Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills

Do you consider yourself a power user? It's a tough question. After all, where do you draw the line? Hardware hacking? Command-line skills? Unix? These 29 essential PC skills define the core competency of any power user.

As we sat down to answer this question, the possibilities seemed endless, making our task feel more daunting. Windows registry hacks? Networking know-how? Upgrades? We even asked you, our readers, to contribute your suggestions. We received a bunch of great ones, but this only further broadened our pool of ideas.

Undeterred, we took a step back to consider the very essence of a power user. Eureka! A power user, we reasoned, is not a simple state of being. It's a path, filled with accomplishments and achievements and failures and applied knowledge. And merit. We imagined a Boy Scout sash, filled with badges indicating various acts of heroism and knowledge, as well as empty spaces where future achievements will eventually reside. Enjoy!

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills

Setting Up Your PC

The first few hours of any new PC's existence are critical. Set things up right and you'll enjoy years of stability and longevity. Get things wrong and… well, you know how that goes. Every mistake, oversight, and wrinkle introduced during a new PC's inception will compound itself over time. Here are the essentials to getting it right.

Install Windows the Right Way

You already know how to install Windows-pop in the disc and watch an episode of The Office-but what do you do when it's finished? The first step we take is to fire up Windows Update and install any and all applicable patches. You'll most likely have to reboot your system, at which point you should check Windows Update again.

When that's finished, head over to your motherboard maker's website and download/install the latest chipset drivers specific to your mainboard. Next, install the latest graphics driver for your videocard, and then finish things off by updating any other components, like your soundcard and/or network adapters. Windows' default drivers will handle most components in a fairly stable fashion, but you're going to get the best results from native drivers.

Banish Crapware from a New PC

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills


PC Decrapifier is ideally suited for any PC purchased from a retail outlet or online vendor. Goodbye, crapware!

Trials and toolbars and links, oh my! As a way of generating revenue from software vendors, OEMs often shovel all kinds of performance-hampering crapware onto your new PC. You can spend the first 30 minutes hunting down uninstallers and restoring your system to pristine condition, or knock out the bloat with a single blow using PC Decrapifier, a free utility that detects and uninstalls whichever programs you select.

Manage Power Usage and Sleep Better at Night

Navigate to the Control Panel and select Hardware and Sound > Power Options. For portable PCs where battery life is a priority, we build off of the Power Saver profile. Similarly, choose the High Performance setting if you're working with an enthusiast-class rig. Once you have a starting point, tweak the individual settings by clicking Change Plan Settings and then Change Advanced Power Settings. Here are our favorite toggles:

• Hard Disk - You can configure your HDD to switch off after a set period of inactivity. If you own a modern hard drive, chances are it already comes with several power-saving features built in, so don't expect any miracles here. And if you own an SSD, any potential power-saving benefits go right out the window because of a lack of moving parts.

• USB Selective Suspend - When enabled, USB devices will stop drawing power while in an idle state. This is done at the driver level, so not all devices support this setting.

• Processor Power Management - Notebook users looking to extend battery life can set the Maximum Processor State to a value less than 100 percent. The obvious drawback here is that you'll lose performance when performing CPU intensive tasks, and since today's processors come with all kinds of power-saving features already built in, this is of dubious value on modern machines.

• Display - A brightly lit LCD drinks electricity like it's going out of style, and what's the point if you aren't even looking at it? Notebook users should configure the display to dim after a short period of inactivity, or better yet, turn off altogether. Desktop users won't see much benefit, but hey, you'll sleep better at night knowing you reduced your carbon footprint.

When you're finished configuring your power options, look for any problems using Windows' Powercfg utility. To do this, open an elevated command prompt (right-click on cmd and run as an administrator) and type powercfg -energy -output c:\report.html. Windows will then observe your PC for 60 seconds and spit out an energy report at the location and filename specified.

Set Up Three Displays

Before shuttling those old LCD monitors to the landfill, consider filling your desktop with a triple-display setup instead. In most cases, you'll need a second videocard to make the magic happen, but it doesn't have to be gaming grade-a PCI card will work just fine. Unlike previous versions of Windows, Windows 7 isn't likely to cough up a hairball in this scenario. Once installed, go into Display Properties to finalize your configuration options. For even more control, we recommend running UltraMon or DisplayFusion to squeeze out additional features, like multiple taskbars, from your three-headed monster.

