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Prepare a Laptop or Desktop PC for Sale, Giving Away, or Recycling

written by: Lamar Stonecypher•edited by: J. F. Amprimoz•updated: 11/8/2008

Want to sell or donate your old PC and need to clean up all personal and private data on the hard drive as well as preserve your important data and website log-ins? In this article, we look at backing up data, wiping the hard drive, and restoring the operating system to prepare a PC for a new owner.

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    Want to set up your laptop or desktop PC to sell it, give it away, trade it in, or for recycling?

    It’s good to take precautions. Most of us have something on our computers that we don’t want others to know about – passwords for websites and personal data for example – that should be backed up and then erased completely. We’ll look at each of the steps involved in preparing a PC for a change of ownership.

    First of all, there are some items that you’ll need to do by hand. Web browsers and laptop utilities have gotten so good at remembering website passwords for us that you might not have thought about which specific passwords you’ve used at various websites for quite some time.

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    Back Up Your Website Passwords

    You can access the list in Firefox 3 by going to Tools, Options, clicking on the Security tab, and clicking on the “Saved Passwords" button. The default is not to show passwords in the Saved Passwords list, but you can click “Show Passwords" and confirm it to include passwords.

    Did you find more saved passwords and websites in the list than you had imagined? Wondering what to do with this list? The free Firefox add-in Password Exporter is one solution that works well.

    Password Exporter adds an “Import/Export Passwords" button to the Security Tab. The images below show what happens when you click on Import/Export Passwords and then click on “Export Passwords." Note in the third image, the default is to save the passwords to an xml file. You may want to change that to .csv (to view in a spreadsheet application) before clicking “Save."

    Please click the images to enlarge.

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    And remember, just as easily as you accessed the password list, so too can anybody else that gets access to your PC. You might want to consider securing your password list by setting a master password under Tools, Options, Security tab, “Use a master password."

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    Internet Explorer does not have a built-in saved-password viewing or exporting feature. In fact, a minor cottage industry, mostly dubious in nature, has sprung up to service this problem. I checked out several and gave Kaspersky anti-virus a workout. One product that I found and tested is the simple “IE Password Revealer" by WellTek Software. It’s available for $6.99 from their website.

    It’s not an automatic tool. To recover a password, you must first open Internet Explorer and navigate to a website that will display asterisks for the login. This could well mean logging out and back in if the website logs you in automatically. The trial version only shows the last character of the password, but that is enough to verify that it’s working.

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    Yes, using IE Password Revealer is some work, but it’s a way to recover all your passwords one-by-one, and I didn’t get any virus or malware from visiting their website.

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    Back Up Your Important Data

    Once you have saved your password list for your browser, you next want to back up any information that you want to preserve from the PC. An easy way to do this is by purchasing an external USB hard drive. This makes moving entire folders a drag 'n drop affair. Try to get one that’s bigger than the hard drive in the PC because you will probably want to use the external drive to backup your next PC.

    Don’t forget to grab the big ones – pictures, music, and documents. Most will be found under C:/Users/Username, although some data may be saved in other places like your desktop or in program folders under C:/Program Files. Thoroughly examine your entire hard drive, and if you're in doubt that you'll need something later, go ahead and err on the side of caution and grab it anyway.

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    Next: Planning by Intention, Rescue and Recovery, and the Professional Approach

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    In this second page of "How to Prepare Your Laptop or Desktop PC for Sale or Recycling," we talk about the two meanings of recycling - charitable donating and disassembly for parts. If preparing for new ownership (selling or giving away the PC), wiping the hard drive and reinstalling the operating system by running rescue and recovery from the manufacturer-provided recovery partition is a good course to follow. We talk about using "Eraser" to erase the hard drive. It can also be used to "zero out" the rest of the drive after reinstalling Windows. We look at starting a recovery on an HP desktop and ThinkPad laptop, and at how using a professional tool called "Active@ Boot Disk" is faster and easier.erase hard drive, wipe my PC, how to erase hard drive, restore partition
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    What Do You Intend?

    The next thing to consider is what you plan to do with the computer?

    If passing it on to a relative or selling the computer, you probably want to wipe (erase) the hard drive and provide a minimal, but complete and running operating system for the next user.

    I’ve found that “recycling" has two meanings. For some, it means turning the old laptop or desktop in to be repaired and distributed to schools and charitable organizations. For others, it means literally turning the computer in to a company that will try to distill it for its parts and elements.

    If the latter, you may just want to wipe the drive and leave it that way.

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    Restore and Recovery

    If you want to keep the computer operational, and it’s relatively recent, it probably came with a recovery partition on the hard drive that contains Windows. This makes restoring the operating system easy.

    However, there’s still a little risk involved. When you delete a file in Windows, it’s not immediately erased. Instead, the reference to the file in the hard drive’s file allocation table is removed. The file actually remains until another file overwrites it. (This is how file un-delete tools are able to work.)

