3 Ways To Get A Clean Hard Drive

by Rod Dunne on August 6, 2010

in Articles, Security

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If you need to fix PC errors or are passing on your computer to a third party then it is essential to know how to clear out old data/personal information.

Here, we’ll look at 3 approaches for getting a clean hard drive, each of which has varying security considerations.

1: Cleaning Hard Drive Contents By Hand

If all you really want to do is erase hard drive files that you no longer require then the following checklist should suffice, and free up some disk space in the process.

  • Use the Add/Remove Programs tool in the Control Panel to clear out unused applications.
  • Delete podcasts, torrents and video content you no longer wish to watch (or can see online).
  • Move any personal photos, movies or music to an external disk or CDs. Keep additional backup versions of these files if they are precious to you.
  • Run the Disk Cleanup utility on each drive. This is found under My Computer by right-clicking a drive and selecting ‘properties’. The tool can clear out all manner of temporary files.
  • Finish up by emptying the recycle bin.

This low-security approach to cleaning hard drive contents is not recommended if you are giving your PC away. Regular data recovery software can easily retrieve deleted files from the hard disk as file deletion will only de-index the files, clearing the file’s directory attribute in the file allocation table, but leave the data clusters on the disk untouched and intact, available to be read. See our article on how to wipe a computer.

Low disk space: This approach is ideal if you simply need to clean hard drive data after receiving a low disk space warning from the operating system.

2: The Formatted Disk Wipe

One traditional way to clean hard drive contents is to format the disk and reinstall the operating system.

On paper, this appears like a good method. It is regularly used as a PC repair approach to complete a disk wipe of buggy applications and restart afresh with a bare bones operating system. However, this is by no means a secure clean.

Our post on bad sector repair tools and tricks has more information on disk repair choices.

It is usually possible to recover formatted data using data recovery software as formatting a drive only clears the file allocation table (FAT; a system file used to administer your files metadata, including location details of its associated data clusters on the disk drive) of document information. The associated data clusters are rarely wiped clear and these can be easily scanned and reassembled into files using data recovery applications.

So if you want to erase hard drive contents prior to passing the computer onto someone you trust then this may be an option.

3: Highly Secure Clean

The only truly secure way to clean hard drive data entirely is to make use of dedicated software. These tools (of which there are many) operate by repeatedly writing files to all the data sectors on a hard drive, cleaning hard drive data clusters of any original remnants of documents.

Some of the more popular tools are:

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