You just bought a nice new Windows PC or Laptop!
…NOW what do you do?
I get this question all the time – what are the best practices I should follow, when I purchase a new PC or laptop?
[For brevity, I’ll refer to both PC (separate monitor, computer, keyboard) and Laptop (combined, mobile, clam-shell flat panel, keyboard, and integrated components) as ‘machine’, with the understanding that my recommendations apply to both PCs and Laptops]
1. Things to Consider Before You Buy
- Try to get a machine that comes with Windows 7 as opposed to Windows 8. Shop refurb sites. Avoid Windows 8 at all costs. If you are the end consumer, you will eventually get used to Windows 8. If you are buying this laptop for “Gramma”, you’ll get an unending series of calls about the near-Masonic level of cryptic images, gestures, and hand signals required to “use” the operating system. Windows 8.1 is no better than Windows 8. The next Windows will be called “Windows 10”, and promises some improvements, but as of this writing, Windows 7 is the only serious option.
- Get more RAM and a better CPU up front. I can’t make a static set of recommendations, because the CPU – Memory – Cost trade-off always changes. The hard drive is the easiest thing to upgrade, and the cost of storage continues to drop, so don’t worry about investing in a huge hard drive. The problem with upgrading the CPU or RAM later, is that each CPU requires a specific socket type, which requires a specific motherboard, and the CPU / motherboard combination can only use certain types of RAM. Initially, RAM prices drop as each type of RAM becomes mainstream, and then, as manufacturers stop making it (when newer, faster memory is in demand), prices go WAY up. Buying plenty of RAM and CPU up front means that your investment will last a lot longer.
- A laptop is pretty much a fixed investment. DO NOT BUY a laptop if you plan on upgrading it, because you pretty much can’t upgrade a laptop! If you need a portable system that you can upgrade, buy a compact form factor Micro-ATX case instead. If you later want a RAM or CPU upgrade, it’s a simple matter of swapping out the motherboard. Laptops only support 2.5″ drives, but Micro-ATX supports full-size 3.5″ drives, which are significantly cheaper. Laptops only support micro-DIMMs, which are smaller than standard DIMMs, and are usually more expensive.
- Really evaluate whether you need Windows. That sounds odd, but you might be able to save some money by purchasing a Chromebook, or perhaps a Macbook might be easier for you to use. Gaming is the main driver to require Windows, despite the fact that there are “games” (meaning: “some games”) available for Mac or other operating systems, the reality is that EVERY game is available on PC. If you are a Microsoft Office power user, you need Windows. If you surf, edit photos, watch internet videos, play mini games, or lightly require document viewing / editing capability, then a Chromebook might serve the purpose, at a much lower cost. Likewise, if you create music or videos, a Mac might be a better choice.
Assuming you’ve purchased a Windows machine, read on…
2. Initial Setup
I’m not going to walk you through the setup process screen by screen – there are other online references for that.
When you get your machine plugged in, and turn it on for the first time, there is a setup wizard, which will guide you through completing the rest of the setup.
Here are some things to watch out for:
- Double check the time zone. You can change it later if needed, but it should prompt you to set the correct date and time – make sure you pick the correct time zone at that point (or remember to change it later)
- If prompted to use a “Microsoft” account or use local accounts SKIP the “Microsoft” account (Windows 8 and 8.1).
- If prompted, skip the use of One Drive. You can add it later if needed.
- Create an administrative user. You’ll be prompted to create a user – make sure you start with yourself, or the user who you want to have administrative access to the machine. I usually call the first administrative account “Recovery”, and give it a password. I can then log in as Recovery and create the other users (I’ll explain in more detail later)
- If prompted to purchase any premium services, especially buy-up versions of antivirus, backup software, or Office, skip them.
- If prompted, go ahead and register Windows, and register your machine (E.g. HP and Dell have an online registration wizard). Registration activates your warranty, and helps you get service if needed.
After the setup process, your machine may or may not reboot. You can then log in, by clicking on the user you created.
3. Next Steps
All of these steps assume some basic knowledge of Windows. This article is not meant to be a user guide, so if you can’t figure out how to perform a particular function, Google for it. Often, just type the name of the function in to the Windows Search bar on the start menu to find it – for example, searching for “users” will list the “User Accounts” control panel applet.
