How to refurbish an old PC

Why refurbish old computers?

There is nothing wrong with PCs built in the 1990s and early this century for business or personal use.

If writing a document using a word processing package, crunching a few numbers with a spreadsheet package, drawing rather powerful 2D illustrations or basic 3D illustrations, playing non-3D adventure games, and accessing the Internet is all you ever need to achieve with a computer, why spend thousands of dollars on the latest computer to do the job?

However, there is a far more important reason to refurbish old computers. As research firm Gartner has uncovered through its surveys, there are about 11.4 million computers in use throughout Australia today. Of those machines, approximately 1.6 million of them will end up as landfill. The rest will find their way in garages to gather dust mainly because the owners are hesitant to give away what was once an expensive machine.

As Jon Dee of Planet Ark said:

"People are reluctant to throw away something that has been so expensive." (Galvin, Nick. Screen savers: The Sydney Morning Herald. 21-22 May 2005, p.6 (pp.6-7).)

If we just concentrate on the computers going to landfill, the soil around each machine slowly receives a chemical cocktail of highly toxic substances ranging from heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, beryllium and roughly one to four kilograms of lead, and at least three different types of plastics.

And we have not included other metals such as copper, aluminium, gold, silver and tin to name a few.

Why do people buy the latest computers?

The main reasons why people buy the latest computers are mainly because:

  1. Businesses making and selling computers want everyone to buy the latest computers for profit purposes (they do this by making sure there is in-built obsolescence such as easy to break clutch hinges and cracks in casing, fewer driver support for older devices, changing connection ports etc).
  2. People want to run several applications simultaneously at a reasonable speed for their work.
  3. People's jobs entail the production of highly sophisticated 3D animation and digital movie and audio editing for Hollywood films and therefore need a way to cut down on the production time.
  4. People have high egos and need to look like they are equipped with the latest technology.
  5. The machines are now starting to look more compact and attractive and can fit into anyone's decor.
  6. People can play the latest 3D adventure games and watch DVDs so they can more easily escape reality.

But if these reasons are not important to you, why purchase the latest computers?

Is there enough?

There are now quite literally hundreds of millions of PCs being discarded around the world and many are still capable of doing all the basic tasks we take for granted on a computer nowadays, such as movie-editing, building 3D animation scenes, digital photography and recording sounds.

Want a machine to write letters or a manuscript about the size of the Bible? No worries. Any PC built in 1990 or later can achieve this with remarkable ease. All you will need is a word processing package and the rest of the PC (together with your brain) can make it all happen!

And if data researcher Gartner is right after releasing its survey in May 2004, nearly 100 million PCs are likely to be replaced this year and another 120 million PCs in 2005 as people realise support for older software and operating systems are becoming virtually non-existent from the software manufacturers and there is a move towards faster and more powerful movie-editing and other monstrosities of software for the discerning consumer.

Combine this with consumers wanting to buy new PCs for the first time and PC manufacturers will be shipping globally (and quite happily) more than 186.4 million PCs. This is 13.6 per cent more units sold than in 2003.

So why spend thousands of dollars on the latest computer having massive computing power and fancy good looks just to achieve really good work on the digital front?

Should I reuse old PCs?

There are two other reasons why people should reuse old PCs. The number of computers ending up in landfill is now being measured in the millions and all are said to be contributing to the poisoning of water supplies and soil from decaying PCBs and plastics.

Then there is the issue of the increasing digital divide between the haves (the ones with a computer and access to the Internet access) and have nots. Disadvantaged people need access to a computer and the Internet because there is a wealth of free information out there to help people change their circumstances and make society better in a way never seen before.

As they say, "Knowledge is power" so long as people are aware of it, which is why everyone must have access to a computer and the Internet.

The recently retired Secretary of the Department of the Environment and Heritage Roger Beale supports this view. In an interview with Business Reporter for The Canberra Times Claire Hunter, Beale said:

"There is a real risk we are becoming two nations, separated by a great digital divide, with those on the wrong side of the divide losing touch with an Australian community which does more and more of its educational, social, commercial and government business over the Internet.

The gap in the opportunities between those who can access and use the new technology and those who are locked out by its cost, or their disabilities, is becoming a more and more important symptom and source of social and economic inequality.

