I was handed an old Eee PC lately. One of those small netbook things. I usually describe them as "Barbie's PC". Personally anything with a keyboard is something better than without, but that's my preference. Typing on a glass just does not have the feel of clicky or bouncy keys.
It didn't have an operating system. So very helpful, turn the thing on and it told you that. I'm assuming that the person who had it didn't want their data to be found, or it was one of the "refurbished" machines you see online.
So here's what you do when you have a machine that "doesn't work at all". You know, a dead machine that you want to see if it's intact or it needs to be recycled or you just have a machine with data on it you need to save before you start over.
Download a "Live CD" version of Linux.
They're a full operating system that just runs from the cd or the memory stick that you're using for the purpose. You'll need at the bare minimum 1GB, but a 4GB stick is the most I have ever needed for the task.
They're an interesting thing. In Windows and Mac machines, you're wedded to the computer. With a Live CD and a little dancing, the PC becomes just a box that runs what's on the stick. The stick doesn't care, it can run on any fairly modern machine.
The thing with these Live CDs is that they're completely independent of what's going on on your machine. If you're off on vacation, you can have an environment that is tailored to your own use. I've done that before, brought one with me. Basically a complete computer on my keyring. It only touches what is on the PC's hard drive if you go out of your way to do so.
Grabbing the most friendly Live CD, Ubuntu, I managed to get it to the memory stick using the instructions that are found on Ubuntu's site. Plug that Memory Stick into the little Eee and power the thing on.
I was presented with the Brown/Orange Ubuntu desktop. Success.
Running through all the inventory of devices I managed to determine that the machine was complete, functional, intact, and ready for anything else I wanted to do with it.
After playing around and seeing that I was safe, I decided to click the helpful install icon on the desktop and let it go through the motions of a full install. It worked beautifully. At least the install did, but I eventually didn't go with Ubuntu for a couple reasons.
The Wifi on the install didn't work well. I was constantly refreshing web pages that never loaded. Since we're using computers both on the web and with programs on the hard drive, that wouldn't work. Driver problems are the biggest problem with Linux. It just isn't supported as well with "Cutting Edge" hardware.
The other thing is that Ubuntu is butt ugly. They have something called the Unity Interface which is like having a permanently opened start menu on the left hand of the screen. I couldn't figure out how to make it hide so I could ignore it. This is the usual complaint. I hate it and don't have to use it.
Luckily there are other versions that work as well, if not better in some cases. For small computers, and older ones like the one that is probably sitting in the back of your closet, you'll want something called "Lubuntu". Think of "Lightweight Ubuntu". It uses an interface that looks very much like Windows, and runs blazingly fast because all the programs are the smaller ones. On the Eee it ran beautifully except it had the same Wifi Problem. If you don't have an Eee or you want to experiment with drivers, you may get it to work. I was lazy, I had bandwidth and time. I took the "Path of Least Resistance".
I eventually ended up installing CentOS which is a full server operating system. This is the same thing that is running many websites and businesses around the world. CentOS has a rock solid feel and an enormous amount of support since it is Red Hat Enterprise Linux, almost. They took Red Hat, removed their branding, and put it out there for everyone to use free and since it is Linux it is all nice and legal. I've never had a problem with CentOS, in fact since it is Linux, it runs on a very old machine with ease. I had a 12 year old Pentium 3 laptop that had Centos 3 on it from back in the 1988 or so until it simply up and died one day. Never had a problem with either CentOS or the ancient laptop at all and it ran as fast as the current hardware, going through update after update.
It just takes knowing what you're doing. A lot of that experimentation has been removed with the mainstream Windows and Mac OSX. Running Linux is a much more raw experience but when you have it up and running, it will purr like a kitten for years or even decades.