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Thrift-store PCs

In the comments of a recent post I did, reader Glaurung Quena brought up a good topic: secondhand PCs, acquired cheaply, strictly as rebuild fodder.

I like the idea, of course, because I’ve been doing it for years. In the 1990s I built a lot of 486s and Pentiums into former IBM PC/ATs, basically until all the board makers relocated the memory slots into a position that wasn’t clear on the original PC/AT due to a beam that supported its drive bays. And of course the adoption of ATX and MicroATX killed that, at least for a while.

But now ATX has been around as long as the old AT architecture had been when ATX came along, and efforts to replace ATX haven’t been successful. So that trick makes more sense again. Buy a secondhand machine cheaply, intending to re-use the case, and regard anything else inside that happens to be reusable strictly as a bonus.


Old PCs turn up anywhere that any other used items do: Garage sales, estate sales, thrift stores, and church rummage sales all have possibilities.

Thrift stores probably make the most sense, as they’re open six or seven days a week. Many of the chain thrift stores don’t accept PCs, but independent stores often still do.

Garage sales can make sense, especially if you’re out running errands on Saturday morning anyway. Take the long way through residential areas, and eye the selection from the street. Keep moving if all you see are clothes.

If a neighborhood near you decides to have a neighborhood sale, that’s frequently worth going to. People who don’t think they have enough to warrant having their own sales are more willing to drag their stuff out and see what happens.

Rummage and estate sales are a little trickier. You’re more likely to find them in affluent areas, because young professionals are more likely to buy them and replace them. And sometimes at an estate sale in an affluent area, I find a cache of PCs in the basement. I find it happening more and more.

The trouble with estate sales is having to go into the house and dig. You don’t have to worry about getting there early and fighting for a place in line, because the computers will still be there at noon. The people fighting for a place in line at 7am are looking for jewelry and Lionel trains. It’s hard to recommend the estate sale circuit unless there are several things you’re looking for.

The other possibility is getting them from your workplace. If your workplace is paying to have its old PCs hauled away and disposed of, they might be willing to give you or sell you a PC without the hard drive in it, as long as you’re willing to sign a release saying you accept all liability and expect no technical support.

What to look for

The big key is knowing ATX and Micro ATX when you see it. Although many name-brand PCs do adhere to industry standards now because it’s cheaper, there are some exceptions, especially small form factor PCs.

Look for the ATX backplate to be in the right position, and either 4 or 7 full-size expansion slots perpendicular to the motherboard. If they’re parallel to the motherboard, then you probably have something else.

Then again, if you’ve read this far, you probably already know that.

The other thing to look for are USB ports. In the 1990s, peripherals were so scarce you rarely saw more than a couple of ports on the back of the motherboard. Nowadays, if you don’t have at least a couple of ports on the front, it’s a pain. So much so, that in addition to the ports on the front of my computer, I keep an extension cable plugged into one of the rear ports to give myself another one up front.

What you save

A good quality case costs a minimum of $35, but can often cost closer to $100. A power supply isn’t necessarily included in that, since the customer’s needs vary so much.

If the system itself is a Pentium 4 or older, there isn’t going to be much usable stuff in it. The memory will be obsolete, and of course CPU upgrades will cost more than the machine will be worth. The question with what’s inside is whether it has resale value or recycling value.

If the power supply doesn’t have a 24-pin power connector and SATA connectors, it’s probably not worth reusing. You can buy power adapters to modernize them, but the power requirements on newer equipment can be different. You can spend $15 on adapters and maybe it will work, or you can spend $35 on a newer power supply. Also, Dell used odd power supplies with their own pinout for many years. They looked like ATX, but the wiring was different, and if you plugged a regular ATX motherboard in, you’d blow it up. So you should assume any Dell power supply will need to be replaced. The upside is that since Dell power supplies from the P1-P3 era (at least) can only be replaced with other Dell power supplies, they’re more likely to have some resale value. (I don’t know Dell PCs all that well because I’ve made a habit of avoiding them whenever possible. Booby-trapping your power supplies and knowingly using bad capacitors gets on my nerves for some reason.)

The optical drive could be reusable, depending on whether it still works and is still useful. Plain old CD readers get less and less useful by the day. With DVD burners typically selling for $20 these days, it’s not the end of the world if you have to buy one. But if you have a choice between a couple of different systems, you might as well get the one that has the best optical drive.

Floppy drives are even cheaper. But your new motherboard might not even have a connector for one of those, and even if it does, you may not use it anyway. There’s a decent chance you’ll be replacing that drive with a memory card reader, which is far more useful these days.

