The terms wipe, shred, delete and erase are often used as if they're interchangeable - but they shouldn't be, because they're not. For example, you don't have to erase a file just because you deleted it. And you can erase a drive without wiping it, or wipe files that have already been deleted.
We know it sounds a bit confusing. That's why we've put together this helpful guide that breaks it all down and helps you understand which action you should actually take, and when you should take it. Use this, and you'll know the best way to remove data from your computer, laptop, smartphone or tablet.
The first thing you need to know is what each term means, so here's a quick cheat sheet:
The term "delete" is probably the most easily recognized term on the list. However, you might have some misconceptions about it. When you delete a file, you're essentially moving that file into your Recycle Bin - but that doesn't mean the file has been completely removed from your computer. Think of it more like "hiding" that file, because the file is still available should you need to access it again.
Although this term isn't used as frequently, it's the next step when it comes to actually removing a file from your computer. When you "erase" a file, this means that the data will be removed from your system and you'll never see that file again.
This is why in most cases you'll receive a prompt that says, "Are you sure?" Because once you erase a file, it's gone forever.
Shredding is fairly similar to erasing a file. The only difference is that shredding replaces the file with random patterns of ones and zeros. It's typically only used for individual files and folders. Like erasing, when you shred a file, the action is permanent. You won't be able to get the file back.
That's why many people use file shredding programs like WipeFile and BitKiller to shred files more securely. To shred files using these programs, you have to add them or drag them into the icon on your desktop.
The term "wipe" is practically the same as "erase," except on a much wider scale. When you wipe your computer, you're essentially erasing everything. A complete "wipe" is usually done to remove all of the data from your computer's hard drive. This clears out all of the data that is lingering from files you deleted in the past.
Each of the previously mentioned terms are actions you typically take to clean up your PC, but "resetting" your computer takes it one step further. When you reset your computer, your files, settings and apps are deleted, and then Windows is reinstalled. This action is like taking your computer back in time, taking your system back to where it was when you first opened up the box.
When to delete
Since deleting a file doesn't technically remove it from your hard drive, there are no strict guidelines as to when you should hit delete, and when you shouldn't. It's up to you to decide when you're through with a certain file and no longer need direct access to it within your operating system.
However, one thing you shouldn't forget is that the file you've deleted is still on your hard drive somewhere. This means it can still be accessed by hackers who gain access to your system and depending on the file, may give them information they can use to steal your identity.
So, as a rule of thumb, never delete something that contains sensitive information. For private documents like bank statements and scanned images of bills, passports, personal IDs, etc., you should always shred or erase them.
When to shred or erase
When choosing which files to shred or erase, the main thing you want to keep in mind is that the files will be unrecoverable.
If you plan on keeping your computer, but just want to clear up some space on your hard drive, shredding and erasing are the best options. There are even programs you can download, like KCleaner, that are free and help you clear out files that are cluttering your system.
KCleaner works by allowing you to click on the types of files you want to delete, like Temporary Files, Windows Log Files, Adobe Reader Cache and many others, then permanently deleting them in one sweep.
When to wipe or reset
If you just need a simple clean up for your PC, then you don't want to wipe your computer. However, if you're getting rid of your old computer, then you should always wipe the hard drive before you sell, donate or recycle it. This will remove all personal data from your old computer and keep it from falling into the wrong hands. If you're not sure how to do it, click here to see how to wipe your computer securely.
When it comes to resetting, the only time you'd really need to do this is if your computer gets infected with malicious software. The wrong malware or ransomware can essentially make your computer useless, which leaves you with few alternative choices. And, in some cases, resetting your operating system may be the only option.
Of course, this comes with a price. While resetting your computer will allow you to regain use, it won't restore your old files and settings. Essentially, you'll be starting over from scratch - so it may just be worth it to wipe the old one, and purchase a new computer.