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How Can I Safely Start Using a Previously Owned PC?

March 31, 2009

in computer hardware,Linux

by Gabe Goldberg

Whoever advised against looking a gift horse in the mouth (to avoid discovering cavities or the need for braces, I suppose) surely didn’t mean you shouldn’t look inside a “new” used computer you receive.

In fact, setting up a used computer generally takes more effort and precautions than unboxing and plugging in shiny new equipment. But it’s not overwhelming, and the savings — whether the used PC came as a family hand-me-down, was purchased, or was received from a refurbisher such as a computer user group — can make it worthwhile.

As you begin, be ready to perform repairs or upgrades. The PC may not run your applications without added RAM (for that, visit Crucial), may not have enough USB Ports, may need a network card, etc. And you may have trouble finding parts for too-old computers, especially if they’re proprietary (manufacturer-specific design) rather than generic components.

Depending on your comfort level with computer hardware, you can inspect and clean the PC’s innards yourself or pay to have it done. Check that electrical connections and component mountings are secure and not corroded and remove accumulated dust and debris via vacuum and “canned air” spray. Then check basic operation with bootable (that is, not running under Windows) hardware diagnostic software.

Computers accumulate junk — software that’s not used or is only partially uninstalled, forgotten data files, monster log files describing long-ago system events. So it’s safest and simplest to format the hard drive for a clean start, then install Windows and your applications. That assures that nothing bad (virus, spyware, ugly downloaded files, the previous owner’s data, etc.) remains to do damage or simply clutter the disk. And this lets you know what’s installed, since you’ll put it all there yourself. Doing that requires a licensed copy of Windows and your software applications (including, of course, anti-malware tools).

Match expectations to the system’s capabilities; don’t try to run Windows Vista and Microsoft Office 2007 on an under-powered PC.

If you don’t format the hard drive and clean-install everything, make sure that the system has up-to-date anti-virus and anti-spyware tools; perform full scans with them. Run comprehensive diagnostic software to check your operating system and resolve any problems reported. Erase any user data remaining.

If you’ll run any software already installed, make sure it’s legal by getting its licenses and activation keys; for reliability, peace of mind, and security, it’s worth requesting installation material and documentation.

An alternative to running Windows and its software is installing the Linux operating system and associated open source applications. Increasingly popular and appealingly free, the Linux environment has become easier to use, no longer requiring great technical skills. And an active Linux community is available online at meetings to help people get started. Several Linux versions are available; Ubuntu is popular because it’s available on a bootable CD allowing trying it without permanently installing it.

No matter what operating system and apps you use, when you have your system cleaned and humming, back up its hard drive with Norton Ghost or an equivalent imaging tool. That lets you easily restore the computer to health — to its state when you create the backup — if something really bad occurs. You’ll still need to back up your personal files regularly, since restoring an image will wipe them out.

Gabe Goldberg (, a lifelong computer pro and technology communicator, has written three books and hundreds of articles for audiences including techies, baby boomers and senior citizens. He enjoys sharing tips and pointers that help people use and have fun with technology.