How to erase a computer hard drive and installing free basic software.
September 29, 2014 4:36 AM   Subscribe

This is going back to this question where I'm dealing with obsolete computer equipment. This weekend's discovery was a laptop at least 10 years old, a desktop computer of over 5 years not running on a Windows system, and another desktop over 5 years running on Windows Vista.

How can he wipe the hard drives clean and erase information without having to reinstall the operating system? If there's a password log in (for the 1st desktop) how can he bypass that? Once the computers are back to starting condition what kind of free software bundles should be installed? I was thinking of an equivalent to Microsoft Office, an image editing program like Photoshop, an antivirus suite, and what else?

This project is for non techy people so the more straightforward the process the better. My buddy has plans to donate the computers for different purposes. He wants to get them up and running again for very basic use. If there's a process to go about accomplishing this he'd like to know step by step instructions and any potential issues to look out for.
posted by adapt to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
A ten year old laptop is a paperweight. No school is going to be interested. A five year old desktop is kinda right on the edge. I'd just wipe it and install Ubuntu, which is free, and relatively painless. Just download and install cd and follow the on screen directioms.
posted by empath at 5:21 AM on September 29, 2014 [6 favorites]


How can he wipe the hard drives clean and erase information without having to reinstall the operating system?

Reliably? He can't.

I really doubt that anyone will want these machines, or that LibreOffice and GIMP (which would be my recommendations for your office suite and image-editing program) will run anything but frustratingly slow on them.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 6:10 AM on September 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


To wipe, boot from DBAN.
posted by devnull at 6:13 AM on September 29, 2014 [3 favorites]


Yes to Linux, it has saved multiple old PCs from the garbage dump and become my go-to for setting up basic Internet/office terminal machines for non-computer-savvy people. LibreOffice isn't perfect but it opens most MS Office documents. Gimp is also not perfect, but Krita is better and getting close to a true Linux Photoshop.

The newer desktop UI of Ubuntu (Unity) always ran slowly on older machines; I'd suggest either a different desktop (xfce, GNOME Classic/fallback, or kde) or going with Linux Mint, which is lighter albeit not quite as hand-holdy as Ubuntu has become.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 6:18 AM on September 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


Reliably? He can't.

Not true; see devnull's suggestion for DBAN. This is exactly what it's made for.

The rest of the above information is correct: wipe and ditch the 10yo machine, some lightweight Linux distro on the others and maybe they'll be usable.
posted by The Michael The at 6:51 AM on September 29, 2014


Reliably? He can't.

Not true; see devnull's suggestion for DBAN. This is exactly what it's made for.


Except, the OP explicitly asks (and Mr. Parade is responding to) how he can "erase information without having to reinstall the operating system". DBAN is good at one thing only, and preserving the OS on the target system is exactly not what it's made for.

But who are we kidding - what you have there are some mighty fine paperweights. If you're determined to use these machines, and can find someone who will actually put them to some (any) use, I'd start by nuking it with, yes, DBAN, and installing Lubuntu, a much lighter-weight flavour of Ubuntu. It comes with all your basic software requirements (browse/email/office/media), and it's easy enough to find other software through Synaptic package manager.

If you're absolutely determined to keep the installed OS (please don't), I'd use Ophcrack or something to crack or edit any admin passwords, create a new admin user/password, delete any other users, and then try and clean everything else unwanted out. This is dirty, ugly, and icky, and you'll still be left with a piece of crap (so please don't).

Next dirty, ugly, and icky option might be to extract the current license key from the registry, find an ISO of the installed OS, and reinstall fresh from that. (please don't)

But hopefully enough people will tell you that keeping a 10 year OS running is a Very Bad Idea to convince you to install something new. Old OS = no longer supported = no new security patches. And the Bad Guys have had 5 to 10 years to find out how many new holes they can poke in it, with noone doing a thing about it. All you'd be creating is a shiny new node for all the botnets in the world.

TLDR : Drop the "without having to reinstall the operating system" requirement because you will make kittens cry. Try Lubuntu.
posted by quinndexter at 7:52 AM on September 29, 2014 [4 favorites]


If he wants to play with something really old school and alternative, PC-GEOS is still alive and available in the form of Breadbox® Ensemble for $69
posted by Sophont at 9:26 AM on September 29, 2014


I'm not sure there's an easy way to keep the OS but delete all user data that I'd trust with my data. If you're set on keeping the OS I'd see if you can find the OS install CDs, securely erase the HDs, then reinstall the OS. Personally I'd pull the HDs and e-waste those computers, they're a bit old.
posted by pibeandres at 11:57 AM on September 29, 2014


Install a lightweight linux distro like lubuntu and the partitioner during install will take care of it. On a side note maybe get rid of the 10 year old computer but, a 5 year old computer will still be pretty competent. Heck I'm typing this on an optiplex 745 with xubuntu and it still runs pretty well. I did upgrade the ram to 4gb, threw in an ssd from a netbook that was collecting dust, and put an hd 5450 in it but, for a $100 computer runs great.
posted by mamamia88 at 3:57 PM on September 29, 2014


IF, and it's a big If but the age of the laptop is right, the laptop has a so-called Recovery Partition, then you can DBAN the OS partition (not the whole drive!) and restore from the recovery partition. This is an annoying-to-IT guys practice of reserving part of your hard drive as a separate partition which contains an image of the laptop as it was when it left the factory (OS, sponsored crapware, etc).

IIRC, to restore from that recovery partition requires navigating through something in custom BIOS-- or maybe not-- you'll have to research the model. The partition should be visible in Windows Disk Management, but won't be accessible. And it should be full.

Such a partition would have the laptop's drivers--, which is critical because laptops always have a strange mix of obscure hardware. If the laptop's manufacturer is still around, you may be able to get windows drivers for it there. If you can't get drivers, though, manually installing windows after a wipe is not tenable. Linux is definitely still a possibility, though.

As for the desktop with Vista, Vista's in the "Extended Support phase" of its lifecycle, which will end in 2017(!). Mainstream support ended in 2012. This means they'll still do security hotfixes, but little else.
posted by Sunburnt at 12:09 AM on September 30, 2014


Except, the OP explicitly asks (and Mr. Parade is responding to) how he can "erase information without having to reinstall the operating system". DBAN is good at one thing only, and preserving the OS on the target system is exactly not what it's made for.

You're absolutely right. I read this differently, as: "this computer doesn't have an OS, but I want to destroy data on it; how do I do that without having to put an OS on it before wiping it?"
posted by The Michael The at 6:15 AM on September 30, 2014


Thanks for the replies so far. I wasn't expecting conflicting responses though. Like I said we're not that techy so a link to a how to or video would help.

There's a few more boxes left and we might come across the OS disks. His idea was to have a clean slate with these relics but also install some free software to make them serviceable for basic use. He wants to keep one in the basement after it's renovated.
posted by adapt at 8:49 PM on September 30, 2014


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