Almost one million computers are disposed of to landfill in Australia each year, while only a third are recycled. Another 1.3 million obsolete computers get stuffed into garages or closets every year, storing up a future landfill problem.

Computers contain lead, mercury, cadmium and brominated flame retardants. If they get into the groundwater through leaching out of landfill they can create real environmental problems." (1)

Where can I find refurbished PCs?

If the owners of preloved PCs have not refurbished them before reselling them to the public in newspapers or on eBay.com, you may wish to visit the following locations from people whose job it is to refurbish computers (suitable for Australia):

(i) Lioncom - http://www.lioncom.com.au/

(ii) Work Ventures Connect IT - https://workventures.com.au/

And Computerbank is a great place to have your refurbished machines loaded with tons of free and useful software and donate them to worthy causes.

Also visit your local Planet Ark's recycling directory for further information.

Do charities really recycle PCs?

Not entirely. People who try to refurbish PCs and give them away to the disadvantaged or other people understand there will be some waste. For example, no one will be an electronic expert in repairing electronic components on every faulty component of a PC. Furthermore, charities tend to concentrate on the newer machines at least a Pentium II or higher.

Aaron Regan of PC Graveyard in Geelong, Victoria, agrees. He said:

"There are very few true recyclers in this country. All the charities want the newest and latest computers. They call themselves recyclers but they are more reusers. That's the difference, we actually break computers into metals, plastics, circuit boards, etc." (Galvin, Nick. Screen savers: The Sydney Morning Herald. 21-22 May 2005, p.6 (pp.6-7).)

In the meantime, it will be at least until the end of 2006, if not early 2007, before major computer manufacturers and the governments sign off on a deal to get the major industry players to properly recycle everything they produce. The delay is mainly in trying to find ways to make the recycling profitable for the manufacturers (e.g. asking consumers to pay around A$36 to have their PCs taken away) and at the same time working out how to deal with orphaned PCs whose manufacturers have ceased to exist in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, computer manufacturers such as Dell claim they will only be able to achieve around 80 per cent recycling.

True recyclers in the real sense of the word are few and far between. The closest to being 100 per cent true recyclers in electronic waste is Simsmetal. Simsmetal claims it has found a way to recycle all parts of a computer at its Victorian plant or through the various specialist facilities in Europe. The only tricky part is reducing the costs in collecting the computers, which is why Simsmetal is working with CBD Enviro Services. CBD Enviro Services supplies the bins for consumers to dump old PCs and delivers them to Simsmetal.

Although this collection system has been extremely successful according to Karen Wakefield of CBD Enviro Services, it remains a pilot scheme until 6 June 2005.

How do I refurbish PCs on my own?

The first thing to do is negotiate with government departments, schools and private individuals to supply their unwanted PCs to a central location where you can collect and refurbish the machines.

Once you have enough unwanted (or unloved) PCs in your possession, you have to understand the various components making up the PCs. Who knows? Maybe the reason why people are discarding the computers is because one or two components are not functioning properly. If you can work out which components are causing the problems (2), there is a good chance of repairing or replacing them with workable components from unrepairable PCs.

This means you have to know how computers are made and what they look like on the inside (and so learn many things computer manufacturers probably wouldn't want you to know about).

The inside of an old PC


Here is a typical view of the inside of an old PC built in the 1990s:


In the following picture, you have a close up of one area of the PC showing (1) the RAM card connectors for storing information, (2) the VGA card (e.g. S3 Trio64 V2-DX) for delivering the computer images to the screen; (3) the Modem card for accessing the Internet, (4) the Network card for sending and receiving digital information on an Ethernet network, (5) the battery for retaining essential computer information in memory such as current time, (6) the Sound card (e.g. Acer Magic S30) for delivering crisp 3D stereo sound to your speakers.

Most expansion cards such as the VGA card and the Sound card are designed to free up the microprocessor to do other tasks. In other words, your computer can run faster and do more things.

When the expansion cards are removed from their connectors, this is what they look like:

The Modem Card

The VGA Card

The Network Card


From the back of the PC, the cards manifest themselves as connectors. These give the PC user extra features when running the computer. As shown in the picture, (1) the VGA card, (2) the Modem card, (3) the Network card, and (4) the Sound card.

