How to set up a second-hand laptop

If you’ve bought a second-hand laptop, you can’t simply plug it in and switch it on. Follow these tips to make sure your new buy is safe and secure to use.

If you followed our advice and saved money by buying a second-hand laptop, the next thing you need to do is get it ready for use.

Switching it on without a second thought can be a recipe for disaster, so follow these simple steps to make your second-hand experience a happy one.

[Read more: How to boost your laptop’s battery]

Before you begin

When you buy a new laptop, it’s been checked over at the factory to make sure it’s working properly, and will come with a fresh installation of the operating system.

Buy a laptop second-hand and, unless you’re buying from a shop or refurbished outlet, there’s no guarantee that anything will be working. So once you’ve checked the laptop is in good condition on the outside - the case isn’t damaged, the screen hinges are stiff, the battery charges on mains power and so on - it’s time to check the inside.

If you’re lucky, you can perform these initial checks before you buy, but if this isn’t possible, do them as soon as the laptop is in your possession. But on no account should you connect a newly-acquired second-hand laptop to your home network or plug in a USB flash drive, until you’ve finished the initial set-up.

Step 1: Check the hardware with a Boot CD

Ultimate Boot CD

Any laptop described as ‘working’ should obviously switch on and boot into Windows, but don’t worry if Windows fails to load. This could just be a corrupt installation, but it does mean that you will need the Windows install disc, or a restore partition, to fix it.

To bypass any potential Windows issues, you can check the state of its hard drive, memory and other components using the tests provided as part of the free Ultimate Boot CD.

You’ll need to download the software and burn it onto a CD using another computer, then use it to boot the laptop. To do this, insert the CD into the drive, restart the laptop and as it starts up, you should see a message such as ‘Press F12 to Choose Boot Device’ (the precise key varies from manufacturer to manufacturer). Press the key specified and you should see a menu with a list of options. Highlight ‘CD’ and press Enter.

The Ultimate Boot CD should now load.

You’ll find full instructions for the disc and its various tests at the Unlimited Boot CD website but the tests under HDD - Diagnosis, Memory and Peripherals can be used to check for hard drive errors, memory problems, a faulty keyboard, dead or stuck screen pixels and more.

Step 2: Reinstall Windows

Reinstall Windows

Once you’re satisfied that the laptop hardware is working normally, it’s strongly recommended that you delete all existing hard drive partitions, create one or more new ones (as required) and re-install Windows.

This ensures no malware lingers on the system, but it does depend on the laptop coming with a Windows install disc or recovery partition, otherwise you’ll need your own Windows install disc.

Losing any ‘free’ software that is already installed is a small price to pay here, since the alternative is to risk your personal data once you start using the laptop.

If the PC runs Windows 7 or 8, this may be a good opportunity to upgrade to Windows 10 as your machine may be compatible. Find out how to install it here.

Step 3: Check for malware

Malware

If you can’t perform a clean installation of Windows, you’ll need to perform a comprehensive malware scan before you do anything else.

You can do this using any good antivirus software if the PC is booting up, such as BT Virus Protect, which is free for BT Broadband customers.

If the machine isn't booting up, you can try AVG Rescue CD instead. Once again, you’ll need to use another PC to download the file and create the CD, before using it to boot the laptop.

It’s safe to connect the laptop to your home network using an Ethernet cable (you won’t be able to use wi-fi) at this point in order to update AVG’s virus definitions before running a scan. Otherwise, you can download the latest definitions and have AVG install them from a USB flash drive. With the scan - and any necessary disinfection - complete, it’s now time to boot into Windows.

Step 4: Start Windows for the first time

Uninstall web browsers

If you didn’t perform a clean installation of Windows and it asks for a password, you’ll need to ask the previous owner to provide it, else you can refer to one of the many online guides for bypassing Windows password-protection.

Once you are logged in, the first thing to do is install BT Virus Product - but make sure you uninstall any existing antivirus applications first.

Once it’s installed, perform another full system scan, making sure to scan all hard drive partitions.

Next, uninstall any web browsers other than Internet Explorer or Microsoft Edge and restart Windows. Then run Windows update until no important updates are available, and download and install a fresh copy of your favourite web browser, if it isn’t Internet Explorer or Microsoft Edge.

Step 5: Optimise the operating system

Slimware

If you didn’t perform a clean install of Windows, it’s worth using the free SlimWare Utilities SlimCleaner to clean any unwanted files, defragment the hard drive and generally optimise the operating system.

Remember, you install third-party software at your own risk. Ensure you read every step carefully and that you're happy with each step.

Step 6: Sort out the software

Remove accounts

The penultimate step is to see what the previous owner has left behind. If the laptop came with software install discs and registration codes, it’s worth uninstalling and reinstalling the software, then updating it, to make sure it’s running smoothly.

Creating a new user account will also help keep your documents separate from any that have been left behind. You can then delete any existing user accounts, along with their unwanted documents.

On Windows 10 you can do this simply by going to Settings, Accounts and Other people.

If your machine is running a previous version of Windows, you'll need to go to Control Panel -User Accounts and Family Safety on Windows 7 and older. 

Step 7: Check the battery’s charge

Check battery's charge

As a final hardware check, fully charge the battery, then disable Windows’ screensaver and sleep mode by sear going to Control Panel - System and Security - Power Options so that the laptop is always on when running on battery power. You can re-enable them afterwards. From a Windows 10 PC, go to Settings, System and Power & sleep.

Make a note of the time, unplug the laptop and note the time again when Windows complains about the battery being almost flat. This will give you a rough idea of battery life and if it differs wildly from the figures given by the laptop manufacturer, the laptop may need a new battery.

[Read more: Selling your computer? How to wipe your PC with Windows 10]