How to reset a Mac: factory reset a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro

From saving your files to reinstalling the OS, we walk you through how to reset a Mac so that you can sell it, recycle it or solve an existing issue

MacBook Air
(Image: © Future)

Knowing how to reset a Mac will definitely come in handy someday. Whether you've started encountering problems that you can't troubleshoot your way out of or you're wanting to sell your Mac, recycle it, or pass it on to someone else, reseting it to factory conditions is the way to go. 

Before you reset a Mac though, make sure you've backed up any important data that you won't want to lose as performing a reset will wipe all of your files. That's great in terms of ensuring that a new potential owner can't access your sensitive information, but not so great if you're doing the reset purely to try to solve an issue you're experiencing. Backing up your files will ensure that you still have access to them after the reset.

While performing a reset on the best MacBooks and Macs may not sound like a simple process, it's actually far less complex than you might imagine. Granted, it takes a little bit more work than pushing a few buttons, but Apple has also done a great job of making it a relatively pain-free process.

Regardless of whether you have the new Apple MacBook Pro 14-inch (which, by the way, is hands down the best laptop for graphic design), an iMac or a MacBook Air, you'll find the steps below equally applicable when it comes to performing a reset. From backing up your files to reinstalling the OS, we walk you through everything you need to know to reset a Mac.

Oh, and by the way, if you're passing on your old Mac to someone else after you've performed the reset and you're looking to upgrade, keep your eyes peeled for the arrival of the MacBook Air (2022), which we're hoping will drop by the end of the year. Whatever device you choose to replace your old one with, our guide to how to set up a new Mac has got you covered.

Using Time Machine on macOS

(Image credit: Future)

1. Backup your files

You should already be backing up your MacBook on a regular basis either through Time Machine or through one of the best cloud backup services online. Before resetting your Mac, make sure you save one final backup before moving forward. In the case of Time Machine, you can use these files to complete the set-up process on your new Mac.

macOS Big Sur System Preferences

(Image credit: Future)

2. Sign out of iCloud

Choose the Apple menu at the top left of the device. Select 'System Preferences' then click on your 'Apple ID'.  Choose 'Overview' in the sidebar, then click 'Sign Out'.

You will be asked whether to keep a copy of your iCloud data on this Mac. You can click 'Keep a Copy,' since you're erasing your Mac later in the reset process.

macOS recovery mode choices

(Image credit: Apple)

3. Enter recovery mode

Apple's Mac lineup is in a period of transition as the company shifts away from Intel-based processors. Entering recovery mode, an important step to reset a Mac, follows a different process on Intel-based machines and those with an Apple M1 co-processor or later.

To enter recovery mode on Intel machines: click on the Apple menu at the top left of the device, then choose 'Restart'. When the computer screen goes black, hold down the 'Command' + 'R' keys on your keyboard until the Apple logo appears. At this point, the computer will boot up and open the recovery mode. 

On Macs with Apple co-processors including the MacBook Air (M1, 2020): it is actually a little bit easier to put the machine into recovery mode. On these machines, turn off your computer. Next, press and hold the power button on your keyboard. When the Apple logo appears, you'll see a message letting you know that by continuing to hold the power button, you'll access startup options. 

After a few seconds, the text switches to 'Loading startup options'. Click Options > Continue to enter the macOS recovery mode. 

Deleting volume on macOS Big Sur

(Image credit: Apple)

4. Erase the machine

Regardless of whether you’re on an Intel-based or Apple silicone-based MacBook Air, it’s now time to finish the reset process using 'Disk Utility.' If asked, log into the next screen with administrator privileges. 

From the macOS recovery screen, choose 'Disk Utility'. Choose 'Macintosh HD' on the left side of the screen. Click 'Erase'. In the dialogue box, you need to rename the drive and format. Keep the name 'Macintosh HD' and set the format to 'APFS' or 'Mac OS Extended (Journaled)'. 

Click 'Erase Volume Group'. If you don't see this button, click 'Erase' instead. Enter your 'Apple ID', if applicable. 

If you have any other internal volumes in the sidebar, click the delete volume button that's marked with a '-'. Don't delete any volume named 'Macintosh HD' or 'Macintosh HD - Data'. Skip External and Disk Image sections also on the sidebar. 

Quit Disk Utility to return to the utility window.

5. Reinstall macOS

Select 'Reinstall macOS' from the utility window in macOS Recovery, then choose 'Continue' and follow the installer's instructions. If the installer offers you the choice between installing on 'Macintosh HD' or 'Macintosh HD - Data', select 'Macintosh HD'.

Once the process is complete, you'll be asked to begin the Mac setup process. If you're selling or giving away your computer, type 'Command' + 'Q' to exit. Otherwise, continue to set up the computer. 

Your MacBook Air has now been reset to factory settings. 

Bryan M Wolfe

Bryan M. Wolfe is a staff writer at TechRadar, iMore, and wherever Future can use him. Though his passion is Apple-based products, he doesn't have a problem using Windows and Android. Bryan's a single father of a 15-year-old daughter and a puppy, Isabelle. Thanks for reading!