I have a friend who wants to sell their computer, but obviously all personal information and software that it is on it needs to be removed before doing so.

Usually I would format and reinstall it, but I cannot easily get hold of the required XP DVDs and I'm not 100% sure the serial number is stuck on the case as usual so getting hold of it will probably require more effort than I'm prepared to spend.

So, what's the best and quickest way to remove and uninstall everything from the PC without reinstalling it?


EDITS: I'm looking to remove things like Internet History and all installed programs, too. I know how to remove the history and each individual program, but that could take hours.

The machine is not branded and therefore there is no website I can go to download recovery software. There is no recovery partition on the computer and I'm not aware of any recovery DVDs for it either. I can only assume it was installed from a retail copy, and therefore there is no way to recover it to factory settings.

It needs to have XP installed, not any distribution of Linux. Like most average people, the person getting the computer will not understand what to do with a computer that doesn't have Windows installed, and software like Office does not work on Linux either.

Buying another licence is not really an option either. She has just brought a laptop to replace the computer, so buying another licence for a computer that she's getting rid of doesn't really make sense.

Thanks for all the help so far!

  • well obviously the quickest way to remove and uninstall everything without reinstalling, is to remove everything and don't reinstall anything. But you want to keep windows. So in no way do you want to "remove and uninstall everything". So perhaps you actually want to just remove any personal data? If he knows where it is then he can just move it to a usb key!
    – barlop
    Commented Oct 4, 2010 at 19:07
  • Yes, I want to keep Windows, I worded that badly. I want to know where all the personal data is likely to be and how is best to remove it. I will do a backup of all the important data and files first obviously to transfer to their new computer.
    – Connor W
    Commented Oct 4, 2010 at 19:25

8 Answers 8


This is what I have done in the past before donating an old computer to a friend or a relative.

  1. Uninstall everything that isn't shipped with windows using an uninstall tool that also cleans the registry and deletes leftover files. (I like Revo Uninstaller Free)

  2. Delete all bookmarks in IE

  3. Use a tool to remove private data from the computer (browser history, cookies, recently opened files ..) Again I recommend Revo, It has a Tracks Cleaner on the Tools tab

  4. Delete all files on the desktop and in my documents and anywhere else you know there is data

  5. Empty Recycle bin

    If you have more than one user, repeat 2-5 for each user

  6. Create a new Admin user, with a blank (no) password log on as that user

  7. Delete all other accounts

  8. Delete the folders for the old/removed users in C:\Documents and Settings

  9. Delete C:\Documents and Settings\All Users\Dokument and all files on any other partitions/hard-drives beside C:

  10. Do a full computer search for media files and documents to see if you missed anything interesting and delete those

  11. Get a "free space" scrubber and run that to make undeleting files impossible (I use Eraser)

After this the computer should be safe to sell.

  • Thanks @Nifle. I'm currently prepping to sell my laptop, this will come in handy.
    – Sathyajith Bhat
    Commented Oct 5, 2010 at 18:01
  • Don't forget the index.dat files, they need to be deleted also...milincorporated.com/a_indexdat.html
    – Moab
    Commented Dec 26, 2010 at 14:33
  • The computer is not safe to sell after this if you care about the data that was stored on it. "Deleting" files does not actually delete then, it's very easy to recover all the data Commented Nov 29, 2020 at 10:02
  • @goncalopp - You are wrong. Se point 11 on my list.
    – Nifle
    Commented Nov 30, 2020 at 16:05

You're not going to be able to clean a computer to any degree that is secure without wiping and re-installing the OS. However it doesn't have to be painful.

  1. Download and install to a CD Darik's Boot And Nuke.
  2. Get hold of a copy on CD of the version of Windows your friend is using.
  3. Download and run Double Driver. Use it to back up your drivers onto a USB stick.
  4. Use Magical Jelly Bean KeyFinder to find out what the Windows XP serial is.

Once you've done all that, then you're ready to go:

  1. Run Dariks Boot and Nuke to erase the hard-drive. As noted by M.M this could take many hours, so run overnight.
  2. Boot the Windows XP CD and go through the installer. Ensure that Windows Updates are turned off (as otherwise you'll find yourself wading through hundreds of them) during the install.
  3. Use the CD key you got previously to re-register Windows.
  4. Let Windows go online and validate your CD key.
  5. Unplug the network cable.
  6. Point Windows at the USB stick for any drivers that are missing. No need to download anything.
  7. Turn on Windows Update to the recommended settings.
  8. Power off the computer.

