Nothing holds more promise than a brand-new PC. The hardware is fresh and full of potential, the OS is clean and clutter-free, and you have nothing but pure, unadulterated storage space awaiting your precious data. It’s an exciting time, indeed. But before you start dumping old files onto your new rig willy-nilly, and downloading every shiny bauble of an app that catches your eye, take some time to consider a more measured approach to moving in. After all, you only have this opportunity once.
The way you set up your new PC now will have a lasting impact on your experience over time. Do it haphazardly, and your experience will be plagued by disorder and regret. Do it thoughtfully, though, by following the course of action we prescribe on the following pages, and you will have a machine that’s primed and ready to meet your every need from the start.
If you’ve just built your rig or unboxed a sparkling-new PC, it’s always a good idea to verify the hardware specs to make sure all parts are actually performing as they should be. We’ve seen simple BIOS misconfigurations downclock chips by hundreds of megahertz.
Inspect CPU-Z's memory tab to see if your RAM is configured correctly for double- or triple-channel, and that the frequency is set to the level you paid for.
First download CPU-Z. This excellent free utility will query your CPU and report the model number, cache size, and clock speed of the chip in real-time. To test your CPU’s speed, put a load on it using, say, Prime95 and run a stress test. CPU-Z should report the correct clock speed for your chip. While you’re here, pull up Task Manager by hitting Ctrl+Alt+Del. Select the Performance tab and make sure that each of your cores, virtual or real, is represented. Believe it or not, we’ve seen Hyper-Threading turned off occasionally on some systems.
Turn off Prime95, but keep CPU-Z open. Click the Memory tab. You should see the memory frequency reported under DRAM Frequency. This is the base clock, so you should double it to get the frequency of the RAM. For example, if your DDR3/1600 is reporting as 667, your RAM is actually running at DDR3/1333 speed.
CPU-Z will also report graphics speed, but we prefer GPU-Z for more detailed info. GPU-Z will generate a CPU-Z-like interface. Pay particular attention to the default clock speed and memory speeds for your GPU. If you paid for an overclocked GPU, check that it is running at the speeds you paid for. GPU-Z will also tell you if SLI or CrossFireX is enabled or not and also at what speed the PCIe slot is running. Yes, it's possible that a new machine will have the GPU running in a slower slot, which may impact performance.
If a component is going to fail, you want it to fail while it’s under warranty. For CPU stress tests, we prefer the free Prime95. Just download it and run the in-place stress test. A properly configured and cooled stock-clocked system should have no problem running Prime95 for hours on end. For GPU stress testing, FurMark is still quite popular, or you can run Unigine’s Heaven benchmark in a loop for a few hours. Keep in mind that stressing the GPU will also stress your PSU and cooling, so any shortcomings may crop up there, as well.
Did you know your motherboard has a special USB port that allows you to make BIOS updates without a CPU being installed? No? Well it’s right there in the frakking manual. One of the first things you should do with your new machine is to read the documentation, particularly the motherboard manual, that came with it.
Once you’re done building a new PC, collect the extra modular power cables, drive rails, special sound-dampening drive screws, and put them in one place. You could even store the extra parts in your case, as long as there’s room to spare and it won’t block airflow. You won’t thank us now, but you will in three years.
If you installed the drivers from the disc that came with your motherboard, your drivers are already way out of date. Any new PC should be paired with the freshest drivers available for the platform, as updates can add performance, enhance compatibility, and fix the wonkiness that usually occurs with the first drivers to ship.
The freshest drivers are usually available directly from the manufacturer of the component, so the best source for updated drivers for an AMD motherboard is AMD. If you’re running a fancy gaming mouse or keyboard, you’ll also want to install the matching drivers for them. These drivers unlock the full functionality of the mouse or peripheral beyond the built-in Windows 7 HID drivers.
There’s no point in taking the time and care to set up a new PC just right if you don’t also make security one of your first priorities. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of time before some form of malware gets in your system and mucks up the works, possibly even requiring a reinstall.
Our Holiday issue antivirus roundup found Norton Internet Security 2012 ($70, www.norton.com) to be the best AV suite for purchase, while AVG Anti-Virus Free 2012 proved to be a very capable free solution. Before you do anything else, do this.
