Old Laptops, New Life

Freshening up a used machine for your latest hire

By Larry Armstrong

So you just landed your competitor's top producer. Congratulations. But be warned: There's nothing more demoralizing to a new staffer than showing up for a new job and being issued a laptop "customized" by a predecessor. Who wants to wade through the digital detritus of someone else's life -- the Word documents, music files, photos, e-mails, and all manner of, um, nonbusiness software and data?

It's bound to take a toll on performance -- and not just that of the new hire. All that extra stuff usually makes the computer pokey and sometimes unreliable.

True, it may not be practical to buy a PC every time you fill a position. But there are steps you can take -- beyond a spritz with Windex -- to make sure that used laptops are in like-new condition.

If you're uncomfortable fiddling with computers, take the laptop to a computer store or a consultant you trust. They can manually clean up the computer and bring it up to speed, saving any stuff, such as contact lists, that you may need. Data Doctors, an Arizona-based computer chain, charges $225 to $265 for the service, for example.

But if you have someone in-house who's reasonably PC-savvy or if you're up to the task yourself, it's not too difficult to recondition a Windows XP machine. (Apple computers come with similar utilities.) First, search out and delete all the personal files. You can get rid of most of them by going to Windows' Control Panel -- click on Start, Settings, Control Panel -- and deleting the account your former employee used.

Still in Control Panel, use Add and Remove Programs to un-install any superfluous applications, such as photo or music downloading software. Under Performance and Maintenance, Disk Cleanup will get rid of temporary files and compress older files. Then run Disk Defragmenter to rearrange files on the hard drive so that the computer can find them faster. It can take a while to do this, so you may want to set the defragmenter to run overnight. You also should install and run antivirus and antispyware programs.

If the computer is really sluggish or badly infected with spyware or viruses, you do have a last resort. You can actually start over, returning the PC to the state it was in when you first unpacked the box. For that, run the so-called recovery CD that came with the computer. This wipes the hard disk clean and reinstalls the Windows operating system and manufacturer's software. You will have to manually reinstall all the software you've purchased using the original CDs.

You'll also have to bring the Windows operating system up to par. Once the PC is hooked up to the Internet, click on Windows Update to get all the security patches that Microsoft has issued since you bought the computer. If the computer is more than about a year old, it's safer to install the security upgrades from a CD before you connect to the Internet. Go to microsoft.com and search for Service Pack 2; the company will send you the CD for free.

If you want to minimize this hassle the next time around, now's a good time to take a snapshot of the computer -- a kind of recovery CD customized with the software and data your employees need to do their jobs. You can do this with either Norton Ghost or Acronis True Image: Either will create an exact copy of the newly freshened PC's hard drive on a DVD or series of CDs, and next time you'll be able to recycle the PC in about half an hour. Then cross your fingers and hope you never need to use it. With luck, your new employee will last longer than your old PC.

Larry Armstrong writes about personal technology for BusinessWeek

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.