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Before You Give Away Your Old PC,1759,1887030,00.asp?kc=PCRSS03129TX1K0000625

By Warren Ernst
When you get a new computer, odds are that you don't simply throw away your old one. You may tuck it away in the closet, or set it up elsewhere in the house as a "backup" PC but never use it. If you keep up with the cutting edge, you might have two or three unused PCs gathering dust. You may have considered giving your old PC away to a family member, or perhaps to someone who can't afford a new computer (needy students are everywhere), but wondered if it was really worth it, given that you can buy a new Dell for $299. Well, be assured that a working PC, even if a bit old, is a valuable commodity, and you can increase its value with a little work.

We'll classify a PC to be given away as good, better, or best, depending on the work you'll be putting in to prepare it for its new owner. A good gift computer is a working PC with your personal data removed, but your recipient may still need to do some work to get it set up for his or her needs, and may not have the knowledge or resources to do this. A better gift computer has had most of its internal configurations reset to as close to factory fresh as possible and has some software installed to keep a new user out of trouble. The best gift computer is one where you've reinstalled a legal copy of Microsoft Windows (perhaps on a new hard drive) from scratch, and possibly also installed some new hardware, along with those things you'd do for a good or better gift machine.

No matter how much work you decide to put into an old PC before giving it a new home, any work at all will increase its value and make it easier for its new owner to use. Here, we'll cover how best to spend your energy (and maybe a little money) getting an old computer ready for a new life with a new owner.

Licensing Considerations

It seems as if you can't do anything these days without first reading the fine print, and giving away (or reselling) a PC is no exception. Fortunately, things are mostly common sense here.

First, if your computer came bundled with Windows (there would be a Microsoft Windows sticker on the PC), you can legally transfer ownership of it with the computer itself. You should include any restore discs or Windows installation discs with the computer.

Retail and upgrade versions of Windows can be transferred with the computer, but you should not use these discs to install Windows on any other computer first. It is important that you don't accidentally use the same Windows Key to activate it on more than one computer, because this may prevent your computer's new owner from downloading Windows Updates, opening it up to being hacked. Also, it is illegal.

In most cases, if other software came with the computer, it can travel with the computer too. If you bought a software package and installed it on your computer, it can either go with the machine or stay with you on another one, but it can't be on both. Run the software package's uninstaller via the Add/Remove Software Control Panel if necessary. When in doubt, check the software's licensing agreement.

Making a Good Gift PC

A good gift PC represents the bare minimum of what you should do to get your computer ready for a new home. Fortunately, that doesn't take much time, effort, or money. It essentially involves removing your data files thoroughly and clearing out basic network settings.

You won't have any access to files on a PC that leaves your possession, so if you haven't already copied them off its hard drive, you'll need to do so before you delete them. The My Documents folder is where most of your files live, but if you have multiple Windows users, there's a My Documents folder for each one. If you use AOL, you probably have personal files in its Downloads folder. Quicken, QuickBooks, and TurboTax put their data files in unusual locations you should double-check: Quicken uses C:\Quickenw, C:\Program Files\Quickenw, or C:\Program Files\Intuit\Quicken. QuickBooks data files live in C:\Program Files\Intuit\Quickbooks. TurboTax usually stores its files in the TAX01 folder inside the default installation folder; search for files with a .tax extension to be sure.

When cleaning a system for transfer, don't use the Recycle Bin to delete files. Even when emptied, "deleted" files are still easily recovered, since the built-in delete mechanism simply makes the area on the hard drive where the old file was stored available to new files. Instead, use a "file shredder" program, which overwrites the file multiple times before erasing it. Almost a dozen free shredder programs are available from (, but I use Eraser ( for this task.

You should delete other personal data, too. From your e-mail program, delete any inbox or stored messages, and compact all folders if there is such an option. Delete any contacts in the address book, and remove any server/log-on account information. From your Web browser, delete your bookmarks and saved passwords, and use a program like CCleaner ( to delete things like your browser's history, cache, cookies, temporary files, and so forth. If you use AOL or a dial-up or PPPoE Internet connection, delete any accounts or connection passwords.

Finally, empty the Windows Recycle Bin once more, and use a program like Eraser to wipe all the hard drive's empty space overnight. Though the only guarantee that no one will recover your files is to replace the hard drive, this is a reasonable precaution to take if your computer is going to a stranger. If the computer is going to a family member you trust, you can probably skip this step.

Making a Better Gift PC

You can add a lot of value to an old computer by installing and configuring software that its new owner could really use, and by resetting the operating system to as close to factory fresh as possible.

No one should be without at least a word processor (if not a whole office suite) and an antivirus program. If you're removing such software for licensing reasons, at least install some free alternatives. OpenOffice ( ) is an excellent substitute for Microsoft Office (and Microsoft Word). Grisoft's AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition ( ) is a fine alternative to any commercial antivirus product, and your beneficiary won't have to pay for annual virus-definition subscriptions.