Use Benchmarks to Expose Shoddy Settings and Busted Hardware

There's more to benchmarking than just bragging rights. It's also an ideal way to gauge whether your components are firing on all cylinders. An unusually low benchmark score could be indicative of a misconfigured setting, or even a faulty piece of hardware.

Before you begin your first benchmark run, prep your PC to eliminate any outside variables. Disconnect from the Internet, turn off your screen saver, turn off auto update, and disable your antivirus and any other background tasks. It's also a good idea to defrag your hard drive (but not your SSD). Finally, reboot your PC.

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills


Far Cry 2's built-in benchmark allows you to measure your new system's real-world performance. It's a great way to gauge whether your rig is running in a healthy manner.

Use a mix of synthetic and real-world benchmarks, starting with Futuremark's PCMark Vantage Suite to get an overview of your system as a whole. To suss out your CPU, fire up Maxon's Cinebench 11.5. You can benchmark your RAM with SiSoft Sandra's built-in benchmarking tools, and for your GPU, we recommend a variety of tests, including Futuremark's 3DMark Vantage and built-in game benchmarks, such as the one included with Far Cry 2.

Stress testing is a little different than benchmarking, in that you're primarily testing for stability, not performance. Running Prime95 will let you know if your overclock is stable (select Run Benchmark from the Options menu), while Memtest86+ does an excellent job at exposing defective RAM. To use the latter, download either the bootable ISO or auto-installer for USB keys and boot directly from either one. Let Memtest86+ run a full pass on each stick individually.

Three Smart Ways to Protect Your Data

Stupefy Hackers with Strong Passwords

While using your girlfriend's name as a password qualifies as a heartfelt gesture, it's also a boneheaded security risk. Avoid using passwords that are easy to guess and instead use a mix of alphanumeric characters and symbols. At the very least, use symbols and numbers like @, 3, !, or 0 in place of the vowels A, E, I, or O. If what you're trying to password protect is mission-critical, use an online password generator such as this one from PC Tools.

Lock Down Your Router Tighter Than Fort Knox

Without a password in place to protect your wireless Internet, you're not only a sitting duck, but inviting trouble. Keep bad guys out by using a unique SSID and by securing your router with a password. To access your router, type 192.168.1.1 into your browser (or check your router manual for an alternative). You'll be prompted for a password-type "admin" for both entries, or consult your router manual if this doesn't work. Now, navigate to the security section. This will vary by make/model-if you own a Linksys router, for example, head over to Wireless > Wireless Security and choose the strongest encryption your network adapters support, such as WPA2. Type in a strong password mixing both letters and numbers, and either write this down (temporarily) or commit it to memory. You'll need to punch this in when prompted on any PCs or Internet-connected devices that tap into your router.

Secure Your Sensitive Data

Don't make the mistake of thinking that a deleted file is gone forever. All any two-bit hack has to do is Google "data recovery" to find a list of apps that promise to resurrect files already emptied from the recycle bin. Use Eraser when you need to securely delete files. If you're getting ready to dispose of your hard drive, KillDisk decimates any traces of data. And finally, put your trust in TrueCrypt for on-the-fly encryption.

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills

Network Windows

Being able to dig below the surface of Windows is an essential skill. The faster you can access your data-from any location-the more enjoyable your life will be. The ability to quickly help your friends and family via remote access is pure power user.

Map Network Drive

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills


You'll save time and energy by mapping a frequently used network directory to a drive.

Mapping a network drive in Windows 7 is both quick and easy, once you know how to do it. Open My Computer and highlight the drive you want to map. Select Map Network Drive from the toolbar. In the pop-up window that appears, select a drive letter for your mapped drive. Click the Browse button to drill down to the folder you want to map and be sure the Reconnect at Logon box is checked. All that's left is to click Finish. You should now see the mapped network drive in the My Computer window.

Create Secure Remote Access

It's an indelible truth of being an advanced user: Our loved ones need our help when things go wrong. Quite often, it's nearly impossible to provide that sort of help over the phone-the entire process often becomes counterproductive, usually eliciting a great deal of frustration rather than resolution of any kind. So what ends up happening? You get in your car and drive far too many miles only to discover that your mom simply needed to disable some pop-ups in "The Windows." What a waste of time and gas, and now you've got to stay for dinner.

OK, we're digressing. The next time you're at mom's house, do yourself a favor that'll save you some gas, time, and grief later on down the line. Head over to www.logmein.com, download the free software onto mom's computer, and create an account. The next time you receive a distressed phone call, you can hop on your own PC, take remote control of mom's desktop, and address any simple fixes she needs from the comfort of your own home.

