Were you given a used Windows PC? Here’s how to make it yours, safely.

In November, I wrote a column on knowing when to replace a personal computer. In it, I told the sad tale of my daughter who’d cracked the screen of her gaming laptop. She wound up replacing it with a newer model.

But I didn’t finish the story. I didn’t tell you what happened to that Dell G3 notebook. There was a happy ending.

It’s mine now.

My daughter gave it to me and I had the broken screen replaced. I’d been thinking about getting a gaming laptop, and for the approximately $300 it cost to have it fixed at the Computer Hospital, I now have a decent one.

But I had to do more than just fix the hardware. While I know my offspring practices good computer hygiene, I wanted to make sure the system was safe to use and running well. Once the screen was repaired, I set out to make it my own, giving it a fresh start.

Here are the steps I went through, which you can also use if you acquire a used Windows PC One caveat before we start: As much of a bargain as they may seem, do NOT accept as a gift or buy a very old Windows computer. If it runs Windows 7 and can’t be upgraded to Windows 10; or, heaven forbid, if it’s still got Windows XP, walk away.

Avoid any PC older than five years, and certainly one that dates back to Windows 10’s launch in 2015 or older. You will not be doing yourself any favors with a system that can’t receive security and bug-fix updates.

With that, let’s begin:

Talk to the owner/seller. If you’re receiving a PC as a gift, ask the owner to do three things: Uninstall any purchased software; log out of all personal accounts such as mail, social media, browser syncing, etc.; and do a full reset, which reinstalls Windows and removes all apps and personal files. This is as much for the owner’s protection as it is yours.

If you are buying a used PC from a company that sells them, ask how the machine is prepped for sale. A fresh install of Windows should be applied, along with a reformat of the drive, to wipe away any trace of the previous owner. If the seller can’t guarantee that, buy somewhere else.

Prepare for action. Compile a list of the software you regularly use on a PC, and make sure you have login information and/or product keys. Visit the support website for the manufacturer of the computer and locate the page that has specifications, documentation and software downloads for your specific model. Download the software you want, paying particular attention to hardware drivers, and save them to a USB thumb drive.

Fire it up. If it’s a laptop, connect the PC to its power adapter. If it’s a desktop, connect it to the monitor, keyboard and mouse. Turn the power on and watch what happens. If you are presented with the first-time Windows setup screen, congratulations! You can proceed with making it yours. But if it goes directly to the Windows desktop, or to a login screen requiring a username/password or a PIN – you’ve got work to do.

Wipe it and reinstall. If the used PC doesn’t launch into Windows setup, you’ll need to clear off what’s there and reinstall the operating system. Microsoft now makes this fairly simple, giving you a choice of whether to keep your files but remove all apps, or to delete everything and install a completely fresh copy of Windows. In this instance, you want to do the latter – it’s the safest option.

If your used PC boots directly to the desktop, click the Start button, hold down the shift key and click Power, then Restart. Continue holding down shift until you see the “Choose an Option” screen. In this case, choose Troubleshoot and then “Reset This PC.” At the next screen click Remove Everything.

Here you’ll have a choice of doing either a cloud download – reinstalling Windows using files pulled from the internet – or a local reinstall. Try the latter first, because a proper Windows installation will include setup files on a hidden partition on the system’s drive. If you get an error message in this process, you’ll need to start over and select the cloud download, but be aware it can take up to 4 gigabytes of data, which can take quite a while if your internet connection is slow.

If the PC boots to a login screen and you don’t have the password or PIN, you can still reinstall Windows. Again holding the shift key, click the power icon in the lower right of the screen, click Restart, then follow the instructions I listed above.

Update and scan. Once Windows is reinstalled, walk through the setup process, including setting up a Microsoft account for login. Then go straight to Settings and Windows Update. Check for updates and install everything you find. This being Windows, it’s going to take a while.

Once it is complete, launched the Windows Defender anti-malware program and do a full, deep scan. If you downloaded any software or drivers from the manufacturer’s website, install it now.

Take inventory. In a web browser, go to belarc.com/products/belarc-advisor/download and download the Belarc Advisor. This venerable tool does a complete inventory of the hardware and software on your PC and presents a report that lives only on your drive. It tells you everything from the speed of memory installed to whether you’re missing any critical updates to the product keys for important software, including Windows itself. You can print the report, or note the location where it’s saved on your drive.

After all this, you’re good to install your important software, configure your web browser of choice and copy over your files – safely!

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