Were you given a second-hand Windows PC? Here’s how to make it your own, safely.


In November, I wrote a column about knowing when to replace a personal computer. I told the sad story of my daughter who had cracked the screen of her gaming laptop. She ended up replacing it with a newer model.

But I haven’t finished the story. I didn’t tell you what happened to that Dell G3 laptop. There was a happy ending.

It’s up to me now.

My daughter gave it to me and I had the broken screen replaced. I had thought about buying a gaming laptop, and for the roughly $300 it costs to get it fixed at the computer hospital, I now have a decent one.

But I had to do more than just fix the hardware. Although I know my offspring practice good computer hygiene, I wanted to make sure the system was safe to use and working well. Once the screen was repaired, I set out to make it my own, giving it a fresh start.

Here are the steps I followed, which you can also use if you acquire a used Windows PC One caveat before you start: As nice as it sounds, do NOT accept as a gift or don’t buy a very old Windows computer. If it is running Windows 7 and cannot be upgraded to Windows 10; or, God forbid, if he still has Windows XP, walk away.

Avoid any PC more than five years old, and certainly one that dates back to the launch of Windows 10 in 2015 or earlier. You will do yourself no favors with a system that cannot receive security and bugfix updates.

With that, let’s start:

Talk to the owner/seller. If you receive a PC as a gift, ask the owner to do three things: uninstall any purchased software; log out of all personal accounts such as mail, social media, browser sync, etc. ; and perform a full reset, which reinstalls Windows and removes all apps and personal files. This is as much for the owner’s protection as it is for yours.

If you buy a used PC from a company that sells them, ask how the machine is prepared for sale. A clean install of Windows must be applied, along with a reformat of the drive, to erase all traces of the previous owner. If the seller can’t guarantee it, buy elsewhere.

Prepare to act. Compile a list of software you regularly use on a PC and make sure you have login information and/or product keys. Visit the computer manufacturer’s support website and find the page with specifications, documentation, and software downloads for your specific model. Download the software you want, paying particular attention to hardware drivers, and save them to a USB flash drive.

Set it on fire. If it’s a laptop, connect the PC to its power adapter. If it is a desktop computer, connect it to the monitor, keyboard and mouse. Turn on the power and watch what happens. If the Windows setup screen for the first time appears, congratulations! You can continue to make it yours. But if it goes straight to the Windows desktop or to a login screen that requires username/password or PIN, you have some work to do.

Wipe it and reinstall it. If the PC you’re using doesn’t launch into Windows Setup, you’ll need to erase what’s there and reinstall the operating system. Microsoft now makes this quite simple, giving you the choice of keeping your files but removing all apps, or removing everything and installing a brand new copy of Windows. In that case, you want to do the latter – it’s the safest option.

If your second-hand PC boots directly to the desktop, click the Start button, hold down the Shift key and click Power, then click Restart. Continue to hold down the Shift key until the “Choose an option” screen appears. In this case, choose Troubleshoot and then “Reset this PC”. On the next screen, click Delete All.

Here you will have the choice between performing a cloud download – reinstalling Windows using files extracted from the Internet – or a local reinstallation. Try the latter first, as a proper Windows installation will include installation files on a hidden partition on the system drive. If you get an error message in this process, you’ll need to start over and select cloud upload, but be aware that this can take up to 4 gigabytes of data, which may take a while if your internet connection is slow .

If the PC boots to a login screen and you don’t have the password or PIN, you can always reinstall Windows. Hold down the Shift key again, click the power icon at the bottom right of the screen, click Restart, then follow the instructions I listed above.

Update and scan. Once Windows is reinstalled, walk through the setup process, including setting up a Microsoft account for sign-in. Then go directly to Settings and Windows Update. Check for updates and install whatever you find. This being Windows, this is going to take some time.

Once done, launch the Windows Defender anti-malware program and perform a full and deep scan. If you downloaded software or drivers from the manufacturer’s website, install it now.

Take inventory. In a web browser, go to belarc.com/products/belarc-advisor/download and download Belarc Advisor. This venerable tool takes a complete inventory of your PC’s hardware and software and presents a report that lives only on your disk. It tells you everything from the speed of installed memory to whether you’re missing critical product key updates for important software, including Windows itself. You can print the report or note where it is saved on your disk.

After all that, you’re ready to install your important software, configure your web browser of choice, and copy your files – safely!

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