It's exciting to buy a new computer. As soon as you haul the laptop home from the store, or the delivery lorry drops off the extra-large box, you just want to tear into your new machine and see what it's capable of.

If you want to have a better experience, however, you'll stop, take a few deep breaths, and do a little preparatory work first.

Taking a bit of time to set up your new PC can make a world of difference in its performance, its long-term stability, and your personal sanity. Besides, your old PC almost certainly has some data on it that you'll want to move to the new one, and that's a task best not delayed.

1. Back up data for transfer to the new PC

The first step in setting up your new computer requires spending time on your old computer: You need to back up all the important data on your old machine for transfer. (Of course, this assumes that you aren't buying a new computer because your old one is hopelessly broken and entirely unusable.)

You can find tools to automate this process somewhat. Microsoft's built-in Windows Easy Transfer tool does a good enough job but doesn't necessarily transfer everything you want; other third-party tools are similar. These aren't bad choices for moving data and settings from an old PC to a new one, but I don't like them for two reasons: First, if the data is that important, you should be backing it up, not just switching it from one point of failure to another. Second, none of these tools really grab everything you want them to get, so you end up manually transferring stuff anyway.

Here's a better solution: Buy a cheap external USB hard drive if you don't already have one. You can burn your data to DVD if you prefer, but that's kind of a hassle. Plug in the USB hard drive, name a folder 'Old PC Backup' or something similar, and start copying files and folders there.

1. Back up your music, photos, and videos. Personal photos and videos can never be replaced - those are your most precious megabytes.

2. Next, turn to your documents. If you have been saving everything to the My Documents folder in your user directory, your job is easy. Otherwise, you'll have to hunt around in Windows Explorer and the Desktop to find every important document and copy it to the external hard drive.

3. Fire up your web browser and go to its bookmarks manager, and then export your bookmarks and copy that file to the external drive - assuming that you aren't using Xmarks or another bookmark-sync tool. This is a great time to clean out old, unused bookmarks, too.

4. Launch whatever software you have with activation limits and deactivate or deauthorise your old computer. Photoshop and iTunes come to mind.

5. Before you disconnect the external drive and power down the old system for good, consider what other data you might want to keep. Your game saves, for example.

When you're absolutely sure that you have backed up all the useful data to the external drive, you can shut down your old computer forever. Copying files to an external drive and then to the new computer might seem like a slow, tedious, pitifully manual way of getting data to your new PC - but it has the benefit of providing a nice backup of all that important data, ready to restore should your PC ever suffer a catastrophic failure, go missing, or get stolen.

NEXT PAGE: Clear out the crud

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  2. Clear out the crud
  3. Install new software the easy way