After the OS is set up, and you log in for the first time, here are some additional things you need to do.
3.1. Perform Updates
- If you have Windows 8, go to the Store and download Windows 8.1. This is a VERY long, drawn-out process. Let it run overnight.
- Perform all critical Windows updates. This is an iterative process that might take a couple of download-install-reboot cycles.
- Perform vendor driver updates. HP machines come with an update utility that will bring all of the hardware drivers up to date. If your machine doesn’t have a driver update tool, you might get updates through Windows update, or you may need to go to the vendor’s website, and download updated drivers.
- Install video chipset drivers and control panel. NVidia, ATI, and Intel each have a separate set of drivers, and a control panel applet that should be kept up to date. This is especially important for gaming, as the control panel often provides game-specific tuning and settings.
3.2. Make a Decision about Antivirus
You are at a crossroads. Your new machine came with, probably, a 3 month trial for a commercial antivirus product, that you can continue to use if you pay for it, or you can install a free / open source solution.
If you stick with the commercial software, you will have to pay for software updates, usually once per year.
The free / open source options are not quite as good, but they are free.
Here is what I recommend:
- If your PC came with Norton / Symantec, uninstall it
- If your PC came with McAfee, leave it alone
- If your PC came with anything else, uninstall it.
- If you can afford it, install or upgrade to the full version of McAfee:
- If you can’t afford McAfee, use AVG Free. AVG has two distinct products – AVG (full version), and AVG Free. AVG Free works just fine, but it will nag and beg you to install the full version.
Don’t pick a random link from Google – make sure you download from the actual AVG site, which should redirect you to C/NET for the actual download. Downloading from another site could result in “look-alike” malware that LOOKS just like AVG, but is, itself a virus.
3.3. Uninstall Bloatware / Crapware
One of the biggest mistakes people make is to leave all of the default software that comes with your machine, thinking “I might use it, eventually”. YOU WON’T.
- Uninstall anything that says “trial”
- Uninstall anything that says “speed optimizer” or “speed booster”
- Uninstall anything that says “link helper”, “link tracker”, or “accelerator”
- Uninstall the trial version of MS Office that probably came with your PC. You don’t need the trial version.
- Uninstall any games that ask you to purchase them. HP installs a slew of games that you can’t use unless you pay for them – just uninstall all of it! Most of those games can be played online for free.
- If you have Windows 8 or 8.1, uninstall any useless “tiles” that came preinstalled by default. Applets such as news or whatever are constantly updating in the background, and if you’re not going to use them, get rid of them!
- Be careful NOT to uninstall anything titled “Roxio”, as this is part of your DVD burning software.
- Be careful NOT to uninstall anything titled “Cyberlink”, as this is your web cam software.
3.4. Set Up Users
- If you didn’t already, create an administrative user called “Recovery”. Why? If your user profile becomes corrupt, the “Recovery” ID can be used to salvage data, repair, or re-create a corrupted user profile. Simply having a second administrative user already sitting there, has saved me more times than I can tell you! If you’re configuring this for Gramma, and her profile becomes corrupt, rather than walking her through it over the phone, you can have her log in as Recovery until you can fix it for her later.
- Create additional user accounts. Evaluate whether each user really needs to be an administrator. A regular user in Windows 7 or Windows 8 pretty much CAN’T infect the machine with a virus, but may have some serious issues installing games, plugins, and other software. I’ve tried the “normal user” route, and EVERY TIME, I get a phone call a few weeks later saying “I can’t install such and such”. Any main user of the system should probably be an administrator.
- Consider enabling the Guest account. If you have the machine in a common area, if you have a room mate, or foresee a situation where someone might need to use or borrow your machine, letting them log in as Guest will limit them to internet browsing, and using applications that are already installed. It will prevent them from intentionally or inadvertently accessing or removing your personal data, or infecting the PC with a virus.
- Assign a password to every user account.
- Log in as each user account once, to make sure the profile gets created, and that it functions as expected. This also allows you to set a background, add shortcuts, and other personalization steps.
3.5. Check and Configure System Settings
- Check the time zone. This is one of the most overlooked items, but can cause serious confusion if incorrect.
