Erasing all the data, files, photos, videos, and documents from a laptop can seem overwhelming.
That’s particularly the case if you want to sell your laptop and worry about security issues because erased data are generally recoverable.
If your system is infected with viruses that no antivirus tool can fix, you may also decide to erase everything from your laptop and start afresh.
In either case, wiping out data from your laptop is straightforward, but you need to consider some important tips.
How To Delete Everything On A Laptop (Step-By-Step)
1. Back Up Your Data
Regardless of your purpose in wiping out your data, you should back up your files and personal data on an external device or in the cloud.
You could manually select each file and transfer it to an external USB drive, which can be overwhelming.
You can also use cloud services, such as Microsoft’s OneDrive, Google Drive, and Dropbox, which allow you to use their space for a paid subscription.
Most of them also have limited free storage that you can use if you have small files.
If you have too many files to choose from or need to back up your entire system, you can use Windows built-in features.
Windows has different native tools to back up different files and apps.
The most important one is creating a recovery drive that restores your Windows if your system components fail, but it doesn’t store apps and files that you added after the installation of Windows.
In other words, it only backs up the apps that came preinstalled with the operating system.
Here are the most popular ones:
A. File History
File History stores all your documents, including music, movies, pictures, or word documents, in any space that you prefer.
There’s a catch, though.
The current version of File History only backs up your files in the library and desktop.
If you want to back up your files stored on other drives, you need to transfer them to drive C.
You can access File History through Windows Settings > Update & Security > Backup.
The second option in the window is Back up using File History.
Click on the + next to Add a drive and select the drive you want to create the backup on.
The best option for those who want to erase all their data is a USB drive.
Plug the USB storage device into the laptop, and Windows will automatically search for the drives that can house the files.
After the USB device is detected, click on it, and the backup process will start automatically.
You should consider another limitation for your big files, although it’s not about the File History itself.
If you use a USB device, you should pay attention to the file system because some of these file systems can only handle files smaller than 4GB.
If your file system has this limitation, File History may fail to back up large files.
Ensure the file system is NTFS because it can support 16TB of file size.
B. System Image
This option is a more useful feature to back up your files because it allows you to store your personal files, unlike a recovery drive.
It creates an image of the entire system and can restore the whole image when you need to.
As a result, you can’t restore individual files, which can be a drawback for some people because they need to get regular backups to avoid losing newly added files.
However, for those who want to erase all their data, it’s unnecessary to create regular backups because they won’t add anything to those files.
To use this backup utility, go to the Control Panel and click on Backup and Restore (Windows 7).
Don’t worry about “Windows 7” because it still works on Windows 10 and 11.
On the left side of the window, select the Create a system image link to open a new window.
Here, you should choose where to save the backup: on a hard drive, DVDs, or a network location.
If you have a USB device, you can expand the menu under Hard disk to select it.
Here again, the file system is better to be NTFS to avoid file size limitations.
After selecting the drive, click Next and select the hard drive parts or partitions to be in the image file.
After selecting Start Backup, the system starts creating the image.
2. Encrypt Your SSD
Although restoring your system to factory settings will erase data that can’t be recovered, the technology used in SSDs makes it hard to remove all data securely.
This technology is called wear-leveling and enhances the longevity of the drive.
That’s because storage devices have limited erase cycles, and every time you write data on the drive, you expose it to wear and tear.
The wear-leveling technology comes with a negative side that doesn’t guarantee a complete data wipe-out even after a factory reset.
You can encrypt the SSD to make data unreadable even if it’s recovered.
This type of encryption uses unique keys to blend data and turn them into illegible and meaningless data.
The good news is that Windows has a native tool that helps you encrypt your drive with just a few clicks.
Some laptops have a default setting called Device Encryption in Settings > Update & Security.
It’s on the left side of the window, and you can simply turn it on.
You can access Device Encryption in Windows 11 under the same settings if it’s enabled.
If your laptop doesn’t have Device Encryption, you can use BitLocker.
In Windows 11, you can find BitLocker in the Settings window.
It’s in the Control Panel in Windows 10.
After opening the Control Panel, click on BitLocker Drive Encryption and click Turn on BitLocker for your intended drive.
Follow the on-screen prompts to secure your data.
3. Reset The Laptop
After creating a backup of your data, you can start erasing files from your laptop.
However, you should know that erasing the data will remove all license numbers for purchased software.
If you plan on using them after the reset, make sure to write them down or save them somewhere on another computer or your phone.
You should also have a robust password management tool to avoid losing your website passwords.
After double-checking and ensuring all your data is backed up (because once the PC is reset, you can’t get back the data), you can start the reset process.
To factory reset your laptop, right-click the Windows icon on the bottom left corner of the screen and click Settings.
Once on the Settings page, click Recovery on the left side.
The first option in the new window is Reset this PC.
Hit the Get started button.
Now, you should choose between wiping the drives clean or keeping some files via two options: “Keep my Files” and “Remove Everything.”
If you select Remove Everything, you’ll need to decide how the system will reinstall Windows after the reset.
You can choose Cloud download or Local reinstall.
You’ll need an internet connection and more than 4GB of storage for cloud download.
After selecting the Windows reinstall method, click Back to see more customizable settings.
For example, you should make sure the data isn’t recoverable if you want to sell your laptop.
