Murphy's Law: The Post-Windows-7 Freeware Survival Guide


What's the first thing you're going to do after installing the Windows 7 operating system?  If you live in Japan, perhaps you'll go celebrate your new, wallpaper-shifting desktop with some cardiac arrest .  If you're one of the stalwarts still clinging to your XP or Vista operating system, well, you're probably going to spin your chair around in smug defiance of Microsoft's latest bit of software.  And if you're a Maximum PC reader, I would hope that you're going to treat your fresh new installation of Windows 7 as an October spring cleaning of-sorts.

In fact, I urge you to.  One doesn't often get a chance to reinstall an operating system from scratch.  Or, rather, it's always easier to think of the hundreds of reasons why it's just not the right time to wipe-and-reinstall the contents of your primary hard drive.  Resist the temptation to take the easy route.  Backup your drive, give it a good format, and install Windows 7 onto your clean-as-a-whistle partition.

And once you've done that, read the rest of this article.  While my colleagues at Maximum PC have given you some good first steps into your new Windows 7 world post-installation, I'd like to go one bit further and list out my typical post-installation routine for any Windows operating system.  There are a number of key freeware choices that you'll want to slap onto your system to establish a baseline environment that's as efficient as it is secure--that, and you should really take this time to establish preventative measure that will keep your PC as clutter-free as can be throughout its new Windows 7 lifespan.

After all, bloated systems make Kylie sad.

Step One: The Interwebs

After I've gone through the various Windows 7 settings and tweaked them to my personal preferences (I like my hidden folders shown, damnit), I fire up Internet Explorer for its first and last time... to download Mozilla Firefox . I'm not a Firefox fanboy through and through--especially given the memory leaks that continue to plague the browser in various ways. However, just about anything is more useful, less cluttered, and better secured than Internet Explorer. The helpful IE View extension ensures that I'll always be able to load up the IE rendering engine if I'm in a jam (or navigating Microsoft's Windows Update site). Better still, I can immediately grab all my cherished bookmarks from the Cloud using the much-loved Xmarks add-on.

Step Two: Security

Before I start downloading programs and files en masse , I like having some kind of virus scanner either running in the background or easily available through a context menu. When's the last time I actually had a virus? I couldn't tell you. But I could tell you when the next time is that a virus is likely to infect my PC: never. There's been a lot of chatter about Microsoft's free Security Essentials application. I haven't honestly tried the scanner myself. I'm a time-tested fan of good ol' Clamwin , the open-source virus scanner that's quick to install, easy to run (and update), and relatively scare in its footprint. Whatever your choice, an antivirus scanner is worth its weight in easing your own personal stress over potential computer infections... even if it never ends up finding a virus at all.

Step Three: Decrapping

Just so I can get a good habit started before I forget, I make sure to grab the latest version of Spybot S&D and set the program's advanced configuration so that it always runs on my machine at particular intervals. I like Spybot S&D for this very fact: You can literally "set it and forget it," as the popular infomercial saying goes, and have a constantly updating, spyware-free system without having to worry about starting the application manually. Another nice feature of Spybot S&D is its ability to "immunize" your system against certain spyware "infections." In short, the program adjusts your browser's settings to block out known problems before they occur--a nice bit of preventative maintenance that you don't always find in a typical "scan and delete" application.

Get ready for steps Four and Five on page two!

Step Four: Isolating and Removing

If you're one of the lucky users to get your hands on Windows 7's XP Mode, congratulations--you've just acquired a wonderful virtualized operating system for testing new files you've downloaded. If not, don't sweat it. XP Mode is merely a free, virtualized version of the Windows XP operating system that's designed to run on Microsoft's Virtual PC application. You can download Virtual PC for free and install a version of Windows all by yourself (or grab VirtualBox if you want to run non-Microsoft operating systems). It's not a complicated task by any means, and you'll receive the same virtual functionality as those fancier Windows 7 users and their XP Mode.

The bigger question remains: Why bother? Well, a virtualized operating system running overtop your Windows 7 client is a perfect sandbox for testing new applications without having to gunk up your main operating system. Unsure of whether a piece of freeware is really a fit for you? Worried that something you've downloaded might be more problematic for your PC than good? Do you only need to install a particular application for a single use (like, say, obtaining a screenshot)? These are all scenarios where the sandbox environment of a virtual operating system becomes a useful tool. If your virtual OS gets too cluttered, you can always delete it and reinstall... while still going about your daily activities in your normal Windows 7 environment.

If you're still not convinced, or if you've already found yourself with some unwanted applications on your Windows 7 OS, don't uninstall them--not using their default uninstallation routines, that is. Grab Revo Uninstaller , a third-party freeware application that goes to great lengths to eliminate all traces of a program from your machine. Included in this elimination are leftover files in the installation directory, registry settings that were somehow overlooked by the normal uninstaller application, and anything else that's been introduced into your PC by said program. Using the program is no more difficult than Windows' "Add/Remove Programs" option in the Control Panel, but it's many, many times more thorough than the uninstallation routines you'll find on most apps.

Step Five: Saving

I'll hand it to Microsoft, their built-in "Backup and Restore" feature for Windows 7 ain't half bad. If you're sick of installing freeware at this point, then it's worth your while to fire up this Windows 7 application and schedule a drive backup to run on whatever interval you're most comfortable with. If you're a gambling person (or otherwise too impatient to wait for a full system restore should your primary drive hit the fan), you can select the individual files and folders you want Windows to copy over to a new location per your schedule. You can also bundle this piecemeal approach with the creation of a full system image. You won't be able to pick and choose files to restore should you, say, erroneously delete a folder that you didn't include in your piecemeal backup. However, if your computer goes haywire, you'll be able to restore the full. working contents of the your drive elsewhere.

I prefer to use Syncback Freeware for my backup needs--here's why. The program comes with a strong set of filters for the inclusion or exclusion of files or folders, as well as a solid list of "if this file does/does not exist on the backup drive, what should I do?" options for further specificity. I use both of these elements to customize a file synchronization between my primary hard drive and a secondary drive.

Why's that? I don't really want to waste time backing up files I'm never going to need in the event of a complete system meltdown. I'm the kind of guy who opts for the format-reinstallation of an operating system when danger arrives. It's the easiest way to turn back to a blank slate of perfection for my system, and I really don't mind copying the contents of my music, picture, and video folders from the backup drive to the primary. Well, that and all those program reinstallations... but, really, a meltdown is kind of like a forced spring cleaning to me. Consequently, I only want to back up the files that I'm going to need to copy back to the drive. I'd much prefer to reinstall everything else.

Step Six: Your Turn

Of course, these five topics are the first steps I take when my system's brand-new desktop screen pops up for the first time. This list is hardly comprehensive, however--there's much more I install after-the-fact, mostly programs that are less critical to my system's general operations than those represented by these five categories. What about you? What are some of the first steps on your Windows post-installation to-do list?

Ten bonus points and a traffic cone if anything with the word "plants" and "zombies" shows up within the first five items.

David Murphy (@ Acererak) is a technology journalist and former Maximum PC editor. He writes weekly columns about the wide world of open-source as well as weekly roundups of awesome, freebie software. Befriend him on Twitter, especially if you have an awesome app or game you're dying to recommend!

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