How To Prepare Your Computer For Reuse, Recycling, Or Donation

ttt-logoWe all need to take responsibility for disposing of our old computers properly. Instead of throwing out old electronics, please consider reusing, donating, or recycling them.

Old computers can have a lot of life left, especially if the hardware is good. However, if the computer can’t run current antivirus or software updates, it’s not suitable for reuse. Many people assume that if they never connect the computer to a network, it will never become infected. But I have seen plenty of “offline” computers that became infected anyway. One quick little login or infected flash drive and it’s all over. Don’t say it won’t happen because it certainly can.

Today’s viruses are so aggressive, it’s not worth the risk to use old computers that can’t be adequately protected. See my Tech Tips article on ransomware to learn more about the increased risks posed by modern viruses.

Before donating your computer, either wipe the drive or reset it to factory defaults following the instructions on your manufacturer’s website. Microsoft and Apple have advice on how to prepare your computer for donation.

Although recycling is far better than throwing your computer in the garbage, the e-waste recycling industry itself has its downsides (see these articles by National Geographic here and here for examples). When recycling your equipment, ask the recycler for more information about where and how they recycle.

Check your local city, village, or county for information on local electronics recycling events. Some manufacturers and resellers also accept old computers for recycling.

Thanks for doing your part to help minimize the problem of electronics waste!

How To Prepare Your Computer For Recycling Or Donation

computer-recycleIf you have old computers and cell phones lying around, you’re not alone. Many of us hang onto old devices because we don’t know what to do with them. Sure, we want to donate or recycle, but what about the data?

Here’s how to erase your computers, cell phones, and tablets prior to donation or recycling. Don’t forget printers, copiers, and fax machines too! You can find more details on e-waste and e-cycling on the EPA’s web site.

Warning: This article presumes that you’ve either backed up or don’t need the data on the device. Make sure you have everything you need before you do this!

Computers

If you’re recycling you can simply format the drive. Try DBAN for Windows to erase your hard drive thoroughly. Mac users can use their Apple system software utilities.

If you’re donating, presumably you want to present a usable computer with an operating system on it. In that case you’ll want to do a factory reinstall from the original disks or hard drive partition. Check your manufacturer’s instructions for details on how to restore to the original factory software. This turns your computer back into what it was when you bought it, without your personal data.

When in doubt, you can always remove the hard drive and smash it to pieces.

Smart phones and tablets

First, delete all contact, calendar, and other private data. For both tablets and smart phones, perform a factory reset to zap any remaining data. If it’s a phone, remove the SIM card (check your manufacturer’s instructions).

Printers, scanners, copiers, and fax machines

Computers and phones aren’t the only devices that keep a record of your data. Fax machines and copiers do too, and even some printers and scanners (usually the big fancy ones). Check the manufacturer’s instructions on how to perform a power reset or factory reset. Afterwards go into the printer’s configuration settings and make sure no private data remains.

Where can I donate or recycle?

The EPA has a web site with information on where you can recycle or donate your used equipment. Check with your local schools, libraries, and charitable organizations. You never know if your used computer might fill a need right in your own community.

Bear in mind that these techniques may still result in recoverable data, if someone tries hard enough. It’s always best to double-check. You can also reformat multiple times to reduce this risk.

Do you have questions about how to recycle or donate your computer? Ask in the comments, and subscribe to Tech Tips by email and follow on Facebook. You can also follow @trionaguidry on Twitter.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

Even Offline Computers Are Vulnerable To Viruses

Is it possible to have a truly offline computer? As I described in my recent column in the Northwest Herald, the short answer is no. Even if you don’t need the Internet, your computer does. You can still be infected by viruses even if you’re not online. In fact, your computer will turn into a silent hotbed of virus activity just waiting for the opportunity to infect others. The older the computer, the worse the problem.

The article isn’t available online, so I’ll give you the gist of it:

Pretend you have a Windows 2000 computer that never goes on the Internet. Using it is like traveling through time, ten years into the past. There are plenty of old friends installed: Microsoft Office 2000, Acrobat 5, Internet Explorer 6, programs that were standards at the time but have long since been replaced with newer versions.

