Don’t discard that old computer – learn UNIX instead

By on February 1, 2012
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Put an old computer to good use.

Most of us go through so much electronic junk, buying more than we really need, and often just throwing it away. Sometimes a smartphone ends up in a drawer; sometimes it’s sold. Oftentimes a new computer is bought and the old one gathers dust in the garage. And I could say that I’m going to urge you to dig out that old computer and start using it again because I feel so strongly about protecting Mother Earth, but that’d be a lie. All I want to do, in fact, is to make you put your tech gear to better use and perhaps learn something in the process.

I’ll put this in the context of my recent experience with an old Mac. I’ve always wanted an iMac G4, the one with the half-dome base and a display that seems to float in the air. One day I found one on a website – something akin to eBay – called the seller up and the next day I was the proud owner of a once-powerful Mac. As it turns out, there’s much more power in my iPhone 4S than this Mac. It has an 800 Mhz processor, 1 GB RAM, and a 64 MB graphics card. Wow!

So besides looking very pretty on my desk, what was I supposed to do with this computer? Sure, I can browse the web with it, but it can’t run the latest browsers, so a lot of sites simply won’t work. Gaming is out of the question, as is any photo or video editing. It can’t keep up with video playback beyond some pathetically low resolution, and I’m pretty sure playing MP3s will be a stretch for the processor.

I could use it to write articles like this one with, so for that it’s still useful. But what I’ve decided to do is to get back to basics and really learn UNIX and the command line.

You know, “ls” for listing the contents of a directory, “ps” or “top” for checking what’s running, “rsync” for copying files to and from a server, “grep” to find things, and so on. I know some of this from having worked with computers for many years, but I still can’t say I’m very comfortable with a command line. The goal now is that my old Mac will, because it’s so old and slow, make me proficient at UNIX.

I’ve already started making a list of things I have to start working on. First on the list is learning some basics in the Bash shell, the Vim text editor, as well as how to do FTP and SSH. With that in place, I should be able to do a lot of the maintenance of my websites just by using the Terminal application on the iMac.

After that, I thought I’d venture on with network configuration, website hosting, and some software development. But that’s far away in the future so let’s not get too carried away.

Regardless of whether you want to use an old computer to become a command line whiz kid or not, there’s a lot of things you can use it for. It can be a file server, print server, used to download things with, and lots more.

Only your fantasy sets the limits, and your wallet will thank you, as well. Not a bad combination.


I write and talk too much about tech. You can find my personal blog at, my radio shows at, and me on Twitter as mnystedt.

  • VMit

    Personally, I’d rather sell the old junk and invest the $200 in VMWare or other virtualization technology and get a dual or triple monitor setup.  Then you can learn as many flavours of *nix, Windows, Mac OS, etc, that you care to on your brand new computer and save electricity while doing so.

  • Rick

    Someone donated a Mac 3G to the non-profit I work for. The only problem is we are strictly a PC organization (due to cost). I would love to see it in full use or rebuilt.  It is basically a word processor at this point.

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