Other ports, connectors and features at the back of the PC include (1) a cooling fan for the power supply, (2) power switch, (3) AC 240V power socket, (4) standard cooling for rest of computer, (5) mouse connector, (6) keyboard connector, (7) two USB ports, (8) printer port, and both (9) and (10) are for older keyboard and mouse connectors.


A closer look at the motherboard (or logic board) adjacent to the expansion cards shows (1) one RAM card (32MB), (2) a second RAM card (32MB), (3) room to add an extra RAM card in the RAM card connector, (4) cooling fan for the Pentium microprocessor, and (5) the location for the microprocessor (i.e. directly underneath the cooling fan).

When you remove one of the RAM cards (please handle with care as stray electric charges can damage the chips — touch the metal chassis of the computer to remove stray electric charge and hold the cards by the edges), this is what it looks like:

Please note that most PC desktop machines such as the one you are seeing here will have identical connectors such as the one designed to hold a RAM card. What will vary are the features or memory size of the cards added to the computers. The only exception to this rule is with laptops. Here, the connectors as well as the cards can quickly change in a couple of years as new technology gets introduced onto smaller and smaller expansion cards because the name of the game here is to make everything compact and put just enough new or different features to get consumers to buy the laptops.

Refurbishing a PC

The essential technique to refurbishing a PC is:

  • to check the condition of the computer (is there significant damage or virtually none at all?);
  • to work out how old the computer is (i.e. how fast is the microprocessor and what is the hard disk capacity?); and
  • To repair or replace damaged or outdated components using existing parts from unrepairable computers.

NOTE: It is generally accepted that anything less than 1GB for a hard disk is considered too small and should be replaced. And to ensure adequate speed to run most of the software available today, 200MHz plus should be the benchmark. Actually 200MHz plus is recommended for machines having a modem. Anything less and you should ignore it.

Once the PC is fully working again, the computer is cleaned up (3) and sold to customers at a fraction of the cost of new computers (usually A$75 for a standard PC with a modem or A$50 for a PC without a modem. People may pay more for a powerhouse feature-rich and high speed machine if one is available).

When preparing to refurbish a PC, it is a good idea to design a table on a sheet of paper showing all the components that need to be available on a PC. In other words, place the name of the essential components in one column (e.g. Floppy Disk Drive or FDD, Modem, Sound card, RAM size, microprocessor speed etc). Have a second column prepared so you can tick them off when you know the PC you are refurbishing has the components. If not, you can always pick one up from another unworkable PC and reuse it. Afterwards, have a third column to mention important information about the components of the PC (e.g. the actual speed of the microprocessor, the size of the RAM etc.).

Next, create another table underneath with all the essential quality control tests you need to do to prove all the essential PC components are working. For example, you may need to test the sound card, make sure the floppy drive can boot from a startup disk, run the New Hardware control panel to ensure all hardware components are recognised and have software drivers to run them, and to look at the Device Manager to see if there is a tick against all the hardware components as an indication everything is okay.

What can I expect to encounter when refurbishing a PC?

Now as you go through the sheet, you will discover from time to time how some components may be missing or they may not work properly during the quality control stage. Or perhaps the components you can observe are available and working but are not of a reasonable speed or capacity. So how do you, say, replace a slow microprocessor for a faster one? And how should the cables be connected to the various components such as a floppy drive, hard disk or CD-ROM drive and on the motherboard itself?


You may notice how a PC may hang for no apparent reason right in the middle of loading the Microsoft Windows OS. At other times, the computer may not load Windows at all or show a blue screen with a message asking you to restart and if the problem persists to check for viruses and run CHKDSK /F in DOS mode.

If you experience this situation, check to see that the CD-ROM drive may not have been set to slave or master in the disk controller settings. The best way to check for this is to disconnect the CD-ROM IDE cable from the motherboard and turn on the PC. If it starts up and loads Windows properly right through to the desktop stage, then it is a slave/master problem.

Another cause could be a virus interferring with the startup process for Windows. Try to boot up from a Windows CD and run an anti-virus software tool and a spyware tool to remove all known nasties.