But in the middle of the last decade, more and more systems started coming with those built in. Since those readers cost about $15, it’s worth looking for a case that already has one. They plug into a USB header on the motherboard and most motherboards have plenty, so you shouldn’t have any problem re-using it.

Sometimes a PC will have useful cards plugged into it too. The majority of modems aren’t worth the hassle of course. A modem with a real hardware controller on it could have a little value. Network cards usually aren’t worth much hassle, but if you find a gigabit card, that can be nice to have. USB and Firewire cards are nice finds too. You can never have enough of those ports.

The hard drive is probably old, slow, and small, but if it’s not useful for anything else, a hard drive with a Windows XP installation on it is nice for those times when you have to install Windows off an upgrade CD. Plug the drive in long enough for the upgrade to notice it, then disconnect it after the installation finishes.

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7 thoughts on “Thrift-store PCs”

  1. I spent last Saturday afternoon helping some friends who bought a new desktop and netbook, and walked away with the micro HP that had overheated two mobos. I should be able to rescue their pictures and favorites from the (Vista) hard drive. The big win for me is the TV Tuner card. A high price to pay for getting the card, but since I was going to help the people anyway, it’s a bonus.

  2. Frontx isgood for making an old case with no or not enough front panel USB ports useful. (Also good if for some reason the front USB ports don’t work, as with my current case grumble grumble). Their solution works, is extremely flexible (you only get the front ports you need), and they pay the shipping to the US/Canada, which makes their stuff actually quite reasonably priced.

    1. Now that’s a nifty product I hadn’t heard about before. Thank you for sharing that. Even if a system only had a single 5.25″ bay, I’d almost opt for that over an optical drive, since you can plug an optical drive into a USB port in a pinch. Most systems, of course, have two or three, and what else are you going to do with that third one?

  3. What is hilarious, eye-opening, and amazing to me is that P3’s are about as fast as an atom, and use very very little power. Complete P3 box usually goes 35W at idle and a bit more at load. What’s the point of atom and messing about with new stuff when you can get old free stuff that is the same in all respects except for the small size.

    I have to say I am sick of the e-waste that is pushed when decent stuff already exists.

    1. True enough. What you get with Atom, though, is USB 2.0 onboard, SATA, gigabit Ethernet, and the ability to use up to 4 GB of RAM with the current generation. Plus current Atoms are up to 2 cores and 1.8 GHz, which isn’t bad for 80 bucks. I’ll spend half that adding SATA and USB 2.0 to the P3, and then I still can’t do nice things like boot off a USB stick, and most P3s are limited to 1 GB of RAM. The Atom is kind of like the 386sx was 20 years ago–a cheap, relatively modern upgrade for aging systems.

      As for e-waste, I think some of what drives that is the cost of repair–whether it’s a malware infection or disk crashes–being nearly as high as replacement. Given the choice between a $200 repair, or $300 for a new one, most people will just buy the new one. Technology will hopefully help both of those problems, eventually.

  4. It’s funny. In India, labor costs nothing, but material and parts cost proportionally a hundredfold. For example, riding my motorcycle through Rajasthan (desert) I got a tire puncture since I had fun riding through somewhat off-road types of areas. Well luckily I was in a town and I just pushed my bike around and got the tire patched and inflated for 50 cents (20 rupees). I gave the guy about a buck tip…

    Now then when you shop around for laptops and desktops and parts in india, you can pretty much to a direct translation to US dollars and get the same price. So it’s really expensive to buy a new machine or whatever over there.

    Everything is fixed because labor is nothing. You can get a guy to make you a nice dress shirt including the material for 5 bucks. And that’s with rip-off prices because they know I’m not a resident indian (NRI).

    What I don’t like about Atom is that people were on the mad upgrade cycle for years and now somehow are supposedly content with what amounts to basically an athlon thunderbird 1ghz running winxp with ram sizes that don’t proportionally match the cpu speed. Too much ram not enough grunt. I still don’t understand what people run on these boxes, I tried to use it to even surf youtube and I swear it was painful. The thing I love about it though is the battery life. Still, I find myself using cheap vostro intel core celerons laptops that get 2 hours of battery just because it fits my needs better (with an ssd of course!).

    Not saying that it’s not good. Atom netbooks have a place especially with 6cell batteries that give you 9 solid hours (Asus 1005PE). But in a desktop… I just dont get it. I looked at some of your desktop builds in your old posts and saw you using Atoms. I would just have kept everything the same as you but got a 50$ amd am2 cpu and a 50$ gigabyte board. Cheap and crazy powerful.

    Still, I have an Asus eee 701 2g Surf. I had to get it. Way to hard to resist when it came out 2 years ago!

    Thanks for answering my posts.

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