How to Reset a PC Without Wiping Windows

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Or should we call it Windows-washing? (Ba-dum, tish!)

I’ll be here all night, folks.

Anyway, a very good friend of mine approached me about cleaning the data off his old PC. He wanted to give it to his sister, but didn’t want a complete Windows reset because he wanted her to have the Microsoft Office products already installed.

This is something I’ve done a few times for people, so I figure it would make a good tutorial. It appears there’s a lot of folks (more than I thought) who want to clean up an old(er) PC without completely wiping and reinstalling Windows.

Note to Mac users: This article doesn’t cover anything Mac-related, but many of the principles are still the same. I’ll probably write something similar for you in the near future.

Anyway, in cleaning data off an old PC that you want to give (or sell) to someone, there are seven basic steps that I follow, and that I will explain in this article.

  1. Remove any cloud backup software.
  2. Deauthorize accounts from software/the computer.
  3. Uninstall all unnecessary programs.
  4. Delete all unwanted files.
  5. Clear browsing history, favorites, etc.
  6. Clean up leftover files and the registry.
  7. Change the login information.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

1. Remove any cloud backup software.

The reason you want to do this step first is simple: If you start deleting files before you’ve deleted the software that backs them up, there’s a very high chance you’ll delete those files from the cloud. That means they’ll be deleted from all your other synced devices. Not good!

Uninstall programs from this section of the Control Panel.
Uninstall programs from this section of the Control Panel.

To uninstall cloud backup software such as Dropbox, iCloud, or Google Drive, do the following:

  1. Click on the Start button.
  2. Start typing “control panel” in the search bar and select Control Panel from the Start menu when it appears.
  3. Click on “Uninstall a program” under the Programs header of Control Panel.
  4. Find the cloud backup software in the list of programs, left-click to select it, and then click the “Uninstall” button on the bar along the top of the program list.
  5. Follow any instructions that the software uninstaller gives you.

Easy enough, right?

2. Deauthorize accounts from software/the computer.

If you have any programs that are licensed (i.e., you pay to use) or require you to have an account to work properly, you’ll want to sign yourself out. If necessary, deauthorize the computer from your account settings.

What does this mean? Well, put simply, if you’re using iTunes and you don’t want your PC’s new owner to be able to buy songs and movies, you’ll need to deauthorize iTunes on your PC and then log out of your account.

The same is true for software such as Spotify, Kindle, and Microsoft Office. The steps vary for each program, and if you’re having trouble, a quick Google search should help.

In general, you’ll want to click through the menu options on the top bar of the program (such as File, Account, etc.) and look for options to deauthorize or log off. You might also find these settings under “Preferences” or “Settings” in certain programs.

To deauthorize a device on Amazon, for example, you have to log into your account, go to "Your Content and Devices" (under the "Your Account & Lists" menu at the top-right of every page), and then select the device you want to deauthorize from the Actions column.
To deauthorize a device on Amazon, for example, you have to log into your account, go to “Your Content and Devices” (under the “Your Account & Lists” menu at the top-right of every page), and then select the device you want to deauthorize from the Actions column.

In some cases, you may have to log in to the software website in order to deauthorize the computer. This is true for Kindle, which requires you to deauthorize the computer from Amazon’s “Your Content and Devices” dashboard.

Once this part’s done, we get to start cleaning house!

3. Uninstall all unnecessary programs.

Let’s revisit our buddy Control Panel from Step 1. At this point in the process, we’ve already uninstalled the cloud backup software. Now, we need to uninstall everything else that your PC’s new owner doesn’t want or need.

Use the same steps as before: Select the program from the list, left-click to select it, and then click on the “Uninstall” button. Follow any directions in the program uninstaller, and you should be good to go.

Here’s a big rule of thumb: Don’t uninstall anything that you’re uncertain of! When in doubt, leave it out!

However, with some discernment, you can safely clean up all the unneeded or unwanted programs without affecting anything mission-critical. Here are some more guidelines to follow:

  1. Don’t delete anything that lists “Microsoft” or “Microsoft Windows” as the Publisher.
  2. Don’t delete anything that lists the PC manufacturer (e.g., Dell, HP, ASUS) as the Publisher.
  3. Don’t delete anything that’s driver-related. These are a bit harder to define, but in general, anything related to mouse, sound, or graphics should be left alone.

I know I wrote “When in doubt, leave it out!” just a few paragraphs ago. That said, the best thing to do would be to do a Google search for the program name and find out whether it’s something you should keep or not. You should learn enough about it from the first few Google results.