The behaviour can also be an indication that the computer cannot recognise the existence of the internal hard disk. Check the IDE cable to the internal hard disk and motherboard to ensure a clean contact. Or try a new IDE cable.

On other occasions, you may have a block error creating corruption at a crucial part of the hard disk. You may have to reinitialise and/or ghost the internal hard disk with a fresh copy of Windows and applications to help solve the problem. Or maybe the hard disk has physically reached the end of its life and just needs to be replaced (nothing lasts forever). Remember, if you have to reinitialise, ghost or exchange the hard disk for another, recover as many personal and work-related files as you can.

Also check the BIOS on startup to ensure the C:/ drive is selected as the startup disk.

If all else fails, reset the BIOS on the motherboard by moving the jumper lead to one position for a few seconds (on some PCs, you may have to turn on the machine then turn it off after moving the jumper lead) before returning it to its original position.


There are moment when you may be able to increase the speed of a microprocessor if the part is available. Assuming the motherboard can handle it, replacing the microprocessor is not as hard as you think.

Actually the technique is definitely not rocket science. The only thing you will have to be careful is how you handle the updated microprocessor when it is placed into the computer with your hands: you should avoid touching the metal pins of the microprocessor otherwise any stray electric charge on your skin might suddenly dissipate onto the pins and cause permanent damage inside the microprocessor.

The first step is knowing where the microprocessor is located. All microprocessors can be found on the motherboard directly underneath what is called a heat sink. "What's a sink heat?" you may ask. A heat sink is a device for dissipating heat from something that is generating heat (in this case the microprocessor). Heat sinks help to cool the microprocessor.

Heat sinks are usually black, square-shaped things sitting on top of the motherboard with the microprocessor acting as the "meat in the sandwich". Here are examples of several different types of heat sinks you may recognise inside different PCs:

Once you locate one of these sorts of heat sinks, you will know that directly underneath it is the location of the microprocessor. Hence to access the microprocessor means you must remove the heat sink (see "Replacing the cooling fan of the microprocessor").

In the case of the PC you are looking at in these photographs, the heat sink is actually a square, black cooling fan.

With the heat sink (or cooling fan) removed, you can now see the microprocessor:

To remove the microprocessor, there is a plastic lever on the side of the white plastic chip holder. Lift it up into a vertical position. You can already see the lever in the above photograph being elevated to a 30 degree angle. You have to keep pushing the lever up into a vertical position for the processor to be removed easily by hand as shown in the photograph below:

Here is how the chip will look underneath with all the metal pins showing:

As you can see, this one is an Intel Pentium 166MHz microprocessor built in 1992-93. Remember, if you ever wanted to know the speed of your microprocessor, there is a simpler way: just restart the PC (without removing any components inside the machine) and look at the screen for information on the computer's processing speed (measured in MHz).

With the microprocessor removed, you can replace it with another similar microprocessor.

When reinserting the microprocessor back into its white plastic holder, remember the orientation: the cut corner of the microprocessor chip (1) lines up with the corner of the white plastic holder where one hole is missing. In the above photograph of the white plastic holder, this is in the top left-hand corner.


The cooling fan is the latest technology when it comes to keeping your microprocessor cool. Generally, the faster the microprocessor, the more heat it generates, and the greater the need for a device to dissipate the heat generated by the microprocessor for long life.

In the early days, microprocessors were slow enough not to get too hot. So it was possible to use a black-coloured metal heat sink with lots of protrusions on top to help increase the surface area and make it easier to dissipate the heat. Today, a high-speed microprocessor is too hot to let a piece of metal do the job of keeping it cool. A cooling fan dedicated to keeping the microprocessor cool is currently the best way of achieving this.

When refurbishing a new PC, you will discover how some cooling fans don't work at all or may work in a sluggish or noisy way. This is the time to replace them with a better quality fan.

The procedure of removing a cooling fan involves pressing down on a metal clip on the fan and move it towards the fan itself. This should unhook the metal clip from the white plastic holder underneath the fan.

Once one end is unhooked, the other side of the metal clip can easily unhook itself from the same white plastic holder without too much trouble.


