So you've got a new PC. Awesome! That humble metal box is the key to a wide world of potential. It can help you with everything from juggling your finances to keeping in touch with Grandma to blowing off some steam on, uh, Steam.
But a new PC isn't like a new car; you can't just turn a key and put the pedal to the metal. Okay, maybe you can--but you shouldn't. Performing just a few simple activities when you first fire it up can help it be safer, faster, and better poised for the future. Here's how to set up a new PC the right way, step by step.
Hurry up and wait with Windows Update
The first step is by far the most tedious. You shouldn't muck around on the web unless your copy of Windows is fully patched and up to date, period. Now for the bad news: Depending on how long your PC sat on the retail shelf, this could take minutes--or hours. Either way, it has to get done.
First, make sure your PC's connected to the Internet. Open the Windows Control Panel, then head to System and Security > Windows Update > Check for Updates. Your system will search for updates, and find some. Download and install them, then reboot your computer and do it again... and again... and again... until the update check fails to return new entries. Hopefully it won't take too long.
By default, Windows will download and install new updates as they roll out. You just have to get over this initial hump!
Install your favorite browser
Because surfing the web in an unfamiliar browser is like trying to tango while you're wearing someone else's shoes. It can be done, but it ain't pretty. Here are direct links for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera if Internet Explorer isn't your thing.
Batten down the hatches
Now that you've slipped into something more comfortable, it's time to get your security ducks in a row.
Windows 8 ships with Windows Defender enabled by default. It's a decent, if not overly detailed security solution. But PC makers can disable Defender if they want to preinstall trialware for a premium security solution--like Norton or McAfee's antivirus products--on your PC. If you decide to keep paying for that premium product, swell! (Though I'd suggest doing your homework before plunking down cash for a security suite.) If not, disable and delete that bloatware suite and then reactivate Windows Defender.
Windows Defender isn't included in prior versions of Windows, however, nor is it the most full-featured anti-malware solution out there. You can't even schedule scans! PCWorld's guide to building the ultimate free security suite can help you find the right tools to keep your PC protected.
Clean out the crap
With your defenses up, it's time to start shoveling the crap out of your PC.
You can skip this step if you built your own Windows PC--including installation of the operating system--or bought a "Signature Edition" computer from a Microsoft store. Straight Windows installations don't come with excess junk cluttering up your hard drive. But boxed PCs from big-name PC makers are inevitably brimming with bloatware.
Fortunately, there's PC Decrapifier, a straightforwardly named tool that scans your PC for known bloatware, then allows you to wipe it all away in one fell swoop. It's far faster than hunting through the Control Panel, eradicating crapware piece by piece. Better yet, it's free.
If you have Windows 8, PC Decrapifier won't touch any bloatware that comes in the form of Metro apps--the colorful tiles that appear on the new-style Start screen. Those won't start when your computer boots, however, so they shouldn't suck up your system resources aside from some storage space. If you still want them off your machine just right-click on an unwanted app and select Uninstall.
Fill 'er up
Why'd we scrape all that junk out? To make room for your own stuff, silly. New hardware just begs for software to match!
Outfitting your rig is an intensely personal affair, but if you're looking for suggestions, PCWorld has a guide to free programs that are so helpful, so handy, so downright useful that they'd be welcome on pretty much any PC. Once you're done perusing that, also consider checking out PCWorld's guide to 20 obscure, yet insanely useful programs that can help ease your daily tasks. They're all free too, though they're a bit more niche.
Head towards Ninite when it comes time to actually install all that software. Ninite is sort of like an anti-PC Decrapifier--it lets you install numerous free applications of your choice all at once, even going so far as to automatically disable the bundled crapware that many free programs try to sneak in as part of the installation process. It's a wonderfully handy tool that takes the pain out of loading up a new PC.
Made in your own image
After all that, your PC is finally ready to rock: It's safe, up to date, scrubbed free of junk, and full of software fine-tuned to meet your specific needs. The end is in sight! But we're not done juuuuuust yet.
Now that your PC's in fighting shape it's an ideal time to create a clone or image of your primary hard drive--the one Windows boots from--and save it to another hard drive. A clone or image creates a snapshot replica of your drive, which you can use to boot up Windows if your primary drive gives up the ghost. Having an image of your system in its current updated, bloatware free, customized state prevents you from having to do all that legwork over again if you ever have to reinstall Windows for any reason.
So what's the difference between a clone and an image? Essentially, a clone creates an exact copy of your hard drive on another drive--files, master boot record, and all. The clone consumes the entire hard drive, but it's plug-and-play if you ever need to use it. Images, on the other hand, create a single, mammoth file containing all the stuff on your PC. It takes a bit more to get an image backup ready to roll after a disaster, but you have more flexibility in how you store it, since it's essentially just a great big file. Lincoln Spector has a more detailed comparison if you're interested.
There are excellent backup tools available that let you create clones and images, including the free personal versions of Macrium Reflect Free and EaseUS Todo Backup. We explain how to use Windows' native imaging tool step-by-step in PCWorld's guide to creating a free, foolproof backup system--one you should implement ASAP. Regular backups are your data's only savior if disaster strikes.
Optional: Update your drivers
This step isn't for everyone. Few things can introduce troublesome ghosts in your machine faster than a driver that refuses to play nice for whatever reason. If your from-the-box PC's working fine and you only ever plan to perform basic tasks like surfing the web, working with Office, and stuff like that, feel free to forget your computer even has drivers and keep on keeping on. Windows Update should've snagged reasonably new drivers for your hardware anyway.
But if you cobbled together a DIY rig or are rocking a gaming machine, it's a good idea to see if more updated drivers are available for your hardware. Windows Update isn't always on the bleeding edge of driver updates, and new drivers for, say, your motherboard or network card can provide beneficial feature and performance updates. Gamers will need to update their graphics card drivers fairly often to ensure optimal performance in the newest games.
PCWorld's guide to updating your Windows drivers has all the info you need to proceed. If a driver does somehow manage to bork your PC, Windows automatically creates a System Restore Point when you install new device drivers. And if true disaster strikes in some bizarre, extreme case, you've got the backup image you've created--right?
At this point you're pretty much ready to roll. Sure, there are some other tasks you should perform, such as moving over files from your old PC and saving the product keys for Windows and your other installed software (Belarc Advisor rocks for the task), but you can do all that at your leisure. For now, just bask in the glory of owning a new PC, secure in the knowledge that it's fully optimized, protected against attack, and recoverable if disaster strikes.
Enjoy! And if you're migrating over from a previous computer, be sure to check out PCWorld's tips for breathing new life into an old PC. Just because a machine's being retired doesn't mean it's junk.