How to Reset a PC Without Wiping Windows

Photo by Nathan Cowley on

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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What if I told you that you could quickly and easily learn how your computer or smartphone works?

What if I told you that troubleshooting your technology can be easy and painless?

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It walks you through simple steps to fixing common computer problems, so you can get back to using your computer instead of struggling with it.

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Technology and 21st-Century Camping

Photo by Teemu R on

Spring is here and summer is just around the corner. The weather is getting great for camping, and there’s nothing like the great outdoors. Forests, mountains, and lakes have the same ability to awe and calm today that they have always had, but in this Digital Age of constant connection, it’s even more imperative (and often necessary) to seek temporary solace and solitaire in nature.

For better or worse, modern technology has changed camping quite a bit. The tents, knives, and equipment we carry are lighter, sharper, and more durable than ever before. On the digital side of things, cell phones, GPS, and the Internet provide a wealth of information even out in the boonies, information that you could never pack out in years past.

Some campers and outdoorsmen shun technology altogether and stick to old-fashioned maps, compasses, and backcountry knowledge. Others willingly embrace technology on their trips because they can carry a small library of outdoors guides on a tablet, for example.

I fall somewhere in the middle. When I go camping or do anything outdoors, I carry my phone and maybe a tablet or e-reader with me, but use them minimally.

Regardless, we live in the 21st century, and if you’re planning a camping trip or outdoor excursion, you should consider taking advantage of technology to improve your trip. Below are some things you can do to make sure you and your devices make it into and out of the backcountry safely. If you click on a product link in this article and purchase something, I get a small tip at no cost to you. Much appreciated!

Turn devices off when not in use. Enjoy nature and leave the ‘Gram behind. Besides, if you’re lucky, you’ll be out of cell range anyway. If you want to take pictures, consider taking a camera specifically for the purpose, and share the pictures to social media when your trip is done. This will also help you re-enjoy the trip as you sift through your shots.

Portable chargers, also known as power bricks or power banks, are essential when heading out into the wild without a way to charge your devices. The Anker PowerCore+ 10050 shown here is a great option that I used on a recent trip to Utah. Just make sure you charge your charger before leaving!

Take backup power. Regardless of how much or how little you use your devices, their batteries will drain. I carry at least two power banks when I travel, one dedicated to charging devices and another that can jump-start a car (because there’s nothing worse than a car that won’t start when you’re miles away from civilization). I recommend the Anker PowerCore+ 10050 portable charger for phones and tablets and the DBPOWER 2000A 19200mAh jump-starter for vehicles (which will also charge phones and other devices).

Solar chargers are also an option but you should be aware that solar power charges devices considerably slower than a battery bank will. Solar is also dependent on whether the sun is out, so if it’s a cloudy day, you won’t be able to charge your gear.

Consider buying a satellite phone. While I personally have no experience with this, if you know you’re going to be really out there (good for you!), you should consider acquiring a sat phone for your trip, as you will likely have no cell service. This would have been great on my recent trip through the Navajo Nation in northeast Arizona, as my brother and I had no cell service for over twenty-four hours as we more or less traversed the entire upper-right quarter of the state. Get one in case of emergency.

At the very minimum, carry an old phone if you have one. Even if it no longer has a SIM card (meaning it’s not on a phone plan), you can still use it to dial 911 in case of an emergency. The caveat is that you still have to have service in order to call 911. That aside, it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

Use GPS, but take a map or atlas anyway. A couple years ago, my family took a trip to Fredericksburg, TX. We got as far as Cleburne (not very far) before the route went down to one lane under construction and traffic was backed up for miles. Both Google Maps and Apple Maps provided no alternate routes. Fortunately, I whipped out my trusty Texas map and cobbled together a new route that got us out of traffic and safely to Fredericksburg, where beer and brats awaited. It just goes to show that technology is not infallible.

You can buy a Rand McNally road atlas at Wal-Mart for under $10 that covers all states in the U.S. and all provinces in Canada, with an overview map of Mexico to boot. Also helpful are the Wal-Mart locations indexed in the front of the atlas. If you’re a AAA member, stop by your local office and pick up maps for the states you’ll be traveling through. And, when you get to wherever you’re going to stay, acquire local maps so you know your way around the surrounding area and trail or park maps so you don’t get lost while hiking.

If you have a tablet, load it up with outdoors books and guides. How do you know whether that berry is poisonous? How do you treat that kind of insect bite? What are you supposed to do, again, if you encounter a bear or mountain lion? With the right books at hand, the answers are just a few page swipes away.

If you have a tablet, such as an iPad, Samsung Galaxy, or Kindle Fire, you can easily and cheaply load your digital library up with great outdoor reference works. Yes, I agree that there is still no substitute for a real, tangible book, but when weight is an issue and you can’t feasibly pack out your entire library of outdoors guides, digital editions on your device of choice are a great alternative.

I suggest you download the free Amazon Kindle app and check out the following titles:

  1. 100 Deadly Skills: Survival Edition by Clint Emerson
  2. Bushcraft 101 by Dave Canterbury
  3. Boy Scout Handbook (currently in its 13th edition, although you can also buy the highly-revered 1st edition from 1911)
Bushcraft 101 is comprehensive and inexpensive: only $1.99 for Kindle!

