Cash in on your old kit

We suspect it’s a rare PC Pro reader who doesn’t have a cupboard bulging with old laptops, smartphones, peripherals and software. That’s money gathering dust, with even hardware that’s more than a generation old capable of fetching hundreds in online auctions or on trade-in sites.

In this feature, we explain how to maximise your profits when selling on used hardware and software – and, crucially, how to do it without compromising your personal data or breaking the law. We’ll explain which places offer the best prices, how to pack your equipment so it isn’t damaged in transit, and give you an indication of the kind of prices you can expect to earn for your old equipment.

We’ll also reveal how to safely wipe the data from your old hardware, so you don’t sell bank details with your laptop or your contacts when you recycle a smartphone.

Finally, we’ll explain where you stand when it comes to selling software, and how to claim a discount on new software by picking up cheap old versions.

Read on to find out how you could turn a dusty kit cupboard into a boost to your bank balance – and start refilling that cupboard with the profits.

PCs and laptops

There are more ways than ever to sell an unwanted PC or laptop, but be warned: these days they’re commodities, and the sheer number out there makes for plenty of competition. Don’t expect your five-year-old laptop to attract a bidding war, and be realistic about the likely demand for a dusty old PC with a 40GB hard disk and 256MB of RAM.

Cash in on your old kit

That said, pretty much anything will sell if you set realistic prices and goals, and it will come as no surprise to learn that some brands are more in demand than others. If you look at completed sales above a few hundred pounds on eBay, it’s mostly pages of Apple products, interspersed with big names such as Sony and HP, systems with upgraded components – which is worth bearing in mind if you have any RAM lying spare – and custom-built media PCs. That isn’t to say less eye-catching products aren’t also wanted, just that they’re unlikely to rack up the big bucks.

For most of us it won’t be MacBooks we’re selling, but old kit that we know isn’t worth a great deal. The good news is that as long as your PC or laptop still works, it should find a buyer – and even if it doesn’t, there will be someone out there who can use the parts. There are some key steps to take to ensure a sale, but before we do anything a few of those parts need your full attention.

Wipe clean

When selling a PC or laptop it’s absolutely vital to remove your personal files and information before handing it over to a stranger. Don’t worry: it’s very easy to do and the cost can be zero with the right tools.

First, back up any files you need to keep. The easiest way to do this is via an external hard disk, but depending on how much data you need to keep, you may get away with a blank DVD or a USB stick. If you keep all of your files neatly in Libraries, you can just drag them manually to your backup drive; Windows 7’s built-in Backup tool lets you back up files that are more scattered across a hard disk.

Backup is the simple part; the secure deletion of what’s left is more likely to be unexplored territory for most people. There are many tools available, but a good free utility is Darik’s Boot and Nuke (DBAN). Simply burn it onto a blank CD or DVD (don’t unzip it), reboot your PC with it in the drive, enter the BIOS and select the option to boot from the disc. When DBAN loads, select the drive to wipe and the number of passes – the more passes, the more secure the wipe, but the longer it will take. After a single pass, the new owner would need professional recovery tools to retrieve the data; for peace of mind, three passes is the default.

Once that’s complete, you can sell the system with no operating system installed, you can reinstall Windows and sell it as a complete system, or you could install a different operating system ready for sale. First you need to consider the legalities.

Operating systems

With Windows, it’s important to realise you’re paying not for the software, but for the licence to use it. This can be transferred in some cases, but you’ll always need to pass on the original installation media (if any came with the PC) and the proof of licence – either the Certificate of Authenticity sticker found on the software box or the side of a PC, or the retailer’s receipt if you downloaded the software.

If it’s an OEM licence – that is, if Windows came preinstalled on a laptop or PC – then it’s tied permanently to that system. The software is useless to you without the hardware, but you’re free to pass the whole PC onto someone else.

Having Ubuntu installed will at least allow you to demonstrate that it’s fully functional.

If it’s a retail licence – that is, you bought Windows separately and installed it yourself – it’s yours to use on any single PC as you see fit. You can pass the installation to a new buyer with the PC, along with the proof of licence and original media, or if you want to keep the OS for another PC, you can simply uninstall it before you sell the system.

If you’ve upgraded at any point to a newer version of Windows, you can sell the system on, but you have to pass on the original Certificate of Authenticity or retail receipt for the older version. The Windows Anytime Upgrade key on its own isn’t proof of licence.

Assuming you own your Windows licence and want to keep it, one option is installing a free OS on the PC you’re selling. The most popular – and arguably the most accessible to the new owner – is Ubuntu.

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