With Windows 7, everything you need for data backup and system repair is right there in the OS. Combine that with a large hard drive, and you have no excuse not to establish a full-fledged data recovery plan. With a secondary drive in place (either internal or external), head over to Control Panel, then System and Security, then Backup and Restore. Choose Backup Your Computer, then Set up Backup. Select the drive that backups will be saved to, choose the files to be saved, and set a schedule. Next, choose the option to Create a System Image, an exact copy of your drive—OS, system settings, program files, etc.—to use in the event your drive fails or your system stops working. Finally, opt to Create a System Repair Disc. This disc will save your bacon should your machine not start, allowing you to boot your computer from the optical drive and then retrieve the system image and backups you’ve dutifully created.
When you build a new PC, you have full control over the software that gets installed. Not so when you buy a system, which is practically guaranteed to host a number of apps you have little use for, or that slow your PC’s performance, or that constantly pester you with pop-ups. Get rid of that crap with PC Decrapifier. The free tool walks you through the process of removing unnecessary programs, startup items, and icons.
It’s time to sully that pristine PC with craploads of junk from your old PC. Power users normally go manual by popping the old PC’s drive into a spare SATA port on the new rig. This lets you pick and choose what’s really worth moving. If you’d rather just do it on autopilot, check out Microsoft’s free Easy Transfer utility. It’s meant for newbies, but it can make the move to a new machine fairly painless. Run Windows Easy Transfer on your new PC (Start > All Programs > Accessories > System Tools), and it will give you options for the move: USB hard drive, the network, or an optional USB cable. The utility will ask you to insert a USB key where an executable will be installed. Run this executable on your old box, and it will package up all of the files into a single file that will be stored on an HDD or moved across the network to your new PC, where everything is unloaded into its proper place.
Moving documents from one computer to another is usually just a matter of copying-and-pasting onto an external hard drive and then to your new PC. That’s fine for office docs and photos, but what about apps that build media libraries, like iTunes and Steam, or saved games, which go wherever the publisher feels like putting them?
If you’re using an iDevice, you might be stuck with iTunes as a media manager. Here’s how to move your music and other media (and keep your ratings, playlists, etc.) without having to rebuild your library.
First, open iTunes and go to File > Library > Organize Library > Consolidate Files. This will ensure that all your music is in one place. Once done, exit iTunes. Copy your iTunes folder, which should be under My Music (unless you’ve moved it) to your external drive. If you’re decommissioning your old PC, be sure to deauthorize that computer from your iTunes account. Open iTunes again and go to Store > Deauthorize This Computer. Enter your Apple ID and password.
Install iTunes on your new computer, and then copy the iTunes folder from your external drive to the Music folder of your new computer. Next time you open iTunes, hold down Shift while you double-click the launcher. You’ll be prompted to choose an iTunes library; look for iTunes Library.itl in the folder you just copied to your PC. You should now have your library, with ratings and playlists intact, on your new PC.
On your old PC, go to your Steam folder (C:\Program Files\Steam, by default) and copy the steamapps folder and its contents to your external drive. On your new computer, install Steam and launch it once, then exit it. Go to the Steam folder and delete everything in it except for steam.exe. Now copy the steamapps folder from your old PC into the Steam folder on your new PC, and launch steam.exe again. After a brief self-update, Steam should show your games as installed. You’ll have to do a quick file-verify as you launch each game for the first time, but that’s a lot faster than downloading them all over again.
Not all your games come from Steam, and not all that do have Steam Cloud to manage their saves. And it seems every publisher has a different method of storing saved games. That’s where GameSave Manager (free, www.gamesave-manager.com) comes in.
Run GameSave Manager on your old computer, and it will auto-detect the games you have installed, find out where the game saves are, and back them up, all via the Backup Gamesave(s) menu. Once you have a backup archive (a .gsba file), you can move it to your new computer and use GameSave Manager to automatically restore all your saves.
By default, most motherboards and soundcards come configured for stereo speaker output. By default, most gamers today play with headphones. The problem is that most advanced audio cards feature algorithms tuned for the output mode. Cool features such as head-related transfer functions (HRTFs) and other filters that greatly enhance sound for headphones don’t get used unless you set the driver accordingly.
To do this, just dig into your soundcard’s control panel and set the default to Headphones for the best experience.
If you got a new display with your new PC (or if you’ve never taken the time to adjust your old monitor), it might be badly calibrated, degrading the image quality you see. For a quick-and-dirty fix, you can run the calibration software built in to Windows by clicking the Start button, then entering DCCW into the search bar. The program will run you through several simple calibration exercises, and adjust your monitor appropriately.
For a more thorough calibration, we recommend that you use high‑quality calibration test images, such as those found at www.lagom.nl/lcd-test/.
