#Guide: recycle an old PC to make it a Linux home automation server, Arduino / ESP8266 development station

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Recycling an old Windows PC is a great solution for hosting a home automation server, creating a Linux development environment for Arduino / ESP8266, or a multimedia server. In most cases, an old PC based Intel Atom or i3 processor will have more power than a Raspberry Pi 3 or an Orange Pi+ 2e.

In which case recycle an old PC rather than buy a Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi 3 has quickly established itself for several reasons:

  • Its very low cost. A few years ago, who could have imagined buying a computer for less than 50 € (if you add the SD card and the 5V power supply).
  • Its multiple connectors
    • The I / O connector (GPIO) which allows you to learn very simply electronics
    • The camera connector that allows to realize vision-based projects: optical microscope, surveillance camera, face detection …
    • The LCD connector that allows you to add a touch screen to create a dashboard or control the interface to the fingers
  • Its low power consumption

In return, the Raspberry Pi 3 has some small defects:

  • The Raspberry Pi uses an SD card to operate the system. It is necessary to be rigorous and to avoid disconnecting the Raspberry Pi before stopping the system under penalty of data corruption.
  • The power, equivalent to a smartphone may prove too just for some applications.
  • Without a SATA interface, you can not enjoy a hard drive without a USB adapter. The SSD is no longer really interesting.
  • Some software is not available for SoC ARM. In some cases, it will be necessary to compile from source code (eg FFmpeg), which requires a little more skill and time.

In general, users will buy a Raspberry Pi for each task: home automation server, office / internet, development …

If you do not need the connectors (GPIO, LCD), recycling an old Windows PC can be an alternative solution in several cases:

  • Install a home automation server. You will have more power at your disposal, especially if you have many scenarios.
  • Install a media server. Even if Kodi (among others) adapts very well to Raspberry Pi, you can fully enjoy the speed of SATA hard drives. Same for decoding or compressing videos. Intel chips are generally better suited for these tasks
  • Install a real-time database. Connected objects produce large amounts of data. SD card storage is not suitable for this job. Real-time databases such as InfluxDB have not been deployed on ARM chips.

Upgrade your old PC

It is not because it is old that you can not reserve a small budget to upgrade it. In 5 or 10 years, the price of hard drives fell sharply, especially that of SSDs. For RAM, it’s less obvious. Due to lower demand, the prices of older generations of RAM (DDR2, DDR3, etc.) can soar. This is case by case.

Adding RAM

This is the first thing to do. Increasing the RAM will immediately give a boost to your old PC. Pay attention to the standard of the time (speed, connector …). Some manufacturers used more expensive laptops. DDR2 or DDR3 were the norm in 2010. Count about $25 for 2×2 GB DDR2@800MHz.

Adding a SSD for Linux

As effective as RAM, replace the original hard drive with an SSD. No need to buy the latest generation or the biggest SSD, the SATA interface certainly can not exceed a speed of 3Gbit/s. Even with a throughput of 3Gbits/s, the system will be extremely fluid. Accompany about $60 to equip you with a SSD of 120 GB.

ssd sata recycler ancien pc serveur domotique arduino

Add a hard drive for storing files and databases

To turn an old PC into a multi-media server, nothing better than a big hard drive. You can find a hard disk of 1TB (of good quality) for less than $50.

Add WiFi

At the time, WiFi was not yet systematically integrated to the motherboard, or simply the WiFi chip is defective. No problem, add a WiFi dongle and go round and played. Choose a model supported by Linux. TP-Link is a very well supported value for major Linux distributions. The TP-Link TL-WN725N dongle adds a WiFi N (150 Mbps) connection for about $8. Check on the internet that the chip used is supported by your Linux distribution.

Add Bluetooth 4.0

Even more rare than WiFi at the time, Bluetooth. This is not a priority but having a Bluetooth antenna will allow you to add other wireless devices: keyboard, mouse, audio speaker … Same advice as for the WiFi dongle, check the native support under Linux before your purchase. DSD Tech is a fairly widespread brand. Count about $7.

Which Linux distribution to install?

There are many Linux distributions. However, it is preferable to opt for a light distribution.

The first criterion to be taken into account is the type of microprocessor and more particularly if it is 32-bit or 64-bit. Indeed, from 2017, several distributions have announced the support stop of the 32-bit processors, too old. Archlinux, a very fashionable (and lightweight) distribution will be suitable if your processor is 64-bit.

Ubuntu (based on Debian) is the best known. Ubuntu is not well adapted to the situation because of its graphical desktop Unity is very (too) resource-intensive. With more than 2GB of RAM and a SSD hard drive, it can pass, but with a classic hard drive and 2GB of RAM, your computer will quickly become unusable.

ubuntu recycler ancien pc serveur domotique arduino

Instead of Ubuntu, you can opt or Lubuntu. This distribution is based on Ubuntu, the core will be the same, but the graphics desktop is XFCE. This is the graphic desktop that I already installed on an Orange Pi + 2e running under Armbian. By using Lubuntu, you can easily install a home automation server (Domoticz, Home Assistant …) by following the tutorials on the Internet, the Arduino IDE …

lubuntu recycler ancien pc serveur domotique arduino

How to install Linux on an old PC?

Start by retrieving the image from the distribution on the official site. I insist on the official term. Never retrieve an image from an unofficial alternative site. This image could contain malicious code!

Then use Etcher (shown here) to install the image on a USB stick. The procedure is perfectly identical to the preparation of the Raspbian SD card for Raspberry Pi or Armbian for Orange Pi.

armbian preparation carte sd etcher en cours

To boot to the USB key, you need to configure the BIOS of your PC. Depending on the bios, you will need to press F1, F2, F8, ESC, DEL … The key is indicated at the first start-up screen. For example Press DEL to enter SETUP.

If your BIOS does not support startup on a USB key (your PC is really old), then you will have to burn a CD ROM.

Then follow the steps on the screen. You can also find all the steps of the installation in this previous tutorial.

virtualbox installation ubuntu 16.04 lts

Now you have a brand new machine that can be used as a base to install a home automation server and why not a development station.

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