You might think you could continue to use this computer in isolation, maybe for basic word processing. It doesn’t matter as long as it doesn’t connect to anything, right?

But, let’s pretend your printer dies. No point in word processing if you can’t print. The new printer says that it’s not really Windows 2000 compatible, but you might be able to find some software on the Internet. You try to log on but poor Internet Explorer 6 can’t handle a modern web site. And, behind the scenes, a virus just snuck through holes in IE6 to infect your computer.

Unaware of the virus, you decide to use your Windows 7 laptop to download the printer software to a USB flash drive. Another virus hitches a ride from the laptop to the desktop, a virus that can’t run under Windows 7 but is more than happy to infect Windows 2000. The Windows 2000 computer is now a hotbed of virus activity, and the only symptom is that it’s increasingly slower.

Other viruses join the party, and pretty soon that Windows 2000 computer is spewing all sorts of junk that infects your Windows 7 laptop, your smartphone, your iPad… then your email and Facebook accounts get hijacked and suddenly your bank is calling about missing funds.

I’ve received a few responses from folks with older computers, disagreeing with my opinion. Most of the responses included the observation: “I’ve been running this version of Windows for umpteen years and I’ve never had a virus.” If I may add… that you know of.

In fairness to these folks, yes, I do know people who use Windows 98 or Windows 2000 without the world grinding to an earth-shattering halt. Most of them are retirees or others who don’t use their computers often. In such cases we try to keep the computer functional for as long as we can. But there are others who – in my opinion – are doing absolutely lunatic things with ancient computers. Like trying to run a business with them: payroll, marketing, the works. And that gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies because there are SO many ways it can go disastrously wrong for both you and your business.

Most viruses and malware show absolutely no signs of their presence. It doesn’t matter if a Win98 or Win2000 computer has antivirus installed or not, because any antivirus capable of running under those versions of Windows is incapable of detecting new threats. It’s like taking a police officer from 1912, dropping him into 2012, and expecting him to cope with modern problems for which he has no frame of reference.

Friends, I’m saying these things to help, not to hinder. I think one reason many people are reluctant to change is because it truly is difficult to get used to a computer with a different interface. Like when we moved from DOS to Windows 95, or Windows XP to Windows Vista and 7. A new interface puts us on edge, even old salts like me. It’s annoying to spend half your morning trying to figure out how you used to do something, but that’s technology, and the only thing you can do is adapt.

You may find it easier if you keep in mind that computers haven’t really changed all that much since the 1980s. Saving a file, typing a document, finding a contact’s address, these things are still the same. It’s the look-and-feel of the computer that has changed, plus the ability to access more information faster. Even the Internet is pretty close to what it was when I started using it twenty years ago. Today I’m using RSS feeds and Facebook chat instead of Usenet news and UNIX talk, but the fundamentals remain.

What do you think? Is there life to be had in old computers, or are the security risks too great?

 

Top Five Computer Nightmares, And How To Fix Them

Since the 1980s I’ve been fixing computers that won’t start up, won’t print, or can’t find files. The Internet adds an extra level of complexity, but we’re still facing the same basic tech support problems.

1. Your computer won’t start up.
There are three possibilities: your computer isn’t getting any power, it can’t find the hard drive, or there’s something wrong with your system software. The latter is by far the most common, and may be the result of a virus, a program conflict, or just bad luck.

First, try powering your computer down. If it doesn’t start up, follow the prompts on the screen. But don’t expect your PC to work properly in Safe Mode, which is meant as a diagnostic tool only. Once you’re in you need to find what caused the error and fix it. Likely suspects are new programs or devices. Run your virus scanner not just once, but several times. If your startup failure is caused by a virus you may need a tool like Malwarebytes to get rid of it completely. Reboot several times to make sure things are working, and make an immediate backup (but don’t overwrite the old one in case you still need it).

2. You can’t print.
Once again, three possibilities: the printer has no power, it’s not connected to the computer, or there’s a software error. Let’s assume you’ve tried rebooting and you’ve checked the cables. If you’ve printed successfully in the past, then it’s probably a problem with the software or file. Try a different file as well as a different program. You can look up any error messages or misbehavior on the printer’s support site. As a last resort you can unplug your printer, remove its software, and reinstall according to manufacturer instructions.