    If you want to securely erase the drive before running the restoration utility, I suggest using an application called “Eraser" by Heidi Computers, Ltd. It's not really easy to learn, but it's powerful.

    Erasing an entire hard drive involves mounting the drive in another computer system. This is because operating system files and executable files that are in use are locked and cannot be erased. Eraser does include a utility program that can be run from DOS, but not many computers have floppy drives anymore.

    Be sure to read the extensive help section in Eraser (shown in the third image).

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    Sound like more than you want to get into?

    Your computer may already be designed to erase and format the operating system’s partition when you do a system restore. My suggestion is that you try that first, then use Eraser to securely erase (one-pass pseudo-random write) all the free space on the hard drive. Then run Windows update and the computer will be ready to give away, sell, or recycle for other users.

    How does one run a system restore? It depends on the computer. On one HP computer I have, pressing F1 during boot-up starts system recovery and restore. On a ThinkPad notebook, a big blue button does the same thing. Your computer will most likely tell you in a boot-up message what to press to start a recovery operation.

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    A More Professional Approach

    Want to take more control, or think you’ll often be preparing computers for recycling or for resale? You might want to invest in a special tool for preparing hard drives. Active@ Boot Disk by Active@ Data Recovery Software would be a suitable tool, and it offers a ten-day free trial. The software needs to be registered because it includes a tiny, licensed version of Windows Vista (WinPE), and the trial version does not create a bootable CD.

    Active@ Boot Disk contains a veritable Swiss Army knife suite of applications for troubleshooting and repair. (It reminds me of using Norton Utilities back in the DOS days.) It is not inexpensive, but for the functionality it provides, the price of $79.95 for personal use or $99.95 for commercial use is quite reasonable. (Please watch for a complete follow-up review of Active@ Boot Disk.)

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    The best part of using Active@ Boot Disk in preparing a laptop or desktop for transfer of ownership is that starting the PC from the CD-ROM has the same effect as mounting the hard drive in another PC - you can access and manipulate the PC's hard drive from the environment the boot disk creates. One of the included utilities is even called "KillDisk."

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    Next: Conclusion and Further Reading

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    In this third page of "How to Prepare Your Laptop or Desktop PC for Sale or Recycling," we summarize our findings. Running rescue and recovery or even putting the hard drive in another computer to "zero out" the hard drive before running rescue and recovery is an excellent plan to follow before giving away, selling, or contributing a laptop or desktop PC. If the PC is to be disassembled, Eraser can wipe the hard drive. Finally, if the user is going to be preparing PCs for new ownership, investing in professional tools like Active@ Boot Disk would be a good move. prepare pc for sale, rescue and recovery, laptop theft recovery, how to track a stolen laptop
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    If you're selling, giving away, or contributing your laptop, the afore mentioned action plan makes a lot of sense. Backup your needed data and then wipe the hard drive by running rescue and recovery, or by mounting it inside another system and using Eraser to "zero out" the drive, and then run rescue and recovery.

    Password Exporter, free for Firefox, or IE Password Revealer ($6.99 for Internet Explorer) will help you find your saved passwords for websites, and an external hard drive that you can also use to backup your next PC will make preserving your important data easy.

    If the PC is to be destroyed or disassembled, and you're lucky enough to have a floppy drive, starting Eraser from a floppy will certainly erase the drive in unrecoverable fashion.

    If you'll be doing this often, or if you find yourself frequently troubleshooting other computers, investing in a heavy-weight tool like Active@ Boot Disk would be a good move. Having Active@ Boot Disk would also make preparing a PC for new ownership quicker and easier.

    Thanks for reading this. We hope you are enjoying reading and learning at the new Bright Hub.

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    Further Reading:

    How to Block Third-Part Tracking Cookies in Internet Explorer and Firefox - Are you leaving tracks everywhere you go online? If your browser is sharing cookies with a website you're not even (knowingly) visiting, you've got third-party tracking cookies on your PC. This article defines cookies and looks at blocking a certain type.

    How to Track a Stolen Laptop - It's a jungle out there. According to a recent report, 672,000 notebooks are lost in airports every year in the US and more than half are never recovered. It makes sense to assume eventual loss and take precautions before the loss or theft happens. Free tracking application Adeona can help.

    Turn Your Vista Laptop into a Mobile Hotspot - Need to share your wireless Internet connection with your friends or colleagues? If they've got WIFI, the solution is easy and free. This article tells you how.

    Is Using Vista's Hybrid Sleep Good for My Notebook - Curious about whether the new power saving modes in Vista are actually better for use on the desktop than on your laptop? Here we look at Vista's hybrid sleep mode and how hibernation and sleep are different from Windows XP.

    How to Deauthorize ALL Computers in iTunes - If you go through computers the way I do, you've probably encountered the problem of running out of authorizations in iTunes.It's no longer the hassle it once was. Now it is possible to de-authorize ALL the computers at once, instead of doing them one at a time.