- Set the network location (home or public). If this is your “home” network, set the network location to home. This disables the integrated Windows firewall for certain functions, such as file sharing.
- Set the system name. You may have been prompted for this during setup. If not, go to System Control panel, and set a meaningful name for the PC, such as JPW7 (Justin Parr, Windows 7) or JPW701 if you have multiple PCs. I have four people and six machines in the house, one of which is Linux, plus an assortment of virtual machines that could be running at any given time. Without a good naming convention, it can get confusing!
- Decide whether to join a “Home Group”. A Home Group allows sharing of files, video, pictures, and audio among machines in the same “home group”, and to certain DLNA-enabled devices that can connect to Windows Media player, to stream video (some TVs and Bluray players are DLNA-enabled)
- If you elect NOT to join a home group, disable TCP/IP v6 protocol, leaving TCP/IP v4 protocol enabled. Despite what everyone says, you don’t need IPv6, and you probably won’t need it for at least a couple more years. Your router (home network firewall) determines whether you need IP 6 or not – none of the major providers use IPv6 yet, and although the routers may support it, they also support IPv4 by default. IPv4 is much faster and more efficient than IPv6, so unless you have “home groups” configured, you probably don’t need it!
- Make sure Windows Firewall is enabled on public networks.
3.6. Create Recovery Disks / Memory Stick
This is one of the most fundamental things you can do. If your machine gets corrupted, and you HAVEN’T created a recovery disk set or memory stick, you can BUY a set online for $100!!
You can do it now, for free, and you SHOULD
There are two sets of “recovery” disks:
- Microsoft System Recovery Boot Disk / Memory Stick. This allows you to fix minor issues with Windows, or repair a Windows installation that becomes corrupt. You can also use this boot disk to remove viruses and fix other problems that might require the primary OS to be offline.
- Windows 7 Procedure:
- Windows 8 / 8.1 Procedure:
- Windows 7 Procedure:
- Vendor Image “Recovery” Boot Disk Set. This allows the machine to be completely restored to its factory condition. For example, if your hard drive dies, you will need this, to reinstall Windows. Vendors such as HP will pop up a reminder, asking if you want to create a recovery disk set. Put in each disk, following the program instructions. This usually requires 3 to 5 DVDs.
- In some cases, the Vendor Image Recovery disk set must be downloaded from the vendor’s website. This is something the Vendor must provide (HP, Dell, etc…) NOT Microsoft.
4. Recommended Software
Once the machine is all set up and running, and you have your recovery disk sets created, it’s time to install a few more extras.
The default set of utilities included with Windows are in desperate need of some enhancements:
- Google Chrome browser. Chrome includes a captive PDF document viewer, as well as a captive flash player. This prevents you from having to install Adobe bloatware.
- The default install of Google Chrome installs in the user space. It’s much better to install for all users (administrative install), so that Chrome is the default browser for all users and Guest (if enabled). Otherwise, Chrome must be installed by logging in as each user, which is quite a hassle.
- Download the “alternate installer”:
- If the link above doesn’t work, just Google for “install chrome for all users”
- Once installed, associate .PDF file type with Chrome, so that clicking on a PDF opens it in Chrome
- I recommend deleting all Internet Explorer icons
- Firefox. Firefox is an excellent alternate browser.
- 7-Zip. Although Windows can handle “compressed folders” (note: not NTFS compression) which are really zip files, it does so poorly and inefficiently. 7-Zip is like the Swiss Army knife of compression tools – it supports a variety of compressed file formats, including ZIP and RAR. The software is very easy to use, and supports drag-and-drop. Once installed, be sure to go in to preferences, and set 7-Zip as the default for all compressed file formats.
- VLC Media Player. Windows Media player sucks. It builds libraries, and integrates with stores, and doesn’t include many popular codecs, and does just about everything EXCEPT play music and videos. VLC JUST PLAIN WORKS, with many different file formats supported.
4.2. Software to AVOID Installing, if Possible
Although there are many useful utilities and software packages, some software costs more than it’s worth, or actually puts your PC at risk.
- Adobe Reader. You can view PDF (Portable Document Format) files using Chrome, which has a captive version of Acrobat reader. Don’t bother installing Adobe, unless you want a ceaseless mess of updates, tool bars, and bloat ware along with it.