Windows comes with a host of accessibility features that can be a great help for people with disabilities or other difficulties using computer hardware. There are keyboard shortcuts for some of these options, but the shortcuts are easy to perform accidentally, and can pop up unwanted dialogue boxes. These shortcuts are:
> Press shift five times: StickyKeys
> Hold right‑shift for eight seconds: FilterKeys
> Hold num lock for five seconds: ToggleKeys
You can disable each shortcut individually by performing it, then choosing to turn off the shortcut, or you can disable them all in one fell swoop in Control Panel > Ease of Access Center > Make the keyboard easier to use.
Whether you’re looking to save the environment, or just your battery life, you should pay a visit to your new PC’s power options. If you open the Control Panel, then select Hardware and Sound, and then Power Options, you’ll see the available power profiles. You can select one of the available profiles, or change your screen's brightness from this menu, but if you want more control, you’ll need to select a profile and click the link that says “Change plan settings.”
A new menu will pop up, where you can change how long the computer waits before it dims the display, turns off the display, or goes to sleep. Even more options can be found by clicking the advanced power settings button.
If your new PC will be sharing a network with other computers running a version of Windows 7, you can create a Homegroup so they can all share files and devices (such as a printer). Be aware, however, that computers running Windows 7 Starter or Windows 7 Home Basic can join an existing Homegroup, but they can’t create one.
To create a new Homegroup, click the Windows menu, choose Computer, and then click Homegroup in the left-hand column. Now click the button labeled “Create a homegroup” (you’ll find it in the main window to the right). This will open a new window in which you can choose which types of files you’d like to share within the Homegroup (photos, music, video, etc.), and whether or not you’d like to share a printer. Click Next when you’ve made your decisions. After a few moments, a new window will appear with a 10-character, case-sensitive Homegroup password. Write this password down or print it.
To add your new PC to an existing Homegroup, obtain the password from any other computer in the Homegroup, click the Start menu, choose Control Panel, then Network and Internet, and then Homegroup. Windows will inform you of the existing Homegroup on the network and ask if you would like to join it. Click Join Now, choose the types of files you wish to share, and click Next. Enter the Homegroup password and click Next. You’ll see a message indicating that you’ve joined the Homegroup, and when you click Network on either computer, you should see each of the other computers in the Homegroup and be able to move files between them.
If you’d like to share other folders within the Homegroup, right-click them, choose Share With from the pop-up menu, and then select either Homegroup (Read) or Homegroup (Read/Write).
Say a friend wants to borrow your new computer to “check their email.” You can limit the degree of access they’ll gain (and damage they can cause) by turning on the Windows Guest account. Sign in using your administrator credentials, click the Start menu, and click the large icon at the top of menu. Click Manage Another Account, then Guest, and then click the Turn On button.
Activating your computer's Guest account is one of the easiest ways to grant someone limited access to your PC.
To switch to the Guest account, click the Start menu, then click the arrow next to the Shut Down button, and choose either Log-off or Switch User. Click the Guest button to log in as a guest. Guest users can launch programs and access the Internet, but they can’t make Control Panel changes (including uninstalling software) or other changes to the computer’s settings. They also can’t access any files or folders protected by a password, and they can’t access other computers on the network, even those within a Homegroup.
Each time you type a hostname into your browser and hit Enter, your computer initiates a DNS (Domain Name System) lookup. DNS is akin to a phonebook for the Internet: It converts that user-friendly name into the appropriate IP address. If you haven’t configured your computer differently, you’re probably relying on your ISP to perform these DNS lookups.
You might be able to speed up your web-browsing experience, as well as improve your online security, by switching to an alternative DNS resolution service, such as OpenDNS or Google Public DNS. We’ll show you how to configure your Ethernet adapter to use the latter.
Sign on as an Administrator and click Control Panel, Network and Internet, Network and Sharing Center, and then choose Change Adapter Settings. Select which network connection you wish to change, right-click it, and choose Properties from the pop-out menu. On the Networking tab, choose Internet Protocol Version 4 and then click the Properties button. Choose the General tab and then Advanced. Click the DNS tab. If there are any DNS server addresses already in place here, write them down before erasing them and then click OK.
Many people find that switching to Google Public DNS delivers a faster web-browsing experience.
You should now be back on the General tab in the TCP/IPv4 Properties window. Click the radio button next to “Use the Following DNS Server Addresses” and type 126.96.36.199 in the Preferred DNS Server window and 188.8.131.52 in the Alternate DNS Server window. Click OK and close the Network Connections Properties window. Restart the network connection by right-clicking it and choosing Disable from the pop-out menu, and then right-click it a second time and choose Enable from the pop-out menu. This should restart your connection using the new DNS settings.
