Restore to factory settings and programs and wiping clean personal info?
November 1, 2010 3:04 AM   Subscribe

Bought a (windows 7) dell inspirion laptop. too many problems, company finally giving a refund. how do i restore it to factory settings and delete all personal data? I do NOT want to reformat the hard disk, i want to leave the system programs intact. Thanks!

(for example, I want there to be no trace of this question to Mefi on this machine....)
posted by Izzmeister to Computers & Internet (12 answers total)
Create a new user account, log in to that account and delete your current user account.
posted by Biru at 3:12 AM on November 1, 2010

All Dell PCs will (should) come with a system restore DVD. If you boot with this you will restore the disk to factory defaults.

However, before you do that, you should boot to a dban CD and wipe the disk. This will remove all traces of your stuff from the disk by "overwriting" all sectors of the disk. Once dban has done its goodness, boot with the system restore DVD and follow your nose.
posted by humpy at 3:16 AM on November 1, 2010

Not wiping the disk makes it very hard to remove all traces of personal information. For example, you can clear all history/bookmarks/cookies/form fields from your browser, but that doesn't remove the information from the disk. Deleting a file just marks the space free so that it can be reused if needed later, but it does not actually remove any information other than a directory entry. There are tools that can wipe free space, but this assumes that you've manually cleared out data from every program that you've ever used which is non-trivial to do -- there is always something somewhere that stores automatically generated thumbnails or LRU filenames or the like.

It depends on what you're worried about. If you have sensitive personal information like pictures or financial documents then not wiping and using the system restore DVD would be insane. On the other hand, chances are very high that the first thing the person that receives your laptop will do is take the drive out and re-image it from scratch without ever booting the machine, so chances are very remote that anyone would take the time to trawl though deleted blocks looking for image headers. Frankly if you have to consider it for more than a few seconds then just do the wipe.
posted by Rhomboid at 3:39 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Are you sure you have to leave the programs intact? I returned a Dell Inspiron laptop earlier this year, and I used DBAN. I didn't even reinstall the OS, and they accepted it no questions asked. I don't think you can be sure you have wiped all traces of your personal information unless you reformat the hard drive. You can reinstall Windows then.

If you go the DBAN route, you might be interested in this question I asked about using it to wipe my laptop (I had to disable some things to get it to work).
posted by bluefly at 4:15 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

As Rhomboid suggested, there are tools that can securely wipe free space provided that you've already deleted all sensitive files. One such program that I can recommend is Eraser.
posted by Raze2k at 5:00 AM on November 1, 2010

Note: DBAN is a bootable OS onto itself that allows you to perform the wipe without Windows installed. Eraser does the wipe from Windows and thus does not affect any Windows related files. The caveat, of course, is that you aren't guaranteed a clean slate unless you format the system or do a system restore (from the Dell DVD) first.
posted by Raze2k at 5:02 AM on November 1, 2010

You can't really delete all your personal data without doing a reformat/reinstall of the system. Even deleting all of the files you created will still leave traces in the system log file, the page file, and the registry. The company you're returning it to would have to do it anyway before shipping it out to another poor soul lest that poor soul boot it up and have your First/Last/Company/Initials already configured for Word... It also wouldn't ask the new user to configure their language, timezone, yadda yadda unless they had reinstalled the OS back to the 'first power on configure me now' state.

So it's best to nuke it one way or another. Since it's a Dell it will probably have at least 2 partitions on the hard disk, one small one which you should leave is the systems diagnostics which are available by pressing a function key during boot (key differs by model). You might want to check those out if you haven't already. It's much easier to return a machine if the onboard vendor provided diagnostics fail.
posted by zengargoyle at 5:19 AM on November 1, 2010

I just did this yesterday on an old Dell Inspiron. A lot of Dells have a "factory restore" setting on a hidden partition that can be activated using these instructions. It worked like a dream.
posted by anderjen at 7:49 AM on November 1, 2010

Nthing a zero-fill. I wouldn't even bother restoring it, though. They pay people to do that.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 8:01 AM on November 1, 2010

What they'll probably do upon receiving it back is zero out and re-factory HD. What you don't want them to do is just re-factory it, which could leave traces of your previous activity. Chances are the next customer would be none the wiser, but to be absolutely certain your best course of action would be to zero it out at least 3 passes. It doesn't really matter if the factory image is put back on. They likely have plenty of HDs pre-imaged to swap with anyway.
posted by samsara at 11:56 AM on November 1, 2010

If you do decide to zero out the drive, you'll notice that most tools allow you to set the number of passes. Unless you're secretly trying to destroy data that a nation-state is after, one pass (two if your paranoid) is all you need. I don't think it's even been shown that one can reliably recover data from a single pass, let alone any more.

The massive 35-pass DOD standard options are complete overkill and, in my opinion, a tremendous waste of time.
posted by truex at 2:54 PM on November 1, 2010

Details, emphasis mine:

"A computer forensics specialist has a message for security-minded computer users: A single wipe will make drives impossible to read.

In research published on Thursday, auditor Craig Wright tested the ability of a special type of electron microscope, known as a magnetic force microscope, to read data that has been erased. While overwriting the data multiple times with a random series of 0s and 1s makes it harder to recover, Wright found that it is nearly impossible to recover any meaningful amount of data after a only single pass. Recovering a single byte of data, for example, on a used drive is successful less than one percent of the time, he found. Accurately recovering four bytes, or 32 bits, of data only works nine times out of each million tries."
posted by truex at 2:55 PM on November 1, 2010

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