Job done. If you're feeling benevolent, then you could also:

  1. Turn on Windows Update and download all high priority packages
  2. Install Microsoft Security Essentials.
  3. Use Ninite to pre-install a bunch of useful applications really quickly and unattended (eg. FireFox, VLC, Picasa, Adobe Reader, Flash, SilverLight and CDBurnXP if you have a CD/DVD writer on the computer)
  • I completely agree, but the point is I dont have the installation DVDs for XP so I need to clear the system out without reinstalling. I'm not particularly worried about it being secure, the computer only holds some basic Word Documents, nothing so private where just deleting it wouldn't we sufficient.
    – Connor W
    Commented Oct 5, 2010 at 16:07
  • 6
    There are ways to get hold of the installation CD for XP. Whilst I appreciate that Microsoft would rather you didn't go down that route, I would argue that if your friend has purchased a valid licence key then they have a valid licence to use XP on that machine and it doesn't really matter how you got hold of the installation files.
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 5, 2010 at 16:15
  • Also there is a way that you can find the serial key from windows itself using keyfinder Commented Oct 5, 2010 at 18:05
  • agree for everything but darik's nuke; that's overkill for average user;
    – bbaja42
    Commented Oct 5, 2010 at 23:27
  • 2
    Whilst it is true that Darik is potentially overkill, the problem is that you have absolutely no idea where the computer will end up and the technical competency and (more importantly) the evilness of the person who receives it. I'd still recommended it simply on the basis that if they are a nasty combination of competent and evil, your personal details still have no chance of being at risk.
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 6, 2010 at 12:08

couple of options

  • just wipe the entire hard drive with a utility like Darik's Boot & Nuke (http://www.dban.org/) which will effectively blank the entire drive. Then allow the new owner to install whatever operating system they'd prefer.
  • create a new user, assign it admin rights, and then remove the contents of the folder(s) located under C:\Documents and Settings{all user EXCEPT the new ADMIN} for example, remove C:\Documents and Settings\administrator. This in effect removes all the personalized data for the users. Then you'd have to get some sort of registry cleaner, or as I've done in the past - manually walk through all the registry keys and remove them within REGEDIT. Painfully cumbersome, but effective.

In reality - the safest way to dispose of a system is to WIPE it using a software disc eraser. Any software method can leave fragments of files behind since the file is really NOT removed, that is, anyone with time and a little knowledge can RECOVER deleted data.


Short answer, no easy way to do what you suggest. Cleaning personal info from XP is a manual job that takes time, and no way to guarantee you got it all.

Best advice is to use the restore partition (if it has one) or clean Install of XP and then when it is done restoring or the clean install is done, overwrite all the free space on the drive with "Eraser 5.8", this guarantee's all info has been overwritten and is not recoverable by anyone.

Posting your Make and exact Model may prompt us for more suggestions.

Since reinstalling is definitely Not an option.

Back up data you want to save.

  1. Create a new user account.

  2. Log into that new account and delete any other user accounts (do not delete the admin or guest accounts)

  3. Uninstall any software you don't want to pass on. then search the hard drive for those names of software and remove any folders left behind.

  4. Delete any folders on the C drive that may have been created manually by the user.

  5. Do a IE7-8-9 reset, then delete browsing history (select all the boxes)

  6. Use index.dat suite to delete any dat files it finds,(requires selecting them to be deleted on a reboot) http://support.it-mate.co.uk/?mode=Products&p=index.datsuite

  7. At the command prompt type these 3 commands one at a time hitting enter each time, the erase tmp command may take time to complete.

    erase *.tmp /s
    erase *.bak /s  
  8. Empty the Recycle Bin

  9. Use eraser version 5.8.8 to erase the free space on the hard drive, install eraser, then right click on the C drive and select "erase unused space". (it may take quite some time if the hard drive is large) http://sourceforge.net/projects/eraser/files/

  • As I mentioned in other comments, the computer is not branded. It does not have a recovery partition, nor recovery DVDs that I am aware of. I agree this is a much easier way, but its not possible in this case.
    – Connor W
    Commented Oct 5, 2010 at 16:10
  • Check my edit above
    – Moab
    Commented Oct 5, 2010 at 21:41
  • Thanks for that. Thats exactly the kind of thing I wanted.
    – Connor W
    Commented Oct 6, 2010 at 16:17
  • When you said "anyone except NASA", did you mean "anyone except the NSA"? Or does NASA have a data recovery mission I don't know about.
    – Adam
    Commented Oct 14, 2015 at 21:19

The brand name machines usually come with a disk that will reset the box back to default, maybe you can download an image of the disk? Some also have a "restore" partition on the hard drive of the box, check for that. The last HP Pavillion we had was equipped with such a partition, the docs were available from HP, which allowed up to re-install everything fresh starting with a wipe of the hard drive.

