13 Things You Must Do First with Your New PC

Alex Castle

A new computer is like a blank state--there's a lot of potential there, but without some work on your part, it's useless. It's not hard to get started, but there are some essential first steps that everyone should follow when breaking in their new PC. In this guide, we've compiled a step-by-step list of essential tips, tricks and advice from many of our other features, to provide you with just the information you need to get off to a great start with any new PC. So if you got a new rig under the PC under the tree this year, or even if you're just thinking about getting one in the future, read on to find out more!

1. Make a vLite Install Disc

If your new PC is a premade system, and not one that you built yourself, it’s likely that your operating system came with a few little “bonus” features, like toolbars and other crapware. You can take the time to decrapify your PC if you want, but you’re assured better results by simply reinstalling Windows.

And while you’re reinstalling, you should check out vLite, a tool for making a custom, slimmed down Windows 7 (or Vista) install disc with all the features (and only the features) that you want. You can also include drivers and hotfixes on the disc, which will be automatically installed with Windows, saving you time later. Because of this, even if you don’t need to reinstall Windows right now, it’s a good idea to make a vLite install disc for the next time you need to reinstall.

Making a vLite disc is a pretty easy process, but you’ll need to  have your Windows 7 disc handy. To learn more, check out our Vista vLite guide (the steps are basically the same for Windows 7).

2. Properly Set up a Connections to Your Network and Servers

No PC is an island—your system best flourishes when it’s connected to the internet and other locally networked PCs. So one of the first things you’ll want to do is ensure that you’re properly set up with you local network. That means more than just plugging an Ethernet cable from the back of your tower to the router.

First, you’ll want to configure your PC’s Workgroup domain so that other systems on your network can detect it. If you’re using Windows 7, you’ll need to determine whether you’re on a Home, Work, or Public network. This will allow you to tweak your file, folder and printer sharing options so your PC will play nice with others. You’ll also need to adjust the file-sharing encryption setting to 128-bit to secure your local connections. Additionally, Windows 7 PCs should have HomeGroups synced up for increased protection and streamlined setup. Refer to our Windows 7 Networking guide for more details.

Next, you should consider switching over to OpenDNS to improve the responsiveness of your internet connection. We have a step-by-step guide for how to do that here.

If you’re planning doing a lot of PC gaming and P2P file-sharing on your PC, you’ll need to configure port forwarding for those apps. Refer to http://portforward.com/ for detailed guides to forwarding ports for any router make and model.

Finally, link up your PC with any NAS boxes or Window Home Servers on your local network. Use these servers to store or back up your media database.

3. Install Essential Apps and Utilities

Software is what takes your new computer's raw processing power and turns it into something actually useful to you. Of course, what "useful to you" entails differs from person to person, but we've compiled lists of software that we think just about everyone should have.

First, you’ll need to secure your computer with antimalware and antivirus software. Our recommendation for antimalware software is Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware , and SUPERAntiSpyware . For antivirus, we recommend Microsoft Security Essentials . If you feel like you need the added protection of paid antivirus, we recommend Symantec’s Norton Internet Security 2010 .

After you’ve secured your system, check out our list of 33 awesome utilities .  We think they're all great, but pay special attention to these 5 for a new machine:

  • Dropbox
  • 7-Zip
  • KeePass
  • FileZilla
  • Revo Uninstaller

Then hit up our list of 32 essential apps . All of these will help your PC do more for you, but we especially recommend these 5.

  • Skype
  • Digsby
  • Steam
  • Firefox
  • Picasa

4. Restore files from your old PC

If you've got backed up data from your last computer that you want to transfer over, now's the time to do it. In Windows 7 and Vista, the bulk of your user files are located in C:\Users\your user name. Since your new drive is so deliciously empty, you can copy the contents of the directory over to your desktop. This will let you go through the folders and conduct a spring cleaning to weed out, say, that 10GB of blurry photos. One thing you can instantly do is move your iTunes directory over, after first installing iTunes on the new hard drive.

Windows XP users can find their iTunes folder on the old drive by looking in C: \Documents and Settings\your user name\My Documents\My Music\iTunes; Vista users can look in \Users\your user name\Music\iTunes\. Copy the contents from there to the same place on the new drive.

For Steam games, download the latest version of Steam and install it. In Windows 7 and Vista x64, copy over the Steam Apps directory from \Program Files (x86)\Steam\ to the same directory on your clean drive. Relaunch Steam and your games will be ready to play. Windows XP and 32-bit 7 or Vista users will find the files in \Program Files\Steam\.

5. Synch with Your Mobile Devices

In this increasingly-mobile age, your desktop PC takes on the responsibility of being the home base for all of your mobile devices. So make sure you’re set up to take advantage of mobility, using this checklist:

* Are your email inboxes and contacts synched? Using a webservice like Gmail can help keep your emails on your desktop, laptop, and even your mobile phone.

