Pass Down Your Old PC

Buying a new PC can be a lot like buying a new car — especially when the kids start clamoring to take over the old one. And just like a rusty-but-trusty set of a wheels, a well-traveled PC might be just the thing for kids. It has the virtue of being paid for, and it probably has enough power to handle their more basic computing needs.

Indeed, a desktop or laptop that’s a few years old can easily pull duty as a game machine for younger kids, a homework helper for the grade-school set, or even a full-fledged work machine for teens who need to research and write papers. It’s just a matter of getting the system properly prepped, of clearing out your old files, adding a fresh install of Windows, and, most importantly, making sure the system is secure.

1. Reformat and reinstall

Let’s face it: A chief reason you decided to buy a new machine was that the old one was running like molasses in January. That tends to happen over time. Windows’ arteries get clogged with various kinds of gunk, resulting in pokey performance. To return the machine to its formerly speedy self, and give the kids the impression they’re getting a brand-new system, you’ll need to reformat the hard drive and reinstall Windows.

Needless to say, you’ll want to offload your important documents and settings first. You can either copy everything to an external hard drive or use a system-migration utility like Laplink PCmover. From there, it’s a fairly simple matter to wipe the drive and reinstall Windows. A little Web searching should reveal dozens of how-to guides for your version of Windows (the process varies somewhat between XP, Vista, and Windows 7).

2. Stock up on security

Viruses, spyware, phishing attempts, Trojans — these and other security threats don’t discriminate. They’ll attack your kids’ PC as readily as they will yours. In fact, kids are probably more likely to encounter some of the Web’s worst offenders. By searching for seemingly harmless things (like “toys”) or clicking enticing links, they might land on unsuitable Web sites or fall victim to drive-by spyware infections.

That’s why it’s essential to install an all-encompassing security suite, something that offers robust anti-malware protection — not just for the PC itself, but also the phones, tablets, flash drives, and other devices your kids are likely to plug into it. At the same time, look for a suite that offers content filtering, which will block potentially explicit websites, YouTube videos, and the like. That’s without question one of the best ways to protect your kids from objectionable online content.

3. Tweak the OS for different age levels

Windows isn’t exactly a kid-friendly operating system. Whether you’re handing down your PC to a toddler or a tween, you might want to install some software that’ll make the system a little more accommodating.

For example, Zoodles offers games and activities for preschoolers. And because it’s a self-contained “sandbox,” one that fills the entire screen, it’s impossible for a child to “wander off” into less friendly areas of Windows.

For kids ages 5 to 7, try installing KidZui, a specialized Web browser with a simplified, kid-friendly interface. It provides access to websites and YouTube videos that have been prescreened as suitable for younger children, and you can configure it to run automatically when the PC boots.

If you have older kids, consider activating the parental controls found in Windows Vista and 7. You can use them to monitor your kids’ usage habits (including the websites they visit and programs they run) and limit computer use to certain hours of the day.

Likewise, be sure to inform your kids about the dangers of cyberbullying, and keep tabs on their social-network activities, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Subscribe to the The Advisor Newsletter