3. Your data is missing.
The default directory for Windows XP files is My Documents. In Vista and Windows 7 it’s Documents, as it is for Mac users. But this is just the default location; files can be saved almost anywhere. If your file or folder isn’t where you expect, try searching for it by name or date.

What if all your data is gone? If your desktop also looks different, you may be logged in under the wrong account. Check under the Start menu in Windows or the Apple menu on a Mac to see your login name.

In the previous case the data was simply misplaced. What if it really is gone? The sooner you try to recover a file, the better your chances of success, although it’s far easier to recover from a backup. In truly grim situations you might have to send your drive to a data recovery service.

4. You can’t get on the Internet.
Sometimes it’s not your Internet connection, just one specific program. But if none of your Internet applications are working and a reboot doesn’t help, it’s time for some diagnostics.

First, check your cables and the lights on our router and/or DSL modem. As I explained in a previous article, you should familiarize yourself with what “normal” looks like for your setup so you know what “not normal” looks like. Power everything off and back on, wait a few moments, and try again.

If it’s a wireless problem you may be able to connect with a wire, and this is a good way to determine if it’s just the wireless or the whole network.

5. You can’t open an attachment.
This almost always means your computer doesn’t know which program to use. You should be able to open anything with a common file type: TXT, DOC, PDF, JPG. But you might receive an attachment created in a program you don’t have. One common example of this is receiving a DOCX file, the new Word format that replaced DOC. If you can’t open DOCX files you either need a plug-in for your word processing program (typically free to download) or the person who created the file needs to resave as DOC.

Once you get the hang of common tech support problems, they waste less of your time.

 

Why Cleaning Prolongs Your Computer’s Lifespan

If it seems like your computer is the dustiest thing in your house, you’re probably right. Computers attract dust through static electricity, especially on their internal components. But dust is death to a computer. Cleaning on a regular basis can increase the lifespan of your hardware.

For best effect you’ll want to clean your computer inside and out. This involves taking off the computer case. Most cases have a side panel that either unscrews or pops off. If you check your manufacturer’s web site you should be able to find specific instructions.

Use a can of compressed air to blow out the dust. Pay particular attention to the computer’s fan. If the fan clogs your computer will overheat and likely fail at some point. Also blow out any dust in the vents on the computer case, to keep air flowing and temperatures down.

The same can be said of other devices such as network routers and wireless access points. You won’t want to unscrew the cases for these, but you should blow the dust out of the vents to keep them from getting clogged. Printers gather not only dust but tiny particulates from paper. You can use compressed air to keep the paper path clean. For keyboards, a combination of compressed air and isopropyl alcohol works well.

What about your screen? Don’t bother with commercial screen cleaners. Instead, use a soft cotton cloth with perhaps a bit of distilled water but no solvents. Modern LCDs can be scratched by dust particles and damaged by alcohol-based cleaners.

Subscribe free to Tech Tips and receive bonus tips, tricks and product reviews. Click here to subscribe or send email to techtips-request-at-guidryconsulting-dot-com, subject “subscribe”.

Fixing Printer Problems

It’s eight-thirty in the morning. You’ve got a big meeting at nine… and your printer jams. What can you do?

Printer jams are often caused by paper residue. Compressed air can keep your printer clean. It’s also important to use good quality paper. The cheap stuff leaves more residue and is more likely to jam the printer.

If you still can’t print but there’s no jam, try turning your computer and printer off, then back on. If that doesn’t work, check the cables. Your printer’s software may also give an indication of the problem. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of changing your default printer. In Windows XP, go to the Control Panel, then Printers And Faxes. Look for Printers under Hardware And Sound in Windows Vista, or Devices and Printers in Windows 7. Right-click on the printer you want and select Set As Default. On a Mac, go to System Preferences under the Apple menu and choose Print & Fax and change Selected Printer In Print Dialog.

Your free email subscription to Tech Tips includes bonus tips, tricks and product reviews. Through January 31, 2010, new subscibers will also receive a special gift: my IT Business Continuity Checklist. Click here to subscribe or send email to techtips-request-at-guidryconsulting-dot-com, subject “subscribe”.