*Do you have the software you need to manage the music on your mobile media player? If you have an iPod, iTunes is of course the way to go, but if you don’t we recommend Songbird , an open-source media manager.

* Do you plan to use instant messaging on your desktop and your laptop? If you do, we recommend Digsby , which stores all your contacts in the cloud, regardless of what IM service you use.

6. Tweak and Optimize Windows 7

There are a lot of ways to get more out of Windows 7, from learning new hotkeys to tweaking your settings. We've written a comprehensive list here , and reprinted a few of our favorites below:


Windows + Shift + Left/Right

If you are using two or more displays (and who isn’t, these days?), memorize this shortcut to easily move a window from one screen to the other. The window retains its size and relative position on the new screen, which his useful when working with multiple documents. Utilize that real estate!

Windows + [Number]

Programs (and new instances) pinned to your Taskbar can be launched by hitting Windows and the number corresponding to its placement on the Taskbar. Windows + 1, for example, launches the first application, while Windows + 4 will launch the fourth. We realize that this is actually one key-press more than just clicking the icon with your mouse, but it saves your hand the trouble of leaving the comfort of the keyboard.

Windows + T

Like Alt + Tab (still our all time favorite Windows specific shortcut), Windows + T cycles through your open programs via the Taskbar’s peek menu.

Explore from “My Computer”

Windows Explorer’s default landing folder is the Libraries directory, but some of us are more comfortable with using “My Computer” as the default node, especially if we use multiple hard drives and external storage devices.
To change the default node, find Windows Explorer in the Start Menu by typing “explorer” in the Start Menu search field and right click the first result. Select “Properties”. Under the Shortcut tab, the Target location should read: %SystemRoot% and the Target should be: %SystemRoot%\explorer.exe

Paste the following in the Target field: %SystemRoot%\explorer.exe /root,::{20D04FE0-3AEA-1069-A2D8-08002B30309D}

New instances of Explorer will open up to “My Computer”. You’ll need to unpin and replace the existing Explorer shortcut from the Taskbar to complete the transition. Just right-click the icon, hit, “Unpin this program from the taskbar” to remove it, and then drag Explorer from the Start Menu back into place.
Accelerate your Start Menu
The Start Menu hasn’t changed much from Vista, but there are some notable improvements. The default power button is thankfully changed to Shut Down the system, as opposed to Hibernation, as it was in Vista. This can be changed to do other actions from the Start Menu Properties menu.

Additional customization brings Videos and Recorded TV as links or menus to the right side of the Start Menu, next to your Documents, Music, and Games. Feel free to mess around the Customization options since you can always return to the default Start Menu settings by clicking the “default”  button at the bottom.

Pin-Up Your Favorites

Explorer’s Jump List shows your seven most frequently visited folders, but you can manually bookmark some favorites to the top of the list by pinning folder locations. Just hold right-click on any folder, either on your desktop or from an open instance of Explorer, and drag that folder icon to the Explorer shortcut on the Taskbar. You’ll see a message that reads “Pin to Windows Explorer” before you release the mouse button. The folder will appear under a “Pinned” section of the Jump List, and you can remove it by clicking the “Unpin from this list” icon on the right side of the panel.

Take Control of UAC

Despite good intentions, User Account Control pop-ups were one of the most annoying aspects of Vista, and a feature that most of us immediately disabled after a clean install. UAC in Windows 7 displays fewer warnings, but you can also fine-tune its notification habits by launching the UAC Settings from the start menu. Just type “UAC” in the Start Menu search field and click the result. We find that setting just above “Never notify” gives a comfortable balance between mindful security and incessant nagging.

7. Customize Your Desktop

With all your apps and files in place, it’s time to customize the Windows UI to your personal aesthetics. The point of overhauling your UI isn’t just to make it look pretty – you also want to streamline its functionality to suit how you use your PC. Differentiating your Desktop from the stock Windows theme is a great exercise in customization, and it can be a whole lot of fun.

There are two Desktop makeover utilities that we recommend: Samurize and Rainmeter . Both let you create and import custom UI skins and utilize powerful applets that let you monitor and control your system settings.

We’ve written up a guide to creating basic widgets in Samurize , but you’ll want to explore the community forums for advanced tips and user-created widgets.

Rainmeter skins are just as slick, and there’s a wealth of resources online where you can download a premade skin to use or tweak.

8. Benchmark Your PC

Every new system needs to go through the benchmarking ritual before you can consider it broken in. System benchmarks let you quantitatively justify a new PC, compare it to other systems with similar specs, help you figure out system bottlenecks, and let you measure the benefits of tweaking and overclocking.

Benchmarking typically falls into two categories: synthetic and real-world benchmarks. Synthetic tests mimic the computational load of other common applications, simulating how your system handles extreme use cases. Examples of these include PCMark and the popular 3DMark software. Real-world benchmarks, on the other hand, run actual desktop applications with settings that a normal user would have. This includes Photoshop scripts or using Fraps with in-game demos. Check out Will Smith’s explanation of proper benchmarking procedures here, and a list of free game benchmarks here.

