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Ask Help Desk: What’s the best way to get rid of all these old hard drives?

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/15/2021 Chris Velazco
Send us your pressing questions and we'll try our best to answer them. (Brinson+Banks/Washington Post illustration) Send us your pressing questions and we'll try our best to answer them. (Brinson+Banks/Washington Post illustration)

When we launched our Help Desk a few weeks ago, we asked all of you to let us help you tackle the most pressing technology problems you’re facing right now. And boy, did you ever deliver.

Right now, our shared inbox is full of everything from requests for gadget advice to calls for help figuring out some truly finicky issues. And to be clear, we’re not complaining. In fact, we want even more of them.

As part of our mission to help you make sense of the tech in your life, we’ll be pulling out some of our favorite submissions every week and sharing our answers right here in a little feature we like to call Ask Help Desk. In this week’s edition, we’re tackling the best ways to recycle your old media collections, how to schedule your emails the way a true friend would and the oldest of tech quandaries: when you should buy a new computer.

If you need answers for a tech problem you haven’t able been to crack, don’t be a stranger — you can submit a request right here. We look forward to seeing it! Until then, let’s dive into this week’s questions.

Responsible recycling: We have moved all of our digital life to flash drives or the computer. What do I do now with all of the old DVDs, CDs and computer hard drives? How do I remove sensitive personal data and dispose of them in an environmentally correct way if my local government does not take them?

— Penny Wheat, Gainesville, Fla.

You’re not alone in this struggle, Penny. After I published a piece about recycling and repurposing old tech, the Help Desk inbox was soon full of people wondering how to safely and responsibly dispose of their old hard drives. But since your collection includes loads of discs, too, let’s start with those.

CDs and DVDs aren’t just made of plastic — there are super-thin metal layers inside, and that blend of materials means most municipalities won’t let you toss them in your recycling bin. But what you should do with them largely depends on what’s on them.

If we’re talking about movies on DVD and albums on CD, you should consider giving them a second life. You could donate them to your local Goodwill for some collector to stumble upon. Some libraries also take donations in the form of CDs and DVDs, though you should double-check before driving down to one — it’s not uncommon for these programs to have been shuttered during the pandemic. If you’re more keen to turn a profit, services like Decluttr will pay you for your old media collections.

Here's how to recycle — and repurpose — your old tech

But if these are CDs and DVDs you’ve burned, with personal data on them, the situation gets a little trickier. My advice: If you know nothing on those discs is terribly important, you could cut several deep gouges into them and drop them off at a local recycler. Earth911 is one of the best resources I’ve found for finding local businesses and recycling centers that accept e-waste of all kinds — just punch in your Zip code and see what comes up. If those discs contain seriously sensitive information, you may just have to smash them to bits and toss them in the trash.

As for hard drives, you have plenty of options, but the first thing is to make sure you don’t need anything that’s stored on them. Once you’re sure — or as close to it as you can be — the next step is to erase them. Windows PCs and Macs both have built-in tools to “format,” or effectively wipe those drives, and tools like ShredIt for Windows can help you more securely erase everything available. But if you want to make absolutely sure no one will get to use that hard drive again, there’s also good ol’ fashioned physical damage.

Some people recommend using a power drill to bore holes through the magnetic platter, and that will certainly do the trick, though you run the risk of wearing down your drill bits. (Also, make sure to wear protective eyewear and a mask if you try this.) Smashing a hard drive with a hammer sounds like a little more fun — and maybe even therapeutic — but it can be less effective. You’d have to make sure you’ve destroyed the platter, not just the stuff around it.

As for getting rid of these destroyed drives, you have a few options. Earth911 is helpful for this stuff too, and says there are a handful of places you could drop these drives off in your neck of the woods. And if you’d rather stay home, well, that’s fine too. Hard-drive makers like Western Digital offer free programs where you can ship them up to five hard drives at a time to be recycled responsibly.

Friendlier forwarding: My dear mother used to send me lots of pertinent newspaper articles to be enjoyed. I’d like to do the same for my friends and relatives. However, I’d like to delay their sending from the 3 a.m. time I read them to a more respectable sounding time like 8 a.m. Can I set delivery times?

— Linda Potts, Indiana

There are two things I’d like to say right upfront: First, thanks for letting us be a part of a burgeoning family tradition! (I hope a few Post articles find their way into your forwards.) And second, yes, you absolutely can choose when you want your emails to be delivered.