  • It's not a branded computer. I have no idea where it came from, but there is no recovery partition, and I dont believe she has the recovery disks anymore, if it came with any at all.
    – Connor W
    Commented Oct 4, 2010 at 19:30

I have a friend who wants to sell their computer, but obviously all personal information and software that it is on it needs to be removed before doing so.

There are 3rd party applications (mostly paid/not free) that will be able to traverse your registry and obtain any serial/license keys. There's really no easy way to "copy" software in the Windows world from one computer to another. Installation is the only way. The key is the more important item. Google alone can point you to many utilities that might meet your requirements. I'd also look around lifehacker.com. They might have some utilities that may work for this specific scenario.

Usually I would format and reinstall it, but I cannot easily get hold of the required XP DVDs and I'm not 100% sure the serial number is stuck on the case as usual so getting hold of it will probably require more effort than im prepared to spend.

Maybe this would be an opportunistic time to upgrade to Windows 7 OEM and add some of the cost onto the price? If not, getting an XP CD is one thing, but the license is quite another. XP has many different versions both for home and professional. There's Home OEM and Home Retail. Profession OEM and Pro Retail, etc. etc. Your key if it's on the computer itself (like on a sticker or something) may not be usable if you use a different XP CD/DVD. I've run into this several times. The key you have may be for retail or OEM version. If this is a brand name computer like HP/Dell/Compaq/whatever, then there may be a recovery disc available for purchase online (usually pretty cheap - $5-$10).

It sounds like you want to maximize your money earned rather than spend money to sell the machine with a clean Windows XP install. That's totally fine and it makes sense. I'd say, your best bet is to look for a recovery disc from the manufacturer and try reinstalling Windows that way. If you can't find it, you may have to manually remove all the software.

So, what's the best and quickest way to remove and unstall everything from the PC without reinstalling it?

'Best' way? Reinstall the OS. 'Quickest' way? Reinstall the OS. But it's looking like that may or may not be an option. If the computer is a brand name machine, hunt down the manufacturer's website for any hint of a recovery CD and see if that'll do the trick. If not, it looks like your only option is to manually remove everything.

  • I wish it was a brand name machine, but its not. I can only assume that XP was installed from a retail version, therefore there are no recovery disks available.
    – Connor W
    Commented Oct 4, 2010 at 19:33

First since time spent and security are issues not to mention that when done it's still going to have a 10 yr old OS on it I would personally consider two things (assuming there isn't a really easy way like the restore partition).
First if everything went wrong I would be willing to just scrub the disk and sell it as is. Many times I buy older PC's with the idea of blasting what's there and installing Linux, for most of the older boxes I've looked at the price differential is only about $25 for a clean disk vs an XP install.
Now the part that will probably get criticized and probably isn't even that good an answer but because I wouldn't be willing to spend more than about 30 minutes to preserve that $25 I would do the following.

Clone the disk if possible to some old drive laying around using Clonezilla. Or at least the back up the Program Files.
Then I would just start deleting directories out of the Program Files directory.
Then run a couple decent registry cleaners that would scan for useless and unreferenced keys as well as shortcuts that don't point anywhere. (there are discussions with regard to registry cleaners on SU).
Finally with regard to personal data, not knowing where and how you organize things, it's just a matter of tracking it all down, deleting it, and defraging, or to be really safe delete it with a file scrubbing software of which plenty of free ones are available.

Which is why if you don't have a restore partition, and don't want to track down a CD, I would personally consider selling a blank box.

  • I think she is looking to sell the computer to another friend, who probably wouldn't know what to do with a computer without an OS installed, or with Linux.
    – Connor W
    Commented Oct 4, 2010 at 19:36
  • Buy an XP license somewhere. Really. I agree with basically everyone else--either install a new OS or don't worry about the personal data.
    – CarlF
    Commented Oct 4, 2010 at 19:57
  • That being the case I would amend it to trying the removal technique (risky and possibly fraught with problems) with the idea that if it fails you buy an XP license. Though since this is superuser.com it seems a requirement to add a geek answer. Run Ubuntu, Linux Mint, or if primarily for internet Peppermint Linux from a LiveCD for a day or so and install once they fall in love. Those are what I always install for friends who know nothing about computers because they just work, are beautiful, stable, and safe.
    – Dennis
    Commented Oct 4, 2010 at 20:10

A supplemental answer that improves upon other answers listed here.

Be aware that tools like Eraser can only wipe the 'cluster tips' (the slack space at the end of any file smaller than a multiple of the cluster size) of files that are not in use or protected. This means that a small amount of personal information can remain behind.

To mitigate this, you can boot from a CD, so that those files are not in use. Hiren's Boot CD can do this, and comes with Data Shredder and CCleaner, both of which can wipe cluster tips and free space.

Note also that Eraser also handles alternate data streams, and so does CCleaner.

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