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills


LogMeIn is easy to download and install, and will allow you to remote access your desktop from virtually anywhere with an internet connection.

Once the software is installed on the computer you need remote control over, taking the reins becomes as easy as logging into LogMeIn.com (which only requires a username and password, all free). The open-source software allows you to perform almost any task you normally would using your PC, over the Internet. You can save and make changes to files, reorganize the desktop, and adjust system settings-more than enough capabilities required for what's usually an easy fix.

Incidentally, LogMeIn has a wide range of uses that extend far beyond remote controlling a desktop. With the right software iterations, you can remote control any given desktop from a smartphone or tablet PC, too. For a more in-depth look at LogMeIn, go here.

Create Secure Remote Access

In the old days, setting up a home network with printer and file sharing was about as fun as watching a train wreck… from the conductor's seat. With Windows 7, Microsoft has removed most of the headaches associated with sharing files, thanks to the advent of HomeGroups.

HomeGroups only work with PCs running Windows 7, leaving Vista and XP users to go pound sand. To set up a HomeGroup, navigate to Control Panel > Network and Internet > Choose Homegroup and Sharing Options. Mash the Create a HomeGroup button and check the boxes for the types of files you want to share, including Pictures, Music, Videos, Documents, and Printers. In the next step, you'll be given a case-sensitive password. Write this down-you'll need it when adding other PCs to the HomeGroup.

To connect another PC to the HomeGroup you just created, follow the same path as before and press the Join Now button. Enter the password you jotted down and Windows will take care of the rest.

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills


You can quickly and easily set up file sharing across your entire network through this screen.

You may not want to share the same files and folders with everyone in your HomeGroup. Maybe you've recorded some, ahem, special-interest videos that would place little Johnny in therapy for the rest of his life if he viewed them, or confidential documents detailing your secret identity as a spy. Whatever the case, it's easy enough to selectively share files with others on your network.

To detach an entire folder or a single file from your network, open it in Windows Explorer, select the Share With pull-down menu, and click Nobody (you'll also find the Share With option in the right-click context menu). Alternately, you can give your HomeGroup just Read or both Read/Write permissions in this same section, or share the folder with only specific people in your HomeGroup. In the case of the latter, select Specific People from the Share With pull-down menu and select only those you want to have access to your file or folder. Next to each name, you can grant specific levels of access; for example, you can restrict little Johnny to only viewing your vacation photos, and you can give everyone else both read/write privileges.

For even finer control, bulldoze your way back to the HomeGroup section in the Control Panel and select Change Advanced Sharing Settings. From here you can set up different rules for Home, Work, and Public networks, as well as troubleshoot connection issues. If someone is unable to access your network shares, they might be using an ancient wireless adapter that doesn't support 128-encryption. If that's the case, scroll down to File Sharing Connections and select "Enable file sharing for devices that use 40- or 45-bit encryption." You can also turn printer sharing on/off, as well as several other self-explanatory options.

15 Essential Windows 7 Shortcuts

When it comes to Windows, the shortest distance between point A and point B isn't a straight line, but a keyboard shortcut. Commit these to memory and you'll work faster:

• Win+Home Minimizes all inactive Windows, not only giving you quick access to the desktop, but hides what you've been up to when the boss strolls by.

• Win+Left/Right Arrow Docks the active Window to either side of the screen.

• Win+Up/Down Arrow Maximizes or minimizes active window.

• Shift+Win+Left Arrow Shuttles the active Window to an adjacent monitor.

• Win+Number (1-9) Launch or toggle to the corresponding program in the taskbar.

• Click and Shake Window Minimizes all other Windows (and strengthens your forearm).

• Win+Tab Initiates Flip 3D, which renders live thumbnail images of open windows in a 3D view.

• Ctrl+Win+Tab Initiates a persistent Flip 3D display so you don't have to hold down the Windows key.

• Ctrl+ZUndoes an action.

• Ctrl+A Selects all items in a document or Window.

• Alt+Delete Displays the system menu (Remote Desktop Connection).

• Alt+Home Displays the Start menu (Remote Desktop Connection).

• Ctrl+Shift+D Clears the calculation history (Calculator).

• Numlock+Asterisk on Numpad Displays all subfolders under the selected folder.

• Shift+Right-click a file Adds a Copy as Path entry to the right-click context menu.

