For the holidays you received that prized new PC or laptop, and sadly the old clunker is taking up coveted space under your desk and collecting dust bunnies. Before you toss it out on the curb for donation or sell it for some extra cash, you need to make sure that the information you stored on it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
Back it up
First step, you want to make sure you remove everything you need off your old system because the rest of this process is irreversible. Don’t count on your memory of what files are important – take a complete disk image of your computer to capture everything from pictures to bookmarks and application settings.
Windows users can try DriveImage XML. It is FREE to use, and it creates a cloned image of your hard drive that can be restored directly from drive to drive without having to reboot. It also allows you to multitask, letting you use your computer in tandem while it backs up your data silently in the background.
Mac users should consider SuperDuper. Basic features are free, including easy instructions and complete cloning of your hard drive. Advanced features such as scheduled automatic backups and software updates are available for around $30.
Since you’re already taking the time to back up your data, it may be worth considering transferring your files to a cloud application such as Carbonite or Mozy for that new computer. Carbonite includes software to automate transfer to your new PC and data storage is unlimited (HomePlus Plan is $99/yr). For more information on cloud backup, see my previous article on the subject.
Keep what you paid for
When you make digital purchases like games, content, and other software, most of them come with digital rights management (DRM) that limits their use to only a few devices. Don’t forget to deauthorize all DRM-ed Software. For example, iTunes limits files to five devices and they add up quickly. For iTunes specifically, sign into your account and navigate to the iTunes store. Click on Manage Devices and remove your old PC from the list, this is very similar with Adobe Creative Suites, Amazon, etc.
Wipe the hard drive
Simply reformatting your hard drive doesn’t remove the data,; it just hides it from view and removes it from your system’s index. A dedicated hacker can restore data from a formatted drive using special recovery software. To prevent data recovery, you need to securely delete your data. Use a program that actually writes over the area of the disk where the file was stored (sometimes with multiple passes to be super safe).
Mac makes it simple in OS X. Use the Disk Utility found via the Tools menu. Choose Erase and Security Options, electing the more “secure” version. Windows users can use Darik’s Boot and Nuke to reformat for free.
Re-install the operating system (OS)
After you’ve securely wiped your hard drive, your computer is essentially a blank slate. As a bonus to your buyer (donor recipient), re-install the OS. Hopefully, you have all those system discs that came with your computer when you purchased it.
Windows will automatically boot from the disc once you power it back on, but Mac users will need to hold down the Option key to start the process. A word of warning: If you don’t have your install discs, don’t be tempted to install something you don’t have a license for. How far you go into the install process is up to you, but the easiest method is to just power off when prompts you to create a user account and leave that set up for the new owner.
Finally, if you’re planning to sell it give it a thorough cleaning with a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser and some compressed air. The nicer it looks, the better your chance to get top dollar.