Get More Out of Your PC

Convert an Old PC Into a Server

Illustration by Harry Campbell.
Illustration: Harry Campbell
You just bought a new PC, and the old one sits forlornly in the corner. Why not turn it into a file and print server? Running quietly in the basement or another out-of-the-way spot, it can hold all the music, video, and other files that you, your family, or your coworkers want to view and share.

The following steps explain the Windows XP Home approach. If you'd like to convert the machine into a Linux server (which is arguably more stable than a Windows one, and lets you create private folders for each user), see page 10.

First, make sure the PC has enough hard-disk space; when it comes to server storage, the more the better, so this is a good time to add a new hard drive if your existing one is smaller than 80GB. Once you have enough storage, strip the PC down to a lean, mean file-serving machine. Run your PC's reinstall CD or Windows XP installation disc to return your PC to the state it was in when you bought it. (Don't forget to run Windows Update afterward to download the latest OS security fixes.) If you don't have a Windows CD, read the details on how to reinstall Windows without a disc. Next, remove most of the installed programs using the Add or Remove Programs Control Panel: In XP, click Start, Settings (if necessary), Control Panel, Add or Remove Programs. Delete all the programs listed there except your printer software--all you need is that program and Windows itself. Consult "Gunk Busters," our guide to getting rid of old programs.

With your system pared down, press Windows-E to open Windows Explorer. Navigate to and right-click the Shared Documents folder (double-click My Computer, right-click Shared Documents, and click Sharing and Security). If you've reinstalled Windows from scratch, right-click the folder and select Sharing and Security. In the properties window, click Network Sharing Setup Wizard and run through the steps, entering a name for the system (such as "Server"). Restart the PC, right-click the Shared Documents folder, select Sharing and Security, and make sure that Share this folder on the network and Allow network users to change my files are checked.

Next, click Start, Control Panel, Printers and Other Hardware. Select View installed printers, right-click your printer, and select Sharing. Choose share this printer and give it a descriptive name (such as "Living Room LaserJet") so people know where it is.

Now open Windows Explorer on one of the PCs that will access the server and enter \\server in the address bar. You'll then see the Shared Documents folder, which is now accessible from any machine on the network. You can map a drive letter on the PC to the server simply by right-clicking the Shared Documents folder and selecting Map Network Drive; the folder will then be treated as a hard drive inside your computer. If you would like to use the server's printer from an attached PC, just double-click the printer icon to install its driver, and then print as you normally would. Repeat these steps for every system on your network, and you'll have a file and print server that anybody can access.

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