Formatting a Laptop Before Selling It Would Still Expose Your Personal Data to the Next User

Image: Ari N / Shutterstock.com

Do you happen to have an old laptop lying around that you’re thinking of selling? You should probably hear what I have to tell you first.

If you have already sold one (or multiple), you might not like what I have to say.

So, I’m willing to bet you don’t wanna sell a laptop filled with all your personal files. And definitely not those personal files, if you know what I mean. Not a problem. Just format the hard drives and we should be all fine, right?

Hahaha. Wrong.

Get ready to be confused by the wonderful world of computer nerd talk.

What is Reformat?

Let’s begin with the standard hard drive reformat. I assume you know how to format a hard drive. By which I mean, actually go to the Disk Management setting in Administrative Tools under your Control Panel instead of just selecting everything in your hard drive and pressing delete.

Reformatting a hard drive simply deletes every file you have on the hard drive. That’s different from completely removing/erasing your files (because apparently delete and erase have different meanings for a computer).

Contrary to popular belief (if you’re not a computer nerd), deleting doesn’t actually completely wipe the data from your computer. It just makes the files harder to find, which means you’ll need specialised software to recover them. But that’s not what we’re here for. We wanna wipe that data off the drives completely, so the new owner of your old laptop won’t *ahem* accidentally discover your stash of personal files.

So reformatting is not gonna do the job. Not to worry, Windows 8 and Windows 10 actually includes a reasonably complete hard drive wiping function.

Options for Windows 8 & Windows 10

As usual, it’s under the Control Panel. Simply click Update & Security, and look for the Recovery option on the left. Once you click that, the first thing on top would be the Reset this PC option. Click that, and you’ll be greeted with a popup, with the choices “Keep my Files” and “Remove everything”. You’re gonna have to click the “Remove everything” option.

Image: howtogeek.com

Rest of it is obvious. Just click whatever Windows prompts you to click, and eventually you’ll reach the end, where your files should be pretty much completely gone. This process will take quite a while to complete, however, as Windows has to delete everything, and overwrite the space that used to contain the data with a bunch of 0s.

Data is Still Recoverable

Unfortunately, it is still somewhat possible to recover some data, according to data recovery services out there. Extremely difficult to recover, but still somewhat recoverable.

We’ve often waited for tomorrow for a meal with our family. But what if tomorrow never comes? Watch this and you'll understand:

Of course, if you’re not some sort of secret government agent or extremely important political figure, erasing everything through Windows is probably enough. But if you are, then I’m pretty sure the standard practise is to destroy the hard drive and the laptop completely. What are you even doing trying to sell the thing?

Or, you could be paranoid as heck. In that case, read on.

The Safest Route

If you can’t seem to trust what Windows has to offer, consider any one of the Data Destruction software out there on the Internet. A simple Google search will yield dozens, and yet more lists describing each one of them.

I won’t be getting into the dirty details of how exactly those Data Destruction software works, partly because I don’t quite understand it myself, and partly because there are way too many methods, and most of them are developed by national security agencies or militaries. Even if I tried, I’m not going to understand and you probably won’t either.

In any case, if you really, really want your data gone, just pick one of the programs, and follow the instructions.

If you’re too lazy to look it up, here are a few you could consider:

  • DBAN
  • CBL Data Shredder
  • HDDErase

Some of them can be used like any other program, but if used this way, it’s not going to be able to clean the hard drive that you installed your Windows on. If you want to completely wipe your computer, you’ll have to burn the necessary .iso files onto a CD or a flash drive and boot your computer from the disk.

(Or simply burn your hard disk…literally)

Seriously though, this is quite a lot of hardcore data destruction for your personal laptop. If you do actually have a reason for doing this, just don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.

The best option? Sell your laptop without your hard disk. Or buy a new one, install it in and sell it.

You won’t want to be the next Edison Chen.