If you’re mainly a Gmail user — and I suspect you are, based on your submission — this can be incredibly easy to pull off. To start, draft your news digest as you normally would. Once you’re finished, the next steps will differ slightly depending on the device you’re using.

On a computer

  • Click the blue triangle attached to Gmail’s “Send” button.
  • Select “Schedule send.”
  • Choose the date and time you’d like the email to be sent.
  • Click the “Schedule send” button to confirm your choice.

In the Gmail mobile app

  • Tap the three dots next to the “Send” button.
  • Select “Schedule send.”
  • Choose the date and time you’d like the email to be sent.
  • Click the “Schedule send” button to confirm your choice.

As you can see, this process is a breeze, but things can get a little trickier if you mostly interact with Gmail in other apps. The Mail app built into Apple’s iOS smartphone software, for example, doesn’t have a “send later” feature, and neither does the company’s Mail app for Macs.

That said, other popular services that can connect to your Gmail account — like Outlook, which I have grudgingly grown to appreciate — do have a scheduled sending feature. Hope that helps — and do let me know if your hobby of curating news articles somehow spirals into a full-blown newsletter.

Substack wants to disrupt reading habits. Will its newsletters upend newspapers?

Subscription fatigue: I wish to discontinue an app — Multisaurus — that has a revolving fee. Do I just take it off my phone?

— Elizabeth Thomas, Bluemont, Va.

It can be very tempting in situations like this to just delete the app in question and move on with your life. Don’t do that — that is, unless you want to be surprised with a bank or credit card charge at some point down the road.

I know many people (myself included) who have a few too many unnecessary subscriptions. Thankfully, the companies that created the software that powers your smartphone also built in ways to easily cancel subscriptions connected to software you’ve downloaded from their app stores. Here’s how to make sure you never get charged for an app you don’t need again:

On iPhones

  • Open the Settings app.
  • Tap your name at the top of the screen.
  • Tap “Subscriptions.”
  • Find the app with the recurring payment you’d like to cancel.
  • Tap its name, and then tap “Cancel Subscription.”

On Android phones

  • Open the Google Play Store app.
  • Tap your profile picture in the top right corner.
  • Tap “Payments and Subscriptions.”
  • Tap “Subscriptions.”
  • Tap the name of the app with the recurring payment you’d like to cancel.
  • Tap “Cancel Subscription.”
  • Complete the short feedback form (or not), and tap “Cancel Subscription” one last time.

To upgrade or not to upgrade: I am a semi-retired designer who has my entire life’s and work’s data on my current MacBook Pro, circa 2013: personal stuff, emails, photos, company files and records, etc.

I hear there’s a new version coming out soon — if not out already. I don’t stay up nights reading about these things. But I am thinking it’s about time to replace this one. I want to wait and not be the first one on my block to get one — let them work out the kinks and get some updates under its belt before I get one. Any advice?

— Michael Gotwald, D.C.

Don’t worry, Michael — I stay up late reading about gadgets enough for the both of us. And for what it’s worth, your new product sense seems pretty well-honed to me: Apple is indeed expected to unveil a set of new laptops during an online launch event next Monday.

Reports suggest that these new laptops could come with 14-inch and 16-inch screens. But what’s really interesting about them is that they may use the next generation of Apple’s homegrown “M” series processors. That shouldn’t really affect the way you interact with your photos, emails and records, but because Apple’s chips are designed differently from the Intel processor in your current Mac, it’s possible some older apps you may rely on won’t work as well as they used to.

Before you splurge on a new Mac, check out this website whipped up by software developer Abdullah Diaa — it does a pretty good job highlighting which apps have been tuned to run well on Apple’s latest machines. That said, I’m writing to you from one of the first laptops to use Apple-made chips and the only thing that irks me is that Google’s Chrome browser can cause it to lock up for a spell when I try to quit it. (I suspect that wouldn’t be an issue if I paid for more RAM.)

You mentioned wanting to wait until the kinks were ironed out, and ultimately, I think that’s exactly the right move here. There’s no harm in waiting to see if Apple’s latest laptops have their own issues to work through, and knowing how this company works, you’ll probably see the first wave of reviews in just a few weeks. Your wait-and-see approach has served you well so far — stick to it!

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