Keep your work gloves on, because once you’ve trashed the programs, it’s time to recycle.

4. Delete all unwanted files.

This part is probably the easiest. Select files and delete!

Wait! Before you get started, make absolutely sure there’s nothing that you need to back up first! And then, make sure there’s nothing you want your PC’s new owner to have!

My book How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t explains more about how to back files up, so I won’t cover it in-depth here. You will want to store the files on some external medium, such as a USB flash drive or an external hard drive, and then transfer those files over to another computer.

I suggest you start by cleaning up the Desktop. Delete all files there by right-clicking them and selecting the option to “Delete”. Then, when prompted, you will want to click “Yes” to send those files to the Recycle Bin.

Once the Desktop is clear, move any files you want the PC’s new owner to have onto the Desktop. This will keep them out of the way when you start indiscriminately deleting all the other files in sight.

To delete a lot of files at once, go into a folder (like Documents), press Ctrl+A on your keyboard to select all the files, right-click on one of the selected files (all the other ones should remain selected), and then “Delete”. Do this for every main folder on the computer (e.g., Documents, Pictures, Music, Video). Leave no stone unturned or folder unchecked!

When deleting a lot of data, you may be told that it won’t fit in the Recycle Bin. That’s okay; delete it anyway! Assuming you don’t need to back it up (or you already have), just send those files directly to the shredder.

Do your part to help the environment (well, not really) by emptying the Recycle Bin.
Do your part to help the environment (well, not really) by emptying the Recycle Bin.

Once you’re done deleting, you’ll want to empty any files still left in the Recycle Bin. On the Desktop, right-click on the Recycle Bin and select the option to “Empty Recycle Bin”. At this point, the files are essentially gone, gone, gone.

Except, maybe not! If your computer has a traditional platter hard disk, Windows has merely deleted the references to the files on the hard drive. What this means is that someone could recover the files on the disk if they wanted to. It’s probably not a big deal if all you had were vacation pictures, but if you had important financial documents, well, that’s another story.

How do you know if your computer has a platter hard disk or a solid-state drive (SSD)? Simple.

Open the Start menu, then start typing “optimize” until the option titled “Defragment and optimize your drives” appears on the menu. Select it.

The Optimize Drives utility that appears on-screen will list any and all storage disks on your PC. If the primary disk (usually C:) is listed as “Hard disk drive”, then you have a traditional hard disk. If it’s listed as “Solid state drive”, then you have a speedy new SSD, in which case your files are already gone.

If you have a hard disk drive and need to scrub the drive clean, hang on for just a minute. We’ll cover how to do that in Step 6. But first, Step 5.

5. Clear browsing history, favorites/bookmarks, etc.

Just like you don’t want your PC’s new owner to see all your personal files, you probably don’t want them to see all your Internet activity, either. Cleaning your browsers up isn’t difficult, but can be a little tricky.

If you’re logged in to your browser(s), the first thing you’ll want to do is sign out for good. This varies from browser to browser, and providing a how-to for every browser is beyond the scope of this article, so Google is your friend if you need specific instructions.

Next, go into the browser’s settings and delete all history, cookies, and cache items from all time. Again, this process is different on each browser, so ask Google if you need assistance.

Once that’s done, you’ll probably want to clean up your favorites or bookmarks. You’ll probably need to do this part manually by opening up the list of bookmarks, right-clicking each one, and then selecting “Delete” (or similar).

On Firefox, you can delete bookmarks en masse by clicking on the Bookmarks menu item, then “Show All Bookmarks”, and finally selecting all the bookmarks with Ctrl+A and right-clicking to delete. This saves a ton of time.

Once that’s done, your browser should be squeaky clean—but we’re going to do one final thing to make sure you didn’t miss any spots.

6. Clean up leftover files and the registry.

To this point in the walkthrough, I haven’t had you use any third-party software to clean up the PC. Now, though, we’re going to have to in order to make sure we’ve covered all our bases.

Download and install the free version of CCleaner. (Instructions are on the website.) If you’re prompted to install Avast! Antivirus when installing CCleaner, I advise against it if you already have an antivirus on your PC—and if you don’t, it probably wouldn’t hurt to install it.

