You should never have to buy a new computer because of malware.
I hear from people all the time who have machines infected with varying degrees of malware. Their goal is simple: their computer is crippled with malware and they just want it to work so that they can get on with their lives.
If that’s you, and you’re at the point where you’re considering getting a new computer because of it, wait.
Before you get out your credit card and lay out money on a new computer, allow me to clear up some common confusion and possibly save you some cash.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
Hardware versus software
The fundamental concept that seems to get lost is the difference between computer hardware and software.
Your computer: the box, the power supply, the hard disks, the monitor, the CD-ROM drive … these are all hardware. They’re physical things that you can see, touch and feel.
Windows, your applications, your data, your pictures and anything else stored on your computer are software. They’re simply data – nothing more than a large collection of ones and zeros – stored on magnetic, electronic or optical media.
Malware is software. It’s nothing more than data. Data that’s crafted to cause your computer to misbehave, but data nonetheless.
And data can be erased.
How a new computer solves malware infections
When you get a new computer, besides all that brand spanking new hardware, you’re also getting completely new software. That new computer comes with a new install of the operating system. New installations of the applications you use will either be pre-installed on the machine, or you’ll end up re-installing the applications you’ve downloaded or purchased yourself.
The bottom line is that when you get a new computer, you’re also getting completely new/refreshed software.
Unless you reinstall the malware, the malware is gone because you’ve started over from scratch.
The thing is, you don’t need a new machine to do that.
Getting rid of malware without resorting to a new machine
I’ll put it this way: replacing your computer because of malware is like getting a new toaster because the bread was moldy. Yes, you’ll probably get fresh bread at the same time and all will be well. But you could have just cleaned your toaster.
You can clean your existing computer.
“But that’s what I’ve been doing!” I can hear you saying.
Yes and no.
There are several approaches to malware removal. One approach is to try to run anti-malware tools and follow instructions to remove the malware while leaving your system otherwise (and hopefully) unaffected. That’s a common first step; and second, and third and fourth step, until your patience wears out. And it’s probably what you’ve been doing.
The next step is more drastic.
The nuclear option
Here’s the 100%-guaranteed five-step approach to removing all malware from your machine – without buying a new computer.
- Backup your existing machine with a complete system image. Yes, you’ll be backing up the malware, but you’ll also be backing up everything else, including not only everything you care about, but also everything you didn’t know you wanted or needed.
- Reformat the computer. This will erase everything from it, including the malware. It’s gone. This is often part of the next step, but I want to call it out because of what it does.
- Reinstall Windows from scratch from the original installation media.1 You can use the same version or any version that your hardware supports. Heck, you can use any operating system you might care to switch to for that matter – again, as long as it’s supported by your hardware.
- Reinstall your applications from scratch. These are the programs that you use that don’t come preinstalled with Windows. Examples might be office suites, different browser or email programs, image management tools and more. This is all up to you and how you use your computer.
- Restore your data from the backup or wherever else you happened to keep it.
The malware is gone. You have all new software on your computer. It just works.
And it’s all that’s required, even after the worst malware.2
Prevention is best
Naturally, prevention is the best approach to malware: don’t get it in the first place. Internet safety: 8 steps to keeping your computer safe on the internet has a great overview of the steps you should be taking to keep your computer – your existing/old computer – safe.
But stuff happens, even to the best of us. That’s another reason that I’m such a strong proponent of regular system image backups. If your machine becomes infested with malware, there are two scenarios where a backup can completely save the day:
- Simply restore your machine to an image taken prior to the infestation having happened.
- Restore your machine to an image you took on the day that machine arrived. That’s like starting over from scratch without needing to reinstall everything that was on the machine that day.
In either case, the malware is gone.
And you didn’t have to buy a new computer.
OK, maybe you needed an excuse?
There are many reasons to get a new machine. Recovering from a malware infection is not one of them.
If you just want a new machine, and it’s in your budget, then get a new machine. Don’t wait for a disaster to happen to give you some kind of excuse. Switching to a new computer is a much more pleasant experience if you’re not simultaneously trying to avoid transferring over the malware that got you into some bad situation.
You’re also much more likely to make a reasoned choice if you’re not under the gun to get a new machine.
So, sure, get a new machine. Just don’t kid yourself into thinking that you have to do it because of malware.
If you found this article helpful, I'm sure you'll also love Confident Computing! My weekly email newsletter is full of articles that help you solve problems, stay safe, and give you more confidence with technology. Subscribe now and I'll see you there soon,