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How to wipe a laptop easily and securely

A step by step guide on how to safely wipe data from a Windows, Mac, or Linux machine

A male hand switching on a laptop computer

Laptops can reveal a lot about a person, and we’re not only referring to how well they are maintained. In fact, these devices contain a trove of valuable information about their owners.

A great deal of this information will stay on a machine, regardless of how thorough you think you’ve been at deleting sensitive files and folders. It’s essential that in the case of moving to a new device, that a laptop’s hard drive be securely wiped of all data, or you risk your information being accessible to the next owner.

This is already a serious issue for consumers, given the immediate problem of data privacy and potential for identity theft, but the consequences for businesses can be far more severe. Beyond the user’s personal data, it’s likely that the laptop has accessed information belonging to customers, other employees, and business partners at some stage, and evidence of this will need to be scoured.

Serious legal penalties under GDPR could be incurred if you leak any sensitive data in such a manner. It’s imperative, therefore, to always wipe any form of data storage media before it leaves your grasp. Fortunately, there are some handy built-in data tools across the industry's most popular operating systems that, if used properly, can save you a great deal of trouble in the long run.

Back up important data

Before using any storage management tools, the first thing you must do is to ensure all of your files and folders are backed up and organised, so you don't wipe anything that you may need at a later date. Even if you don’t think you’ll ever access the data in future, you may need to reference something hidden away in archives in the distant future.

There are a few ways of doing this and the most practical for you will depend on how much data you need to copy. If you are backing up files selectively, or there aren't many of them and you have a fairly good internet connection, then backing up to the cloud is an option.

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The most complete and quickest way, however, is to back up to an external hard drive that's directly connected to the laptop.

You will need to figure out how much storage you need. If everything is stored on one drive (usually the C: drive in Windows), right-click on the drive icon to see how much data is taking up space there.

Once you have connected the external drive to the laptop you want to wipe, you can check that it is big enough to store all the data you need.

To backup, you can simply connect an external drive to the laptop and drag files and folders to it. You can use the Windows Backup feature in Windows 7, or File History in Windows 8. Windows 10 has both features and adds the ability to backup and restore system images.

How to wipe a Windows 7/Vista/XP laptop

Let's start with the oldest OS versions you're likely to encounter. Wiping a laptop running Windows 7 shouldn't be too difficult. Although the legacy OS is now obsolete, you might still run into older devices with the OS still installed.

You can use an application such as DBAN. It's downloadable as an ISO image but you will need to extract it onto a bootable USB or disc in order to use it as a boot device.

Once this USB flash drive is inserted in the laptop you want to wipe, restart the machine and then boot from this drive from the BIOS screen. From here you simply follow the prompts and wait for the machine to work through the reset process, which will securely delete everything. If the machine is going to see new use, you can then reinstall Windows 7 from any disc or bootable USB stick with Windows installation files, although you'll likely want to upgrade this to Windows 10.

DBAN can also be used to wipe any drive running Windows or indeed Linux, as it doesn't need to run in any particular OS.

How to wipe a Windows 8/8.1 laptop

It's much easier to wipe a hard drive in Windows 8 or 8.1. Head to the Start screen, find the Charms bar, click on Settings and then hit Change PC settings. Finally, choose Remove Everything and Reinstall Windows.

When you choose to erase data, make sure you click on the "thoroughly" option rather than "quickly", just to be sure that everything is deleted.

How to wipe a Windows 10 or Windows 11 laptop

Reset page on Windows

On Windows 10 or Windows 11, Microsoft has once again made it easy for users to wipe a hard drive. Although the method hasn’t been changed much since the release of the latest generation of Microsoft’s flagship generation, there are a few differences that you might want to keep in mind.

If your laptop is powered by Windows 10, the first thing you’ll want to do is click on the Start button and head to the following: Settings>Update & Security>Recovery.

Once in Recovery, click on Get Started and select whichever options you want to apply. If you’re looking to restore your device back to its original, pristine state, select the Remove Everything option that will, as described, clear your hard drive from all your programmes and files. In the case of two or more hard drives, you’ll have to clarify whether you’re looking to clear all of them, some of them, or only one.

Wiping your Windows 10-powered laptop can be considered one of the easiest processes out there, as it allows you to simply follow a clearly-defined set of instructions that you can read next to whichever Recovery option you wish to select. However, bear in mind that wiping the drives entirely is likely to take a few hours, so plan accordingly. Although an inconveniently lengthy process, this will ensure that all your files are completely erased and your privacy is fully protected.

If you're one of the 1.44% of users who have upgraded to Windows 11 since it was released to the general public in October 2021, you might have noticed that the process of wiping your drive has somewhat changed with the latest iteration of the popular operating system. However, the difference is minimal.

As in the case of Windows 10, click on the Start button and head to Settings. Then, instead of going to Update & Security and then Recovery, the process is as follows: Settings>Windows Update>Advanced Options>Recovery. From then on, the process is largely the same.

How to wipe a Mac

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Wiping a Mac has broadly similar principles but is, in fact, a lot easier to do, no matter what version of macOS you're running – from Mountain Lion to Mojave. A system disk isn't required, but for earlier Macs you will need one. To initiate the recovery partition, hold down the command and R keys as the computer restarts and open Disk Utility.

Search for the Erase tab security options and click 7-pass Erase. This will write the data to the disk several times. It might take a few hours to complete the process, but this is a very secure way of erasing data.

How to wipe a Linux laptop

If you've got a Linux-based machine, wiping any of the hard drives – internal or external – is a slightly fiddly process that involves using the command line, regardless of the Linux distro you are using.

Open up a command line terminal and enter 'sudo fdisk -l'. This will list all the storage drives currently connected to your machine. Find the drive you want to wipe, and note the drive's device path.

Next, run this command - 'sudo dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/sdb bs=1M' - via the terminal, making sure to substitute '/dev/sdb/' with the target drive's correct device path. This method is known as 'zeroing', and wipes the drive by overwriting every byte of information with zeroes.

There is some debate as to whether or not this is more secure than overwriting the drive with random bits of information, but it's usually quicker and is perfectly sufficient for protecting your data from the average buyer.

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