Another common occurrence when refurbishing PCs is how you may discover the date and time information going awry. It is like at one time you tried to set the time and date and, after a restart, the information is lost again. This problem is caused by the CMOS battery. To repair the problem, look for things like:

(i) The metal clip may not be making contact with the CMOS battery on the motherboard. If you see the battery moves too easily in its battery holder with a screwdriver, remove the battery and carefully push down with a flathead screwdriver the metal clip. Or use a pair of pliers. Reinsert the battery for a better fit.

(i) The CMOS battery may have lost its charge. Replace the battery with a new, fully-charged battery of the same size and voltage (virtually all PCs use the same voltage in the battery, but check the size).


One of the most common problems when refurbishing an old PC is how the BIOS settings may still have password-protection. When refurbishing a PC, what you want to do is to unprotect the BIOS settings and get it ready for general use again.

On practically all PCs, you will find a three-pin socket somewhere on the motherboard with a jumper lead on it called a reset switch. This reset switch is designed to reset all BIOS information for your PC including the password.

The location of this reset switch varies with different PC brands. But the actual reset switch will usually look similar in design. When searching for this reset switch, be aware of other similar looking switches. For example, in the photograph below, you may be tempted to believe (3) is the reset switch (near the cooling fan (1) and RAM card connector (2)):

In fact, the correct reset switch is located on the other end of the motherboard inbetween the expansion cards. The thing you saw above is probably designed to affect microprocessor speed, core voltage to the microprocessor, and other vital motherboard functions. It is not recommended that you try to tamper with this switch.

In this PC example, the Network card has been removed in the following photograph to show the location of the reset switch (1):

In other machines, the reset switch is located near the CMOS battery (the most sensible place to put it).

To know for sure where the reset switch for all motherboards are located, write down the name of the motherboard, which in this case is P5TX-Apro Rev:2.0:

Then go on the Internet and do a search on this name and see what you can find out from the manufacturer or other reputable sources. Alternatively, look for a diagram printed on the motherboard to give an indication where the reset switch might be located.

To reset the PC, make sure the machine is turned off. Now pull out the "red-coloured" jumper lead, move it across to the two pins located on the left end of the three pin socket as you see it in the above photograph and push it in. Turn the computer on for about 10 seconds and switch off. This will usually be enough to reset the PC. Before turning the PC back on again, move the jumper lead back to where it was before.

In other machines, such as the Intel motherboards used in the Ipex machines, resetting the BIOS may involve:

  • removing the CMOS battery and AC plug from the computer;
  • moving the jumper lead on the reset switch;
  • plugging in the power cord and turning on the PC;
  • waiting until the configuration screen is shown;
  • plugging the CMOS battery onto the motherboard;
  • making the necessary changes to BIOS such as removing the password and setting default BIOS settings;
  • shutting down the computer;
  • moving the jumper lead back to its original position; and
  • restarting the PC.


Have you decided to replace faulty floppy disk drives, hard disk drives or CD-ROM drives with something else? Perhaps you were wondering how to reconnect the cables to these components?

The general rule of thumb is the red-coloured wire on the flexible ribbon cable faces towards the power supply socket of the component in question. For example, the following photograph shows the back end of the floppy disk drive:

Notice the red wire at the end of the flexible ribbon cable facing towards the power supply cable. Also notice the flexible ribbon cable has been partially pulled out. This is the reason why the floppy disk drive did not work. Make sure before testing the PC that all cables are pushed in properly.

As another example, check out the following photograph showing a CD-ROM drive (1), the flexible ribbon cable (2), the power supply plug (3) and the main power supply for the entire computer (4):

It is subtle, but you should be able to make out the red wire on the flexible ribbon cable facing towards the power supply socket for the CD-ROM drive. The same is generally true of the internal hard disk.

Actually, connecting the flexible ribbon cable to the internal hard disk is usually easier because the cable connection has one hole blocked. If you try to put the connector in the wrong way, one of the pins on the internal hard disk will stop the connector from going in:

However, at other times, you may not get that luxury. So follow the general rule of thumb regarding the red wire on the flexible ribbon cable:

For a view of how the flexible ribbon cables get connected to the motherboard, check out the following photograph as you look down from the back end of these disk drives:

As shown in this photograph, (1) is the connection for the floppy disk drive, (2) is the connection for the internal hard disk, and (3) is for the CD-ROM drive (removed for clarity). The cooling fan for the microprocessor is shown in (4) to help give you some perspective of where everything is positioned.

