At some point in your computing life, you'll end up replacing an old machine in favour of a shiny new computer. But what should you do with your old PC?

You'll probably feel guilty about throwing it out. After all, it's perfectly functional. When you first bought it, it was near state-of-the-art. If your new PC replaces one that's really on its last legs, by all means, take it to a reputable electronics recycler. But it's amazing how many users ditch perfectly good machines when they pick up a shiny new system.

You can do plenty of things with an old PC besides sending it to the recycling heap. Let's take a look at a few ways you might put that old system to work.

1. Convert it into a NAS or Home Server

If you're running a home network and have multiple users - you, your spouse, your kids - reuse as network-attached storage or even as an actual server may be just the ticket for an old system.

However, it's not just a matter of plugging an old PC into a network connection and starting it up. Most desktop systems aren't configured to be effective servers or storage systems. For one thing, they probably use too much power. You'll want to set BIOS power management to run cooling fans in quiet mode, if that option exists. You'll also need to set up the operating system so that it doesn't shut down at inconvenient times, yet run in a low-power state when it's not being actively used.

Bear in mind that you'll probably want to run your server 'headless' (that is, without a monitor), and sans keyboard and mouse as well. While you'll need a display and input devices for the initial setup, make sure the system will work properly without them. Having a scheduled reboot hang because the system halted during startup (it couldn't find a keyboard, perhaps) is annoying, to say the least.

Also, the operating system is likely not well suited for storage applications, particularly for multiple users. While Windows can function well as a storage repository for a couple of users, you'll want to take the time to create user accounts for each person who might need access. In some cases, you may want to set storage quotas.

A better solution would be to install a proper network operating system. One choice is Windows Home Server. However, that will cost you somewhat north of £70, and WHS may prefer newer hardware. An alternative is FreeNAS.

FreeNAS is open-source software designed to turn a PC into a network-attached storage device. It's based on FreeBSD, a UNIX variant. If you're uncertain whether you want to commit to an unfamiliar OS, FreeNAS can be downloaded as a LiveCD version.

This is an ISO file which, when burned to a CD, will boot off an optical drive and run completely from memory. You can keep your old OS on the hard drive until you determine if FreeNAS is suited to your needs.

2. Donate it to a local school

If your PC isn't too archaic, consider donating it to a local school or hospital. Even if it is way beyond its sell-by date it could go to a local school's computer lab (most schools have one) and be used as a test bed, to take apart and reassemble. Alternatively, local schools might use it for parts, although they may shy away from used gear, given the unknown pedigree or wear of older hardware.

If you donate it to a hospital or daycare centre, consider buying some low-cost educational software packages and preinstalling them before handing the system over. Also, as with selling a system, you'll want to remove all software that you've reinstalled on your new PC. And make sure to include all licence information for the software you're preinstalling on the old system.

Bottom line: no charitable of publicly funded organisation is ever going to be unhappy that you are offering them a computer. Even if they can't use it, they may be able to sell it or use it for parts, and you can enjoy the healthy glow of a righteous person.

Some local authorities will provide you with details of local non-profit groups who may accept your PC. And Computer Aid International can send computers to underdeveloped countries, so long as the specifications are high enough.

3. Turn it into an experimental box

You've heard about this Linux thing, and maybe you'd like to give it a whirl. But the thought of trying to create a dual-boot system on your primary PC leaves you a little green around the gills. Now you can experiment to your heart's content on your old box.

Check out Ubuntu, the sexy Linux distro that geeks love to, well, love. The neat thing about Linux is all the built-in support for older hardware, so installation is usually easy. In fact, installing Ubuntu is sometimes simpler than installing Windows. And there's a wealth of free software for Linux just waiting to be tried out.

If you think you've got the tech savvy and a bent for tinkering, you might try creating a Hackintosh - a PC that can run MacOS. It can be done, but it does take a fair amount of effort. The main hackintosh site is a good place to start, but expect a long and somewhat bumpy trip. Oh, and you'll have to fork out for a legal copy of MacOS.

In addition, a number of true UNIX-based operating systems are available, ranging from FreeBSD or PC-BSD (based on the Berkeley UNIX version) to OpenSolaris, based on the Sun Microsystems version of UNIX.

4. Give it to a relative

I do this all the time. My brother-in-law has modest computing needs. So I'll often just hand over one of my two-year old PCs, though I'll usually drop in a mid-range or entry-level graphics card.

I don't generally recommend doing this with your kids, though - at least, not if your kids are like mine. They often need as much or more PC horsepower than I use on a regular basis (outside of gaming and photography, anyway). My older daughter is a dedicated photographer, and makes heavy use of Photoshop, while my younger daughter has become a pretty hardcore gamer.

Giving a system to family members can be fraught with peril, though. That's because you are now the go-to person for tech support. So you've been warned: Give a PC to a friend or relative, and you're now on call.

One thing you'll definitely want to do is completely erase the hard drive and reinstall the OS from scratch. If it's an off-the-shelf system from a major manufacturer, restoring it to its original condition from the restore partition or restore disc accomplishes the same thing.

5. Dedicate it to 'Distributed Computing'

Want to do a little good for humanity? How about dedicating your old PC to one of the various public distributed computing projects?

The best known is probably [email protected]. [email protected] uses computing resources from all over the world to help study protein folding, an essential element to understanding how many diseases operate. If your old PC has a fairly new graphics card, that hardware can often pitch in as well, and offer up even more computing resources. Other distributed computing ventures include:

6. Use it as a dedicated game server

Do you have a favourite multiplayer game? If so, check and see whether it's a game where you can host a server on a local computer - you might consider making your old system a dedicated game server. Most multiplayer games capable of playing online often support dedicated servers.

The great thing about many of these dedicated game servers is how little system horsepower they actually need.