Creating your Free Machine!

One of the sub-texts of Digital Aladore is demystifying processes that seem so complicated and technical, like doing OCR or creating an ebook.  I am not super techie and have no training or knowledge of all the details of computer systems.  But I am NOT afraid to open up a computer case!  Its really not a big deal.  So I offer these posts in the same spirit as the rest of Digital Aladore: if you followed along to crack open an EPUB and look inside–do it with some old computers as well!

This post outlines the first steps to creating a great computer for all your ebook processing needs (and anything else you might want to do…) from junk.

First, you need to find a good junk computer… this sounds tougher than it is!  You don’t need to be picky about the hardware, an old computer that seems laggy and slow running Windows can be revived.  There is a lot available because people are buying new computers constantly.  Places to look:

  • Around your house
  • Around your friends houses
  • At dumpsters around universities or tech offices
  • At Recycling/waste collection centers ( for example, a lot of universities, schools, and organizations have a place where they gather e-waste that you may be able to dig through)

What to look for:

  • No obvious physical damage to vital bits
  • Not totally clogged with dust and grime (this usually means it was a poorly maintained server, the power supply and fan will probably be burnt out)
  • All the parts are there (at minimum you need a power supply, some USB slots, some RAM memory, maybe a CD drive)
  • More than one of the same machine (get several, then swap parts to create one working machine.  Schools and offices will often get rid of a huge batch at once.)
  • Stickers indicating the original OS and processor (this will give you an idea of what kind of hardware to expect inside)

If you have never played around with computer internals before, check out a couple YouTube videos to get oriented (there is a billion, here’s a funny one from 2007).  You could also drop into a community e-recycling organization to get some hands on learning sessions, often called “free geek” (for example, Free Geek Vancouver has a weekly drop-in night).  These organizations are also a great place to get parts or recycle the stuff you break!  Remember that there are no real consequences if you are working with computers people were already throwing out.  Just have fun!

If you found a likely candidate, quickly test the system.  Plug the computer in and hit the power button to see if it starts up (you don’t need any peripherals attached at this point):

  • If nothing happens, check the power cord, switch, and fuse on the power supply.  If nothing still happens, the power supply is probably dead.  Go find another computer (or power supply)!
  • If the fans come on, but there is no beep, this means the BIOS is not booting and there might be something wrong with the motherboard.  You might be able to fix it with some trouble shooting.  Some things to try: remove the mother board’s button battery for 30 minutes and reset the CMOS using the reset pins; remove the RAM memory and any installed cards, then add them one by one to see if an item is causing a hardware conflict.
  • If the fans come on, but there is a bunch of beeps, this means there is some hardware issue that they system is detecting.  These beeps are actually coded messages, so you can search around to find out what they indicate.  It should be easy to isolate the problem and get it running!  Remove or swap out the offending components.
  • If the fans come on, and you get a nice single beep–you are good to go!  Hold the power button for several seconds to shut the system down.

In your old computer, all the heat sinks and fans are probably full of dust.  This makes them inefficient at cooling the system.  So once you find a system you want to work on, unplug and open the case.  Gently blow out or vacuum all the dust.  Get it nice and clean now!

While the case is open, I usually remove any unnecessary hardware as well, such as old floppy or zip drives.  Just unplug the all the cords, no big deal.  I also remove the batteries from old laptops, since they are usually dead.  Its a waste of electricity to keep charging a battery that doesn’t hold a charge, and removing it also significantly cuts down on heat and weight.  Be sure to properly recycle the battery.

Once you get a computer that will power on and beep, you are ready for the next step.  At this point you will need a keyboard, monitor, ethernet cable, and mouse.  Details in the next post…

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