Internet security is important, too. Consider installing Mozilla's Firefox and Thunderbird ( ) to escape Microsoft Internet Explorer's security issues. Download and install any available Windows Updates ( and set the update process to "automatic" if possible. Download and install the latest version of one or more free antispyware programs, such as Ad-Aware ( and Spybot Search & Destroy ( ).

Make sure the system you're letting go isn't already crawling with viruses and spyware. Let whatever antivirus and antispyware products you have installed perform full system scans, and clean out whatever they find.

Just as important as what you put on is what you take off. Uninstall (via the Windows Control Panel) software and drivers for hardware that will no longer be used. Once their software is gone, remove any remaining printers in the Windows Printers and Faxes Control Panel, as well as software and drivers for scanners, cameras, PDAs, MP3 players, card readers, and any other removable peripherals that aren't going with the computer.

Finally, collect all the books and discs that originally came with the computer, along with any discs for software you're including with it. They'll be vital if its new owner needs to reinstall anything or to look up any technical details for future upgrades. If by some chance the computer is still covered by a warranty, and if the warranty is transferable to a new owner, include whatever paperwork is necessary to implement it.

Making the Best Gift PC

The best gift PC is a computer that's as close to new as possible, in terms of both hardware and software. It represents the most work for you, but the reward is a computer that will be as trouble-free as possible, and no one can pull your personal data off the hard drive, because you'll be replacing it.

Windows works best when it is freshly installed from scratch on a clean hard drive, so if you're looking to make the computer as trouble-free as possible, reformatting the hard drive and installing Windows from the Windows installation discs is one way to go. But prices of new hard drives have come way down­you can get a 40GB drive for under $60 and a 200GB drive for less than $100­so consider replacing the drive.

The hard drive is the most likely component in an old PC to fail over time, mostly because it has moving parts. After a few years of use, hard drives will eventually stop working and need replacement. And when a hard drive fails, it usually takes the new owner's personal data with it. A new hard drive can dramatically speed up a machine that had an old, slow drive, and offer much more storage space for multimedia files. And when you remove the old drive, there's no way someone can undelete or recover your old files, because they were never there in the first place. If the computer is going to a relative, replacing the hard drive will almost certainly save you from anguished telephone calls down the line.

While you've got that computer opened up to install a new hard drive, be sure to clean out the dust bunnies­or perhaps a whole dust ecosystem. Cans of compressed air are fine for this job, but be sure to use a pencil or other tool to keep the various fans' blades from spinning too fast from a burst of air. A mini vacuum cleaner or a dusting brush is handy if you don't have compressed air. You might want to do this messy job outside.

If you're feeling generous, a fresh retail or upgrade version of Windows XP is probably best for any computer with at least 256MB of RAM and a Pentium at 700 MHz or higher, but even a freshly installed instance of an older version of Windows (newer than Windows 98) is almost always more stable than cleaning up an installation that's been running for years. Once you've reinstalled Windows, install the applications and utility software discussed earlier.

Passing It On

Though not as fast as a new computer, a properly prepared older computer should serve its new owners well for most everyday tasks such as reading e-mail, viewing Web pages, and writing reports. All that's needed to make someone's computing dreams a reality is a little effort on your part. It's well worth it to whomever you give the computer to.

Finding Recipients

There's no shortage of people who could use an older computer, provided that it's working and properly set up. How do you find them?

If you don't know somebody yourself (think hard; you probably do), start asking your friends if they know anyone who really needs a computer but can't afford a new one.

Still coming up empty? Most public-school teachers know many students in desperate need of a working computer; do you know any to ask? Failing that, craigslist ( has a Web forum for almost every metropolitan area in the country, and a "Free computer to needy student" post will get an immediate response.

Local charities may be in need of donated PCs; contact them to find out their needs and requirements. Donations may be eligible for a tax deduction. Dell has partnered with the National Cristina Foundation ( in a program to facilitate PC donations to local organizations who serve disabled and economically disadvantaged people. People who donate through this partnership receive a coupon for 10 percent off any online purchase of software or peripheral, to be redeemed on the Dell Home Systems Software & Peripherals Web site.

Discover Technology ( ), a nonprofit that provides computer education to people with disabilities, has been setting up computers in shelters serving Hurricane Katrina evacuees in the Houston area. For information on donating to them, contact Your local Red Cross shelter might also need computers for evacuees­contact your local chapter directly.

What About Linux?

You've probably noticed that when talking about operating systems, we've only mentioned Windows. Why?

For the vast majority of users, a "computer" really means a "Windows computer." Windows is what most people already know how to use, so if you're giving your computer to someone you know, having it run on Windows means you won't be swamped with a million questions every week. If you're giving it to a student, that's probably what he's already using in school. Your being an evangelist for Linux may not be in the best interests of the new owner.

Still, if you lack a legal Windows license and can't buy a new one, Linux is a free and legal way to make that computer operational. A totally free and Windows-like Linux distribution like Ubuntu ( should be enough for many people to be productive, and there are of course other Linux options.

If you decide to install Linux, be prepared to spend time getting its new user started.

Warren Ernst is a professional computer consultant. Check out his blog at

Copyright (c) 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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