To ensure your new settings are working, enter a hostname into your browser: www.maximumpc.com, for instance. If it resolves correctly, bookmark it, then click the bookmark. If it doesn’t, roll back the changes you’ve just made and retest.
Your computer has a lot of cables inside, from front-panel connectors to SATA and power cables. If your case doesn’t have a window, it might be tempting to just leave a rat's nest of wiring inside, but there are substantial benefits to an uncluttered chassis—better cooling and less dust, for example.
If you bought your PC from a boutique builder, it should have come with a decent wiring job, but if you built your own or bought an off-the-shelf system, there’s likely room for improvement.
Many modern cases have cable-routing cutouts in the motherboard tray, and room behind it to route cables. You should route as many wires as you can behind the motherboard tray—usually your motherboard power cables, at least, can go back here. Route as many power cables from your PSU behind the motherboard and bring them back out near where they need to plug in; you can dramatically reduce clutter in your case this way.
If you don’t have any cutouts in your motherboard tray, you can still use zip ties to keep your cables organized and out of the way. You can also buy stick-on organizing clips to keep your cables attached to your motherboard tray, not hanging out in the middle of your case.
If you have a modular power supply, disconnect (and keep in a safe place) any cables you’re not using. If you don’t, use zip ties to bundle unused cables together, and try to keep them out of the way of your fans’ airflow.
Your components will last longer if they run at lower temperatures. They will run at lower temperatures if they have sufficient airflow. That’s science.
Your case should have both intake and exhaust fans. You’ll need at least one front intake fan and one rear exhaust fan. Many cases have additional intake fans on the front or left side, and additional exhaust fans at the top of the case. This helps keep hot air moving up and out of your case. You should have roughly the same number of exhaust fans as intake fans, and you should make sure they’re in places that make sense, to create obvious paths for the air. Don’t create dead zones where hot air can stay trapped. If your case has filters for its intake fans, clean them regularly. If not, dust inside your case regularly with canned air.
Many motherboards offer fan control in their BIOS settings; you can set your fans to ramp up when your system gets hot and ramp down when it’s cool, or you can wire your fans to a fan controller and set their levels yourself. Most motherboard manufacturers also offer a desktop fan‑control utility for use with their boards. Simple fan controllers just offer speed control; others, like NZXT’s Sentry series, also include temperature sensors, which you can use to automatically control fan speeds based on the temperature of various parts of your system.
Google Chrome remains the single-fastest web browser out there. Couple that with exclusive apps and a fully customizable web interface, and you’ve got a browser that no PC should be without.
Installing Skype allows you to talk face to face with anyone, anywhere, so long as they have the software and a webcam. Skype also allows you to set video conference calls, call mobile devices, and make international calls for additional fees.
Installing updates for all your software can be a tedious chore, which is why Secunia Personal Software Inspector is essential. Watch as it automatically updates programs in need, with no effort on your end.
Using top-of-the-line encryption algorithms AES and Twofish, KeePass acts as a password manager, allowing you to store all your passwords (e.g., email, Facebook, online banking) in a single and secure database that can only be accessed by you.
These days, it's simply not enough to use Windows to uninstall your programs, as harmful remnants can be left behind. Enter Revo Uninstaller, a free app that not only uninstalls software, but allows you to manually remove additional data left behind.
Sumatra PDF is a free PDF creator and viewer for Windows. It's a relatively small file, starts up extremely quickly, and is tremendously easy to use. It can also read XPS, DjVu, CBZ, and CBR files.
7-Zip is a fast, free file archiver that can pack and unpack a huge range of files, from ZIP to TAR files. It features an extremely easy-to-use interface that presents users with all facets of the unzipped file, automatically organized by folders.
If you need to connect to an FTP server, FileZilla is the best way to go. It's easy to use and highly customizable—you can even configure your own transfer-speed limits and transfer up to 4GB of files.
With Digsby you can consolidate all of your instant messaging accounts into one centralized hub, supporting AIM, MSN, Yahoo, ICQ, and Google Talk. It's also a handy notification tool for personal email.
Yes, you already have an AV program (right?), but it never hurts to have a second opinion or line of defense. For us, that's Malwarebytes' Anti-Malware Free. It doesn't run auto scans, so it won't conflict with your other AV solution.
You could say that SuperAntiSpyware is the third prong in our three-prong approach to PC security. Like Malwarebytes', it provides yet another line of defense. And it's free, so why not avail your PC of this extra layer of protection?