- Flash Player. Chrome has a captive flash player. If you like online “desktop” games, use Chrome. Flash Player, like Acrobat reader, gives you an unending string of updates, and other headaches.
- Java. Unless you specifically require Java, don’t install it. If you do install Java, you’ll be greeted almost daily with a nice orange icon, with a balloon stating that there is a “NEW Java Update available!”, and when you go to install it, you’re prompted to install toolbars and bloat-ware. Java is a headache, unless you specifically require it.
- HP Print Drivers. I can’t emphasize this more specifically – DO NOT BUY a HP printer. They make great computers, and decent printers, but their software is so bad, that it tries to reinstall itself every time you log in to Windows. HP Print Drivers are nothing but bloatware. If you buy a HP printer, you’ll have nothing but disappointment, and you’ll spend a fortune on ink. If you want a decent printer at a decent price, buy a Canon.
4.3. Other Useful Software
- UltraVNC. For whatever reason, Microsoft elected to exclude Remote Desktop from home versions of Windows 7 and 8 – one of the greatest features of Windows XP, it allowed you to instantly “jump” in to someone’s desktop session, to provide support.
UltraVNC, an open-source flavor of VNC, allows you to use the VNC viewer to control the mouse, keyboard, and monitor of another PC running the VNC server. I run VNC on most of my systems, as it gives me the ability to quickly provide support. If you have a single system, you may not need VNC. If you do a lot of support for Gramma, there is a single-click version of VNC, that you can configure to have Gramma click on it, and connect to you (running VNC viewer in listen mode). UVNC has a lot of nice features and functions, and is extremely stable.
- Libre Office. Unless you are a Microsoft Office power user, there is no need to fork out massive dollars for “office productivity” software. Libre Office comes with a word processor, spreadsheet, drawing (think Visio), presentation, and more. Libre Office is open source, which means you pay nothing for it. Further, Libre Office can read and write most MS Office file formats. For occasional use, document viewing, or if you don’t need compatibility with MS Office, Libre Office is the way to go.
- GIMP. Not the guy from Pulp Fiction, GIMP stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program. GIMP is an open source drawing and image editing package that rivals Adobe Photoshop, except GIMP is free. GIMP has been around for a very long time, and is extremely stable. You can find lots of tutorials on Youtube, etc…
- Audacity. Audio effects and track editing. Open source. Make your own ring tones, or convert audio to other formats.
4.4. “Pro” Tools
Most people won’t need these, nor even know how to use them. However, these are excellent tools that work very well for power users who know how to use them.
- Wireshark / NMap. Turn your new laptop in to a mobile network security toolbox. Wireshark is an open source packet capture utility, while NMap is an open source network scanning utility. Other tools, such as metasploit framework can be used to conduct vulnerability assessments.
- FreeBASIC, and FreeBASIC IDE. Write your own 32-bit native Windows GUI or console-based applications. Back when the PC was introduced, in 1981, there was no “app store”. You could go to your local Babbages for a copy of WordStar or Visicalc, or you could download shareware on the information county back roads, dialing in to a BBS to download software at the smoking rate of 1200 baud. What made the PC great was GWBasic. Anyone who bought a PC could write their own software for it. Later, QBasic replaced GWBasic. Windows, in its dirty 20 year history, has never had an effective, native scripting language. For those of us who learned BASIC on an Apple in high school, FreeBASIC means quick and easy access to create your own native 32-bit code.
- Cygwin. Run a GNU, pseudo-Linux environment in Windows. There are Cygwin ports of most Linux packages, and you can download Cygwin gcc, either to write your own native code, or compile sources for other Linux packages not provided through the installer.
- DosBox. DOS emulator, for playing classic DOS games.
- Oracle VirtualBox. What started as an open source project is now owned by Oracle, but is still freely-available. VirtualBox, like VMWare Workstation, allows you to create and run virtual machines in Windows. This is useful for running older OSes, like XP, or testing newer OSes like Windows 10. If you have Windows 7 Home Premium, it comes with Virtual PC, but I don’t know that Windows 8 does. VirtualBox is a less Microsoft-centric alternative, and runs on every OS.
These are my favorites, but there is a plethora of tools and utilities that you can download and run for free, or inexpensively, to run on Windows.