How to Properly Prep Your PC for Disposal

How to Properly Prep Your PC for Disposal

You have an old or otherwise unused computer that you want to discard. Perhaps you’re planning to sell it, give it away to someone, or donate it to an organization. Or maybe the PC is so outdated or unworkable that you simply want to junk it. Whatever you intend to do with the PC, there are a few steps you need to take before you say goodbye.

First, you’ll have to back up any personal files and data to another location. If you have any licensed software, deactivate and remove it from your machine. You can then wipe the hard drive to remove any traces of personal data. Finally, you’ll want to ensure that the computer is usable for the next person who gets it or unusable if it’s headed for the junk heap. Here’s how to prepare a Windows PC or Mac for proper disposal.

1. Back Up Your Files

dropbox sync

Dropbox file sync

Your first step should be to back up any documents, photos, videos, and other files saved on your computer, a process that varies based on where and how your content is saved. For a cloud-based file syncing service, such as Google Drive or Dropbox, the process is relatively simple since your personal files are already stored elsewhere. Just make sure all the files you need to retain are backed up to the cloud or synchronized to another computer.

If your personal files are stored only on the computer you plan to dispose, then you’ll need to back them up to another location. Windows has the built-in File History tool to save key folders and files to an external drive; Mac users can turn to Time Machine.

Of course, a third-party online backup tool will also get the job done, but the above options are simpler and cheaper. They should be enough to back up all the necessary files.

2. Transfer Software

photoshop deactivation

Assuming you’re moving to a different computer after discarding your current one, you’ll want to ensure that all your licensed software can be activated on the new system. Some applications, such as Photoshop, offer a deactivation feature through which you’re able to transfer the license onto a different PC.

Open each licensed program to see if you can deactivate it through the menu commands. If you’re unsure, contact the vendor to ask how the license can be removed from one PC and activated on another. Make sure you copy any license or product keys to help you reactivate each program.

3. Wipe Your Hard Drive

disk wipe

Disk Wipe

After you back up the necessary files, you then want to wipe the drive. You can reset and reinstall the operating system to factory conditions and remove all your personal data at the same time. The reset process will differ slightly depending on what version of Windows the computer is running and what components are inside your Mac.

You may also prefer to use a third-party tool, especially if sensitive data is stored on the drive. Such tools as Disk Wipe, Active KillDisk, and AOMEI Partition Assistant offer more robust and flexible wiping methods.

Windows 8.1

win 8.1 recovery

In Windows 8.1, go to Settings > Change PC settings > Update and recovery > Recovery. Under the section head Remove everything and reinstall Windows, click the Get started button. The PC will tell you that all your personal files and apps will be removed and settings will be changed back to their defaults. Click Next.

clean the drive

You are then offered a choice of just removing your files or fully cleaning the drive. Whether you plan to give away the PC or junk it, choose Fully clean the drive. Click the Reset button to proceed.

windows setup

The PC will then restart, cleaning the drive and reinstalling Windows. The next screen you see will be a setup screen. If you plan to give the computer away, just turn off the PC here. The next person who starts the computer will be taken through the same setup screen.

Windows 10

win 10 recovery

In Windows 10, go to Settings > Update & security > Recovery. Click the Get started button under the Reset this PC section. You are then asked if you wish to remove apps and settings but keep your personal files or remove everything. Choose the option for Remove everything.

remove everything

At the next screen, select the Local reinstall option, then click the Change settings link at the Additional settings screen. Turn on the switch for Clean data and click the Confirm button. This will ensure that all information is thoroughly removed and can’t be recovered by anyone using conventional recovery methods.

windows 10 setup

Click Next, then review the settings you have chosen and click Reset. When the PC restarts, you will be met with the Windows 10 setup screen. You can turn the computer off at this point.

Windows 11

win 11 recovery

In Windows 11, go to Settings > System > Recovery. At the entry for Reset this PC under Recovery options, click the Reset PC button. You can then choose between removing apps and settings but retaining your personal files or deleting everything. For this process, choose Remove everything.

remove everything

At the next screen, chose Local reinstall. From the Additional settings screen, click the Change settings link. Turn on the switch for Clean data and click Confirm to ensure that all information on the hard drive is thoroughly removed and won’t be recoverable by anyone else using conventional data recovery methods.

clean data

Click Next and then Reset. After the drive is wiped and Windows is reinstalled, the first setup screen appears. You can then shut down the PC.


erase assistant

The process for wiping your Mac’s hard drive differs based on whether your machine uses an Intel-based processor or Apple’s M1 chip or later. If you’re running macOS Monterey on an Apple-based Mac or Intel-based Mac with the Apple T2 chip, an Erase Assistant tool is accessible from the System Preferences menu.

Go to System Preferences > Erase All Content and Settings and follow the steps to run this tool. It will erase all settings, media, apps, and data for all accounts and volumes on the drive as well as sign you out of iCloud, delete Touch ID fingerprints, disable location services, unpair Bluetooth devices, and remove Apple Wallet items.

mac recovery menu

For older Intel-based Macs, as well as newer Apple-based Macs, you can wipe the drive using your Mac’s Disk Utility tool. Start up your Mac in recovery mode and select Disk Utility from the Recovery menu. Select your Mac’s primary hard drive and click the Erase icon, then choose Erase Volume Group (or Erase) to wipe the drive.

erase drive

Select the Erase button and then click Erase Mac. Click Erase Mac and Restart to kick off the process. Wait for the drive to be wiped. Whether you plan to dispose of your Mac or give it to someone, shut it down after the erase has finished and your computer has restarted. If someone else intends to use it, that person can activate the Mac and reinstall the OS.

4. Destroy Your Drive

degausser Dual Bay USB 3.0 Duplicator and Eraser Dock

If you plan to junk your computer and are concerned about access to sensitive data on the hard drive, software options may not be enough. The only sure way would be to physically destroy the drive. For this, you can turn to a degausser, which will magnetically erase all data on a drive and make it impossible to recover. Degaussing tools can be expensive, though.

A cheaper option is to physically remove the drive from the computer. You can then use it as an external drive using a SATA-to-USB adapter, dock, or enclosure. Otherwise, you can destroy the drive with a few solid whacks of a hammer. Just be careful as you do this. Wear gloves and safety goggles. And make sure the drive is fully destroyed.

5. Recycle the Computer

stack of old laptops

(Photo: ThamKC / Shutterstock)

If you do plan to dispose of the PC, don’t throw it away with the rest of the usual trash. Because computers contain electronic parts, they need to be discarded properly. Big box stores like Best Buy and Staples have recycling drop-off points for various types of electronics. Apple and Amazon will also accept their own products back.

You can also check with your town’s district office to see if there are recycling facilities or disposal sites where you can drop off e-waste. Try running a web search for local recycling centers to find out if any will accept computers.

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