Finding a free PC

Finding a decent PC for £100 is challenging, but finding one for free is nigh-on impossible. Weeks of scouring classified-ads sites turned up nothing, so I turned to Freecycle.

You start by finding your local area on Freecycle’s website, then signing up to that group. You can post under an “offered” listing, for items you want to get rid of, or a “wanted” listing, for something you’re trying to find.

It’s an admirable system, but posting a “wanted” request for an old-but-still-working computer turned out to be a tough ask, if not quite as optimistic a request as that of the person who wanted a swimming pool. (I’m tempted to ask for a pony – who knows, right?)

It wasn’t entirely pointless, though. I received one response to my increasingly plaintive begging: a lady who said she had an old Dell tower I could pick up. Moments before setting off to her house, she texted to say her son had decided to keep it. Thanks a lot, kid.

Her response was the only one I received in two months of posting and reposting my listing across various north London Freecycle groups.

People offer free PCs from time to time, but they’re snapped up pretty quickly; replying within minutes of a post going up often isn’t fast enough. (If you’re after a printer, monitor or scanner, however, you’re spoilt for choice.)

All of this is a long-winded way of saying I couldn’t actually find a PC for free – online, at least. But to be honest, if my laptop were to break down, I wouldn’t turn to Freecycle – I’d ask a friend first.

Moments after firing off a pleading message to my chums, I was promised a working Shuttle XPC from a very generous friend.

Shuttle XPC

There was a problem, however: the hard disk wasn’t working. Thankfully, we have plenty of those in the PC Pro office – although I realise I’m ever so slightly cheating here.

After all that hassle, I’m left with a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 PC with 2GB of RAM, which manages to run Windows 8 snappily, returning a score of 0.51 in our Responsiveness benchmark. Overall, it’s a shade more powerful than a modern Atom, but its single core is best directed at one task at a time; it struggled with multitasking, as well as more demanding media work, such as video or audio encoding.

While it’s fairly responsive – especially for its age – this Shuttle sounds like it’s being pushed to its limits: the fans kick in even when the system is idling, and it heats up quickly, too, a problem that’s common with Pentium 4s.

Since this desktop is several years old, Windows 8 tripped up when trying to find drivers; making this Shuttle perfectly useful will require a bit of digging around. It might be wiser – and simpler – to downgrade to Windows 7.

All in, the XPC is a perfectly useful PC, ideal for a child doing homework or someone who needs to do little more than run a browser – frankly, it’s impressive how well this Shuttle works.

If you have a PC like it taking up floor space in your home, wipe the data and give it away on Freecycle – there’s a virtual queue of people ready to take it off your hands.

Editor Barry Collins’ verdict:

Nicole is the control group of this particular experiment, the bar by which all our other entries must be judged. The key question is this: would anyone pay £100 to upgrade from Nicole’s freebie to one of our £100 PCs?

The fact her PC was missing a hard disk and was therefore the only one that wouldn’t work without extra expense obviously counts against her. On the credit side of the balance sheet, the 3.2GHz Pentium 4 is respectable, she’s the only one with dedicated graphics, and it all squeezes into a compact chassis.

Yet even when we stuck a hard disk inside, it was still bottom in the benchmarks. Nicole saved the XPC from the skip, but I’m not entirely sure it doesn’t belong there.

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