying your computer’s components.

Rachel Crowell
Rachel Crowell is a Midwest-based writer exploring science and math. Rachel lives in Iowa with Delilah, a golden retriever a stranger once called “the cutest thing in America.” Outside of STEM topics, Rachel welcomes writing opportunities on everything from art to finance. Follow Rachel on Twitter at @writesRCrowell. Reach Rachel at [email protected]
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