The CCleaner "Custom Clean" screen. Check all the boxes on the left in both the Windows tab and the Applications tab. Don't select "Wipe Free Space" unless you know for sure you have a hard-disk drive.
The CCleaner “Custom Clean” screen. Check all the boxes on the left in both the Windows tab and the Applications tab. Don’t select “Wipe Free Space” unless you know for sure you have a hard-disk drive.

With CCleaner open, you’ll want to select the option to do a Custom Clean. Go ahead and check all the boxes in the left pane, and then click over to the Applications tab to check all the boxes in that list as well.

If you determined that your PC has a hard-disk drive in Step 4, you’ll want to make sure you check the box to Wipe Free Space. This will greatly increase the time it takes for CCleaner to run, but it will ensure that your files are wiped from the drive.

Go ahead and click the “Analyze” button. CCleaner will scan the drive and report back with the files it intends to delete. Once it does, click “Run Cleaner” and sit back while CCleaner gets rid of the gunk.

Make sure to save a backup of the registry just in case. I've used CCleaner to clean up the registry for years and never had to restore it from a backup. But you just never know...
Make sure to save a backup of the registry just in case. I’ve used CCleaner to clean up the registry for years and never had to restore it from a backup. But you just never know…

Once the cleaning is complete, you’ll want to run the registry cleaner. Click on the “Registry” button on the left side of the window, ensure all the boxes are ticked, and then click “Scan for Issues”. After it scans, click “Fix selected Issues…”, click “Yes” back up the registry, save the backup to your Documents folder, and then “Fix All Selected Issues”.

Et voilà! Now we’re almost done. You can keep CCleaner installed for the next owner, if you’d like. (It’s a good tool to have on-hand and run often, as I explain in my book.) If you’d rather get rid of it so the new owner has a completely clean slate, refer back to Step 3 to uninstall it from the Control Panel.

7. Change the login information.

Finally, you probably want to change the username and password for the computer. We saved the easiest part for last, so keep your chin up! We’re almost done! You can see the light at the end of the tunnel!

Go back to the Control Panel and click on the option to “Add or remove user accounts” under the User Accounts and Family Safety header. Make sure that you’re the administrator (main user), else you may not be able to do this step.

Like I said, this part is very easy. Change the account name and then create a password. You can even change the picture if you'd like.
Like I said, this part is very easy. Change the account name and then create a password. You can even change the picture if you’d like.

This part really is easy. On the account in question (which is probably yours, if it’s the main account), click on “Change the account name” to enter the new account name. Once that’s done, click on “Create a password” to enter a new password.

Wow, that was easy, wasn’t it?

If there are any other accounts, you’ll probably want to go ahead and delete them. I suggest you log into those accounts first, though, and make sure that there are no files within that need to be backed up or deleted.

Otherwise, you’re done!

In conclusion

You’ve now restored your computer to a near-new state without having to completely wipe the drive and reinstall Windows. Give yourself a pat on the back!

There are a few final things you may want to do to the PC, depending on who’s going to be the proud new owner:

  1. Forget your wifi settings (settings vary from Windows 7 to Windows 10)
  2. Change the desktop background (especially if it’s personal, like a family portrait)
  3. Change the screensaver, if there is one (same as above)

When you hand off the computer to its new owner, the last thing I’ll advise you to do is make sure that you also hand off all necessary peripherals: power adapters, mice, keyboards, and the like. The last thing you want to do is give someone a computer and then they can’t charge it because you forgot the power adapter!

If you found these steps helpful, let me know. Feel free to bookmark this walkthrough for future reference. And please share this with anyone you know who needs them!

And, if you have any questions, or you think I left something out, go ahead and drop me a line in the comments below!

Until next time… make it an awesome week.


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2 thoughts on “How to Reset a PC Without Wiping Windows

    1. matthewrbaker

      Hi Lisa! Anytime you’re locked out of your computer, you’ll definitely want to make sure Caps Lock is off when logging in. I also suggest typing the password slowly and making sure that a dot appears for each keystroke—that way, you can ensure that each key is indeed working. Beyond that, I hate to be a downer, but there’s not a lot you can do without getting your hands dirty with a Windows installation disc or trying specialized software. If all else fails, call a local computer repair shop and ask if they can reset it for you. (They should have the specialized software and expertise needed to do this.) Just make sure it’s a reputable place, as you don’t want to lose any data on your hard drive.

      Is there a chance, though, that the password you think is correct actually isn’t? Maybe there’s a capital letter or a number or an exclamation mark in there somewhere? I ask because, in my experience, passwords don’t change themselves. 🙂

      I hope you find this helpful!

      Like

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