Also consider stocking up on some good, adventurous reads in case your hiking plans get washed out by a day of heavy rain. Again, nothing beats a hard copy, but a tablet loaded with e-books lightens your load considerably. Here are some of my favorites to get you started:

  1. The Call of the Wild by Jack London (though anything by London is fair game)
  2. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
  3. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (part of the five-book series called Brian’s Saga, aimed at young men but entertaining for adults as well)

Finally, keep your gadgets clean and dry! Dust, dirt, sand, water, and bugs are just a few things you might encounter out there, and while you are washable, your tech probably isn’t. Keep phones and tablets in water-resistant or waterproof pockets or containers, as these will also protect against dirt. I bought my brother and I each a Pelican 1060 Micro Case for keeping our phones dry while kayaking the Colorado River in Austin. It’s not a bad idea to use these whether you’re on the water or not.

The Pelican 1060 Micro Case is excellent for storing phones, keys, wallets, and more when in wet or dusty environments. Clipping it to your person, a backpack, or kayak with the included carabiner ensures that it doesn’t get lost or end up in Davy Jones’ locker.

With these tips in mind, you’ll be able to enjoy your trip and stay connected as need be. Just remember to take nothing but pictures and leaving nothing but footprints—and enjoy being outdoors, away from the Internet and social media!

So, who’s going where and what are you taking?

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What if you could feel inspired and empowered to fix your computer the next time something goes wrong with it? Now you can! How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t explains, in simple English, how your computer operates and what you can do when it’s not operating the way you want it to. It also teaches you how to solve many existing issues, including sluggish performance and virus infections. When computer woes happen, you’ll never have to worry again.

How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t is available on all Amazon sites for Kindle and in paperback. You can read more about it here on my website, including an excerpt. Be sure to sign up for my email list to receive free bonus content to supplement the book!

It’s Official…

Look at that shiny orange badge!

It’s official… my book is now officially ranked as the #1 New Release in the Consumer Guides category on Amazon. I’m amazed. I don’t like to brag, but I’m very proud of this accomplishment!

As you can also see in the image above, How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t also got its first review… and five stars no less! It reads:

The prose is good, it reads well. It’s factually accurate, even when it touches on matters of opinion and taste. Does a good job of defining terms. I think it could give someone dealing with their computer good guidance, and enough, but not too much, confidence; it draws a well positioned line explaining where the reader should go for expert help.

That eloquently expresses the aim of this book. I’m glad the point got across, and I’m grateful for the review!

If you haven’t grabbed a copy yet, you can do so by clicking on the buttons below. Currently, the Kindle and paperback versions aren’t linked, but this is something that usually takes a few hours (or days) to occur on Amazon. For the time being, the buttons below will take you to the respective product pages.

Enjoy! Until next time, onward and upward!

Tech Tip: Better than Bookmarking

This weekend, Mom baked a birthday cake for my brother, but spent quite a bit of time searching for her go-to yellow cake recipe in her browser’s bookmarks. Unfortunately, she could not find the exact recipe, so she picked another one. (Fortunately, the cake turned out better than any she’d made before, so it all worked out!)

This has happened to me on occasion, too. I’ve bookmarked a fantastic article or blog post only to go back to it later and find that it’s vanished from the face of cyberspace. Even though they say that everything’s permanent on the Internet, it doesn’t seem like it when a link is broken or content has been taken down.

There is an alternative to bookmarking webpages, and that is printing them to a Portable Document Format (PDF) file for viewing in programs like Adobe Reader. If you find something online that you want to save (maybe like this Tech Tip?), you can easily save a copy of the content in a Portable Document Format (PDF) similar to how you would print a hard copy with a printer.

To do this, press the Ctrl and P keys (Windows) or the Command and P keys (Mac) to bring up a print menu in your browser. There should be an option to print to a file or PDF instead of to a printer. The exact options and procedure will depend on your operating system and web browser, but the end result should be the same: the digital equivalent of the webpage printed out.

The standard print menu in a web browser. Instead of clicking “Print”, click on the “Change…” button to select a different printer.
After clicking the “Change…” button in the previous image, select the “Save as PDF” option. When you click “Print” now, you will be prompted for a filename for the PDF printout.

Once you have the webpage saved in a PDF file, store it somewhere you can easily retrieve it on your computer. I suggest creating a folder called “To Read” or “For Reference”. You could also back this file up to your cloud storage service of choice so you have an extra copy. If you wanted to, you could also print the PDF out later.

There you have it! A quick and easy way to ensure that you will always have access to the information you want, regardless of what happens online. I’ve already suggested Mom do this with every great recipe she finds from now on just in case it mysteriously disappears. I made sure she did it with this yellow cake recipe.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this blog post, I think you’ll also like my book, How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t. It explains, in simple English, how the computer you use every day operates and what you can do when it’s not operating the way you want it to. It also teaches you how to solve many existing issues, including sluggish performance and virus infections.

You can read more about it here on my website, including an excerpt. Be sure to sign up for my email list to receive free bonus content to supplement the book!