Pushing in the power plugs into the various disk drives is also not too difficult. The shape of the plug ensures it is inserted into the power sock of the drives in only one way:


Once all the components are in and connected properly, you will have to check for things like the mouse and keyboard are working properly on the PC. On virtually all PCs, the way to connect the mouse and keyboard cable is as shown below:

A closeup of the connection shows the keyboard cable is plugged into the bottom port and the mouse cable to the port directly above.

All you have to do to check the mouse and keyboard is to turn on the PC and see whether the cursor moves around okay (you see, it isn't really that hard!). Also check the buttons on the mouse — can you click on say a menu command or do other basic things with a mouse. Similarly, launch WordPad or NotePad and see if the keyboard generates characters on the screen.

If you notice the mouse is working but not the keyboard, check the keyboard cable connection again and restart the machine.


If you don't have the hardware manufacturers' CD to install the drivers for any new hardware device in a PC, visit http://www.driverguide.com/, click members area, and download the drivers from there. You will need to know the login and password, which is prior to 30 June 2005:

Username: drivers

Password: all

However, the owners of this web site now need to identify who is using their service (probably to determine later whether users should pay for the service), try the following from 1 July 2005:

Username: sunriseinformationservices@yahoo.com

Password: anyuser

You should have access to a search engine. Type the name of the company that manufactured your hardware and any other details you can see in the fields provided. The results are listed below the search engine fields. Choose your driver, and download it to your hard disk.

NOTE: Make sure you choose the right driver for your hardware. The Windows operating system tends not to like it if you use the wrong drivers.


With the PC turned off, plug a test printer to the printer port of your PC:

Start up the PC with a floppy startup disk. This will at least test to see if the floppy drive works properly.

A message will appear on the screen as follows:

Select option 2 where it says, "Start computer without CD-ROM support". Press the Return key.

Now type "dir>prn" and if the printer port works okay, you should see the printer printing various characters on a sheet of paper. If not, press the button on the printer where it says "Online". A green light should turn on next to the button. When ready, try the command again.

A special note about the power supply

You will notice in every PC a large metal box sitting in one corner of the machine. This box is designed to convert the 240V AC power supply into a series of small power plugs of a lower voltage (between 5 and 15V) and current for powering the various components of the PC. The box is called a Power Supply Unit (PSU).

PSUs are virtually interchangeable with other PCs. So if the PSU in one PC doesn't work, you can be pretty sure another PSU from a different PC will work.

When a PSU is not working, it is strongly recommended that you should never try to open the metal box and repair it yourself unless you know exactly what you are doing. Otherwise the large capacitor hidden inside can still be charged and you might get a powerful zap from it should you accidentally touch and short-circuit the terminals of this capacitor.

Remember, if you are not a qualified electronics technician, you should never attempt to repair a PSU.

However, if you are confident at refurbishing computers and are interested in replacing a faulty PSU with a new or second-hand workable one, first check to see how much power you will need to run the computer by looking at the label on the faulty PSU.

When selecting a suitable power supply, just remember that the voltage is the same for all power supplies. Only the current will vary. Current, in simple layman's terms, is an indication of how many devices it can drive. The devices, if functioning properly where all electronic components inside draw the correct power (and the semiconductors of certain electronic components are being fed the correct current by other electronic components), should only draw the current it needs to do their job. In other words, if you have a 300W power supply unit, another PSU rated at 550W can also do the job just as well.

The only critical thing you have to make sure (which is why you should go for the quality PSU from reputable manufacturers) is the voltage should not vary as you add extra load to the PSU. For example, you might decide to add an extra CD/DVD burner to your computer. This will, of course, draw more current from the PSU to power it. If the PSU is of any quality, the voltage should remain unchanged in the event you decide to add this extra device. From zero to full current load, the voltage must remain fixed because any variation of the voltage could damage or not correctly provide enough voltage to power some or all of your devices.

The best and most reliable PSU tend to be manufactured by Enermax, Antec and Thermaltake. But any other PSU should do if there is evidence of its reliability and quality.

NOTE: Building any good quality computer should always start with a quality PSU.