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I'm one of today's best-selling computer book writers, with more than 15 million books in print.

This website keeps you up-to-date on my books, and your computers. Each week, I answer a reader's question on-line.

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Is my hand-me-down PC any good?

http://www.flickr.com/photos/wsimmons/5271990421/Q: A friend gave me a used Dell Inspiron 8000 laptop. It has Windows XP Professional installed.

One laptop sticker says “Microsoft Windows Millennium Edition. Product Key XXXXX-XXXXX-XXXXX-XXXXX-XXXXX.”

On the right side, a label says “Intel Inside.” Another sticker says “Designed for Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional/Windows Me.”

I am flummoxed. What does all this mean?

A: Whether a hand-me-down comes from a friend or a stranger, that newly acquired PC brings a nagging question: What can I do with this old thing?

Those stickers on its case provide important forensic clues, so let’s start there:

  • Microsoft Windows Millennium Edition: This version of Windows rode on computers from September, 2000 to August, 2001, when Windows XP took over. That makes your laptop at least ten years old — too old to run the latest version of Windows, but new enough to run Windows XP reasonably well.
  • Product Key XXXXX-XXXXX-XXXXX-XXXXX-XXXXX: Computers sold with Windows pre-installed usually include a product key sticker. That code lets you reinstall Windows after a dire emergency. Unfortunately, your sticker’s key works only with the operating system sold with your laptop: Windows Millennium. Since somebody has installed Windows XP onto your PC, peel off that sticker; it’s worthless. To find your new, Windows XP product key, download and run the free Magical Jellybean Keyfinder. Print out the new key and save it for an emergency. You’ll need it if you ever try to reinstall Windows XP onto your PC.
  • Intel Inside: Your computer’s brain, or Central Processing Unit (CPU), comes from Intel. Intel CPUs cost more than their competitors, and ten years ago, Intel led the pack. That’s a point in your favor.
  • Designed for Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional/Windows Me: Your laptop could run both Windows Me and Windows 2000 Professional, commonly used by corporations. The two versions of Windows required similar computing power, so this sticker means little.
  • Service Tag: You’re lucky to have a Dell laptop, as all Dell computers come with a Service Tag sticker containing a special series of numbers and letters. Find its Service Tag number, and enter it into Dell’s support website. There, a customized web page tells you everything inside your particular computer. You’ll also find your computer’s drivers, handy when troubleshooting problems. No Service Tag? Dell’s generic website for the Dell Inspiron 8000 laptop says your laptop sports a DVD drive and has about a three-hour battery life.

While sleuthing for clues about an old PC, don’t forget eBay. There, you can see what Dell Inspiron 8000 models currently fetch on the resale market. In the United States, for example, a Dell Inspiron 8000 laptop sells for between $20 and $40.

The verdict? Your PC certainly isn’t a powerhouse. Its low battery life means you’ll probably need to plug it into the wall most of the time. After ten years, those batteries probably won’t last 15 minutes.

Don’t count on using it for editing movies, doing advanced photo processing, or running any newer versions of Windows. It’s already pushed to its limits. Don’t sink any more money into it with a new battery, memory, or any other upgrades.

But when plugged in, it’s fine for web browsing, e-mail, and word processing, which consumes most of our work today. It might be a little slow, but it will do the job.

If you need more computing power than that, you’ll need a newer computer. Or, perhaps, you’ll need a friend that hands you something that’s newer than ten-years-old.

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