Simply choosing the Remove Everything option doesn’t guarantee that nobody can recover your data, although it returns your laptop to its factory settings.
As a result, you can select Change Settings and enable the toggle next to Clean Data?
By enabling this option, Windows will overwrite data, and nobody can recover it.
You’ll also need to decide on another option if you use your laptop for your job and your IT department has created specific configurations.
In that case, you should consult your company’s IT department before continuing with the reset process.
After checking all the settings, you’ll get the final message to confirm the reset.
The message will tell you what data will be erased, whether they’re recoverable after installing Windows, and other things.
If everything is okay, click Reset and wait for the system to do its job.
The process may take up to several hours, depending on your system configuration and the amount of stored data.
Once the laptop is reset, it will reboot and reinstall Windows.
Reset Vs. Format
Resetting the laptop is the most straightforward way of deleting everything from the device.
In this method, the system takes care of deleting everything, and you don’t need to worry about any data being overlooked and left on the device.
However, it’s not the only option.
You can use other methods to erase all data from your hard disk if you want more control over the process.
One of these methods is formatting the hard disk.
Formatting means deleting the files from a hard drive or any storage drive and changing its file system.
It can erase all the data from the drive, but it can’t be a secure way because the data is recoverable using recovery tools.
You can format each drive or local disk on your computer by going to This PC, right-clicking the drive, and selecting “format.”
This will erase all the data on those specific drives.
However, you can’t format Drive C that easily.
That’s because the operating system sits on drive C and you can’t erase the files you’re using, which are on drive C.
As a result, formatting a hard drive that contains the operating system isn’t as straightforward as resetting the computer.
On the other hand, resetting is a kind of formatting that also involves a clean installation of the operating system.
It’s also more straightforward although it takes much longer.
How To Format The Hard Drive?
You can format your hard drive via the Disk Management tool.
Type “disk management” in Cortana’s search box and click on “Create and format hard disk partitions.”
Alternatively, you can press the Windows key + X and select Disk Management.
In the new window, you can see the list of the partitions on your hard disk labeled as drives and local disks.
You can format each drive by right-clicking it and selecting Format.
If you don’t want to delete everything from your laptop, you must be careful what drives you format.
Otherwise, you can start from the top and format each drive one by one.
As mentioned, the Format tool will reformat and prepare the drive for the operating system to overwrite data on it.
You need to determine its properties.
You’ll see a small window that requires you to determine these properties.
The first one is the Volume Label, which is the drive’s name, such as C, D, or F, as it appears in the File Explorer.
Then, you should choose the File System, which is recommended to be NTFS.
The next value is Allocation Unit Size, which you should set to Default.
Then, there are two other options that you should choose to enable or disable.
The first one is Perform a quick format, which is recommended to be unchecked because a quick format won’t perform a secure erase of data.
If you run a standard format, it will take longer but is more secure because it overwrites all the data inside the drive with zeroes.
The next option is Enable file and folder compression, which should also be unchecked.
Now, you’re ready to format your drive by clicking Ok.
You’ll receive a message that warns you about losing your data permanently.
After clicking Ok, the format process will start and may take a while.
You can do the same for all other drives, but the format option is grayed out for drive C.
That’s because the operating system is on this drive, and you can’t delete it while you’re inside it.
As a result, you need to access and format your drive C, or any drive that contains your operating system, from an outside tool, like a bootable drive with formatting qualities.
However, this process doesn’t need to be that complicated because you can do other things to wipe out drive C.
That’s essentially what a factory reset would do: a clean install of Windows.
When you replace your Windows, your drive C will be automatically formatted, and you’ll lose all data on it.
Instead of formatting drive C, simply clean-install your Windows after formatting all other drives.
What to Do If You Can’t Access Your Windows
You might get stuck in an emergency where you need to erase all data from your hard drive, but you can’t access its interface.
The good news is that you can factory reset and format your data without booting up your Windows normally.
The caveat is that you’ll lose your data if you haven’t backed it up before.
You may be able to recover it using recovery tools, but that’s not guaranteed.
To factory reset your laptop, you need to enter the Windows RE by pressing Shift and clicking Restart from the Start menu.
However, this method requires that you access the sign-in window.
You can easily reset the laptop by clicking Troubleshoot > Reset this PC if you can access Windows RE.
Alternatively, you can factory reset the laptop in the BIOS.
After entering BIOS, go to Advanced > Special Configuration > Factory Recovery > Enabled > Home > Save and Exit.
After saving changes, you’ll see a window to choose an option.
Select Troubleshoot > Factory Reset.
Follow the instructions to finish the reset.
However, if you can’t do that, you’ll need a Windows Installation Media to format it from the BIOS.
The first thing to do is get the system boot up on the drive that contains the installation media.
To do this, you need to change the boot order in the BIOS.
Enter the BIOS by pressing your system’s BIOS key designated by the manufacturer.
Use your keyboard to navigate to Boot.
Here, you should change the boot sequence order and place the drive that contains the installation media (USB or DVD) in the first order.
Now, plug in the USB drive or insert the DVD and restart your laptop.
If you want to format your drives, click on Install now to proceed.
Then, you should decide which type of installation you want by choosing the Upgrade or Custom options.
Select the Custom option to install Windows only.
Choosing this option will open a window with a list of your drives and the option to format them.
Choose each one and click on the Format button to wipe out data from these drives.