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills

Maintenance and Prevention

PCs, automobiles, and human bodies all have one thing in common: Performance tends to degrade over time. Real power users know how to ward off the effects of old age. Here are some key strategies.

Stay Privy to Software Updates

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and you can prevent most malicious attacks by keeping your software up to date. That's easier said than done when you're juggling dozens of programs, but you don't have to go it alone. Secunia Personal Software Inspector (www.secunia.com) scans your system for outdated apps and plugins, and then arranges everything in a handy report complete with direct download links to the latest patches for each program.

It's best to let Secunia PSI constantly monitor your rig for unpatched software, and if you're intentionally using an older program for compatibility reasons, simply set up a rule to ignore it. Fire up the advanced interface by clicking the Advanced link in the upper right corner. Select the Settings tab and click Create Ignore Rule. Give it a name, and in the Rule box, enter the path to that program, like C:\Program Files\App\app.exe.

Eradicate Malware with Extreme Prejudice

Before you throw in the towel and reinstall Windows, update your antivirus definitions and run a full scan, or if you're fixing a PC that doesn't have any AV software installed, use a cloud-based scanner, like Panda ActiveScan. Any IT tech worth his salt will also carry around SuperAntiSpyware and Malwarebytes in his toolbox.

Depending on how bad Aunt Mabel messed up her PC, you may need to escalate your efforts with HijackThis. HijackThis combs through registry and file settings where malware is most likely to hide out, but it doesn't discern between good and bad entries, so don't go blasting away settings willy-nilly. When in doubt, get a second opinion online by copying/pasting the log contents of a scan to www.hijackthis.de or http://hjt.networktechs.com. It's also a good idea to carry around HijackReader, which is the online version of the log analyzer in case you're unable to access the web.

Clear out the Cobwebs

A year's worth of accumulated dust in your rig is pretty much the equivalent of outfitting each of your components in a custom-knit wool sweater-not good. A tiny bit of maintenance every now and then can ensure that your system breathes easy. Your main weapon in the fight against dust? Compressed air. Here are some tips:

• Remove all wires from your rig and unplug the main power supply.

• Make sure you've got a nice, bright light while you're peering at your computer's innards. Besides helping you find clots of dust, this will help you notice any faulty wiring or other minor problems on your mobo.

• Remove a side panel to expose your components. If possible, remove both sides so you avoid simply blowing the dust around the inside of the case.

• Hold the can upright and spray in short, controlled bursts. No need to hose your computer down. You should have more than half a can left after you've finished spraying your components.

• Pay close attention to fan-based components-your case fans and heatsink often accumulate dust between the blades.

Disk Maintenance

The conventional wisdom is thus: As drives fill up, they get slower. Access times get longer, and files get fragmented because they have to find space where old data has been deleted. Therefore, you have to defragment your disk regularly in order to keep your machine at its best. But does that still apply?

If you're rocking a mechanical hard drive on Windows XP or earlier, yes. You should defrag your drive every month or so-more often if you'd like. We like Auslogics Disk Defrag or Piriform Defraggler. Vista and Windows 7 automatically defrag mechanical drives by default, so you'll probably never have to worry unless you're working with very large files. If you have a solid state drive, though, do not defragment! Because defragmenting involves moving data around on the disk, it's write-intensive. And that can and probably will diminish the lifespan of your SSD. Again, don't do it.

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills


If DisableDeleteNotify = 0, TRIM is enabled on your Windows 7 SSD.

Solid state drives are susceptible to slowdowns as they fill, but they require a different approach. Modern SSDs support the TRIM command, which enables the OS to continually keep the SSD optimized. You'll need an SSD with firmware that supports TRIM, Windows 7, and Microsoft or Intel's AHCI drivers. If you don't have all those things, you'll need a garbage-collection utility. Check your drive manufacturer's website or use an SSD-optimized utility like PerfectDisk 11.

Not sure if you've got TRIM up and running on your Win7 machine? Open a command prompt and type fsutil behavior query DisableDeleteNotify and hit Enter. If Windows returns DisableDeleteNotify = 0, then TRIM is running. If not, type fsutil behavior set DisableDeleteNotify = 0 and hit Enter.

Back Up Your Data the Right Way

Your water-cooling loop just sprung a leak, and liquid is spraying everywhere. Sparks fly and your HDD catches fire, melting like a popsicle on a hot summer day. It's bad, but not disastrous because you've been backing up your data. Right?

