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How to Prepare a Computer, Tablet, or Phone Before Selling It

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So it’s the end of the road for your PC, tablet, or smartphone. Before letting go, be sure to follow this quick check list to prepare your device for its new owner.

If you don’t follow these steps, you may lose important personal data, run into issues authorizing DRM’d purchases in the future, or have your personal data at risk of being recovered by the device’s new owner.

Back Up Your Personal Data

This part’s obvious, but it’s important anyway. If you’re moving to a new computer, you’ll want to back up your important personal data and take it with you. If you’re already backing up your important personal data — and you should be — you should know where the data you care about is on your computer and should already have backup copies.

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Thanks to cloud services, much of your important personal data may already come with you. Files stored in services like Dropbox will obviously come with you and be accessible on your new computer. But there’s still a good chance you have important local files sitting around. Consult our look at what files you should back up on your Windows PC if you need some help.

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If you’re using a tablet or smartphone, you probably don’t have to worry as much about backing up its data. Most of the data on your mobile device is likely synchronized with online services, so it will be available after you wipe the device. If you’re using Android, read about what Android data is backed up automatically. Make sure you have copies of any important photos — Android can automatically back up your photos online, but this isn’t on by default. If you’re using an iPhone, photos are automatically backed up with iCloud if you have Photo Stream enabled.

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Deauthorize Any DRM Purchases

Worrying about content you purchased shouldn’t be necessary, but sadly, it still is in many situations. Some content that comes with Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology locks itself to your computer.

For example, many purchases from the iTunes Store require your computer is “authorized” with your Apple ID before they can be played. You can have up to five authorized computers at any one time, so if you install iTunes on a computer and later get rid of that computer, you’ve used up one of the authorizations. Even just reinstalling Windows can use up an authorization several times on the same computer.

To prevent this from happening, you’ll want to deauthorize your computer in the DRM application. For example, to deauthorize your computer in iTunes, click the Store menu in iTunes and select Deauthorize This Computer.

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Luckily, iTunes will allow you to deauthorize all your computers later if you forget to deauthorize a computer before getting rid of it. However, some other services do not.

For example, some PC games use SecuROM product activation. These games generally have activation limits and can only be activated on a certain number of computers. You’d want to revoke the game’s authorization using the included tool before getting rid of a computer you have the game installed on.

If you don’t do this, you may find it impossible to revoke the activation after you get rid of the computer. If you use all your activation limits, you may have to call in and request more — hopefully the game company accommodates you and doesn’t force you to buy a new copy of the game.

DRM activations and revocations are fairly customer hostile and aren’t found in every service. For example, downloaded Kindle eBooks never require deauthorization. Steam doesn’t require you to revoke games you buy through it, although some games you buy through Steam may do so.

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DRM activations and revocations aren’t as common on mobile devices. We aren’t aware of any popular services that would require you to revoke authorization before getting rid of a smartphone or tablet.

Wipe the Drive

Note that this section only applies to PCs with mechanical hard drives running Windows 7 or earlier versions of Windows. If you’re getting rid of  a Windows 7 PC with an SSD, any Windows 8 PC, a tablet, or a smartphone, you can continue to the next section.

If your laptop or desktop computer has a traditional magnetic hard drive, it’s possible for people to recover the data from the hard drive even after you reformat it and reinstall the operating system. This is because reinstalling the operating system won’t erase every sector of the disk.

If you’d like to erase every sector of the disk, you’d want to use a tool like DBAN before reinstalling Windows on your computer. Bear in mind that this tool wipes your entire drive and will erase any manufacturer recovery partition found on it.

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This only applies to PCs with magnetic hard drives. If you have a computer with a solid-state drive — or a smartphone or tablet with an SSD — files deleted from the SSD are immediately deleted if TRIM is enabled, which it should be by default.

You don’t have to go out of your way to do this on Windows 8. While Windows 7 and earlier versions of Windows don’t have a built-in way to wipe a drive in their installer, Windows 8 offers a feature that will wipe your drive when you reset your PC. Windows 8 calls this “fully cleaning your drive.”

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Reinstall the Operating System or Factory Reset

Once you’ve properly prepared the device and recovered your personal files and DRM activations, you’ll want to set it back to its factory default state before passing it on to its new owner.

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On computers running Windows 7 or earlier, follow our guide to reinstalling Windows — either from a Windows installation disc or your computer’s integrated recovery partition. If you have sensitive data that was once stored on the drive, be sure to wipe the drive using a tool above before reinstalling the operating system.

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On computers running Windows 8, you can use the Reset Your PC feature to set Windows back to its factory default state. This will wipe your entire device, erasing all your personal files. If you have a computer with a traditional magnetic hard drive instead of an SSD, be sure to select the “Fully clean the drive” option when resetting Windows to ensure your personal data is completely wiped from the drive and can’t be recovered.

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On a smartphone or tablet, use the Factory Reset option. On Android, open the Settings screen, tap Backup & reset, and tap Factory data reset. On iOS, open the Settings screen, tap General, tap Reset, and tap Erase All Content and Settings. Your mobile device uses solid-state storage, so you shouldn’t have to worry about wiping it.


Your device should now be like-new — when it comes to the software, at least — without any risk that your personal files could be recovered. You can now sell it or pass it on to its new owner with confidence.

Image Credit: miniyo73 on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 09/9/13

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