9. Get S.M.A.R.T.

Modern hard drives feature Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology, or S.M.A.R.T., which can warn you if your hard drive is starting to fail—before it actually does. Unfortunately, the OS doesn’t pay attention to these warnings. So, even though you could have known a few months in advance that your drive was about to go tango uniform, the OS kept it a secret. There are a number of good free tools available that can relay the message, such as SpeedFan and DiskCheckup , but their interfaces can be a bit overwhelming for the average Joe or Jane.

For something so simple that anyone can understand it, we run HDD Health . Install it, configure it to run at launch, and it will alert you (even by email) if enough S.M.A.R.T. errors occur to rate a possible impending drive failure. A simple temperature bar and health bar will also help you decide if it’s time to start doing daily backups of the drive.

10. Implement a Backup Strategy

Probably one of the most important things you’ll need to do with a new system is to implement a sound backup strategy. Luckily, you have plenty of options when it comes to free tools to back up your data.

Windows 7 has a decent Backup and Restore feature that lets you schedule backups to specified volumes and also create a Recovery Environment disc to boot your system in case of a crash.

If you’re using a Home Premium version of Windows without a Complete Backup feature, you should still create a drive image of your system with software like Acronis True Image or Drive Image XML .

Cobian backup is a great free tool for scheduling backups to a NAS box, USB key, or even FTP server.

Speaking of the online backups, the Cloud is a secure place to back up your documents. Read our guide to online backup storage solutions here .

11. Optimize Your BIOS

Most PC lightweights simply ignore the BIOS and wait for their OSes to take over. Power users, however, know that the BIOS can be a friendly and rewarding place to go spelunking.

Even though there are only two BIOS makers for consumer desktops today, AMI and Award/Phoenix, a multitude of BIOS variants exists. In fact, a Gigabyte board using an Award BIOS can bear little resemblance to an Asus board using an Award BIOS.

In motherboards designed for enthusiasts, board makers typically unmask as many controls as possible. Unfortunately, the dizzying array of options includes both safe and unsafe tweaks. While some tweaks will just leave you with a system that refuses to boot, others can do long-term harm.

If you’re comfortable with the prospect of a little trial and error, it’s time you dive in and discover the many secrets your BIOS holds .

Change Your Boot Order

Even if you boot your PC just once a day, you can save six or eight seconds of time spent waiting by changing the boot order of the devices in your machine. Instead of the PC checking on an old floppy drive or CD drive to see if it can or should boot from those devices, it will go straight to your hard drive.

To do this, go into the BIOS (hit DEL, F1, or F2 during boot) and search for the boot order. It’s usually plainly labeled as “Boot” or the like. Make the primary hard drive that the OS resides on the first thing to boot. Now, just relish the thought of what you can do with the time you save.

Every BIOS Setting Explained

12. Overclock!

There’s an almost endless supply of ways to speed your computer up, through hardware, software, and OS tweaks, but there’s really only one way to get a virtually-guaranteed significant performance boost totally for free: overclock your CPU.

Overclocking is daunting for some people (your futzing around with what is almost certainly the most complicated thing you’ve ever owned, after all), but it’s not something that has to be a major headache. As long as you’re patient, and willing to follow a guide, you should be able to get real performance gains out of your processor in no time.

Our guide for overclocking Core i7 CPUs is right here .

Our guide for overclocking Core 2 CPUs is right here .

The CPU isn’t the only processor in your computer, and it’s not the only thing that can be overclocked. The GPU in your video card can also be overclocked, to wring out some extra gaming performance. Now,  you won’t see the same system-wide performance gains as you will from overclocking your CPU, but it’s definitely still worth looking into.

For more info about overclocking your GPU, check out page 5 of our guide to making your computer Better/Faster/Stronger .

13. Make your PC Power Efficient

Since a desktop PC doesn’t have a battery like a notebook, you might think that you don’t need to think about how power-efficient it is. But it’s worth paying a little attention to--if not just to be environmentally friendly, to save yourself some greenbacks.

The easiest way to go green is to go into your control panel, and open the Power Settings. Click on the Advanced setting button, and choose and choose values for the monitor-off, sleep, and hibernate timers that are as low as possible while still fitting in with how you use your computer.

What’s the difference between sleep and hibernate? When your computer goes into sleep mode, most of the hardware stops receiving power, but the data in memory is retained, and the computer can be “woken up” almost instantly. Power consumption is greatly reduced, but not eliminated. In hibernation mode, your system simply writes the system state (the contents of your RAM) to the hard disk, and shuts itself off. When you start the system up again, it has to go through the boot process again, then loads the image, picking up right where you left off. Power consumption is as low as you can get, short of unplugging your power supply.

If you want to get greener still, check out our roundup of free power-saving utilities .

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