Let's start with that presentation you've been working on. Your boss won't be any the wiser to your water-cooling woes because when you show up for work tomorrow, you'll pull the PPT deck off your Dropbox account, which offers 2GB of free online storage.

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills


Use Dropbox to store and back up important docs.

On your way home, you'll pick up parts to rebuild your PC and restore things to the way they were by loading an image you took with Acronis True Image. Pop in the bootable restore CD you created with Acronis (see page 32) and you're off and running.

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills


AcronisTrue image is your complete back-up choice.

Crisis averted, right? Sure, so long as the fire didn't spread and take out everything you own, including your external hard drive. In that case, it's a good thing you backed up your mission-critical files, gigabytes of family photos, and a video of little Billy taking his first steps to another hard drive that you keep at your parents' house or other offsite location.

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills

Create a PC First-Aid Kit

No matter how well you take care of your PC, sooner or later something will go wrong. This is fact. But you don't have to let it take you by surprise-here's how you can make a simple emergency kit that can save your bacon when things start to go wrong.

Create a USB Thumb Drive Toolbox

To start you'll need a suitably large USB thumb drive. We're going to load it with some apps that will help you troubleshoot your PC, fix problems, and recover from disaster. A gig or two will be plenty to hold all of the apps, but in the worst case scenario you may be using this thumb drive to hold data that you recover from a damaged hard drive, so bigger is always better.

Here's the list of apps we recommend for your toolbox:

Malwarebytes' Anti-Malware, Super-AntiSpyware, and Combofix: One of the most common causes for a misbehaving PC is malware-viruses and other malicious apps that spy on you and slow down your computer. Unfortunately, no single app can find 100 percent of malware, so we recommend keeping at least these three cleaning programs in your toolkit. Run Malwarebytes' Anti-Malware and SuperAntiSpyware first, and then Combofix if the problem persists.

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills


Malwarebytes' Anti-Malware is great, but you should run multiple anti-malware programs.

CCleaner and Revo Uninstaller: Another way to speed up a beleaguered PC is to declutter the hard disks. We recommend CCleaner for general housekeeping (removing useless files, registry cleaning) and Revo Uninstaller for targeted removal of unwanted programs that are too sticky for the standard Windows Add/Remove Program utility.

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills


Revo makes getting stubborn programs off your computer a breeze.

ZoneAlarm Free: When dealing with a poorly maintained computer with lots of out-of-date software and potential malware, it can be hard to tell what data is being sent from or to the PC. A good first step to getting things under control is to throw up a good, free firewall, such as ZoneAlarm.

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills


ZoneAlarm is a great first line of defense against web-based attacks.

Create a Recovery Image

Of course, you want to be able to fix every problem without losing any of your data, but that's not always possible. Sometimes you have to cut your losses with a bad PC, and when that time comes nothing will make your life easier than a good recovery image. You can make a recovery image at any time, but the absolute best moment is immediately after you perform a fresh Windows installation and install your must-have apps. That way, whenever you need to, you can reload that image onto your drive and be back to a pristine environment with just the apps you need. Of course, you'll still need a backup solution for your important documents and data.

Normally, we like to find free software solutions to all of our problems, but backup and recovery is one area that's so important we think it's worth paying for. Acronis True Image Home (www.acronis.com) makes it incredibly easy to make a recovery image and to keep your important data backed up, and it's available for a very reasonable $50 (or less, if you catch it during a sale.)

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills

Upgrades (and Downgrades)

Real power users don't attempt to upgrade their PCs. They simply perform the task. We humbly present our guidance for upgrading the parts, performance, and functionality of your system.

Upgrading Your CPU

Can we boil down how to upgrade your CPU into three paragraphs? Yes. First, don't make the rookie mistake of assuming that because you have a square opening, any square chip will fit in it. If you have an LGA775 board, upgrading your chip will require a heavy amount of research before you can pull the trigger.

OK, so you know your board will physically work with the new chip. Now make sure the BIOS will, too. Many rooks drop in the new processor, turn on the power, and scratch their heads when their board won't POST. Another hour is then spent trying to troubleshoot when the issue is likely a conflicting or outdated BIOS.

More importantly, mind those pins. On AMD chips, you can easily recover from a bent pin. On any LGA-based socket-in use on all modern Intel boards-a bender on the motherboard can spell permanent disaster.

Upgrading Your Videocard

Like a CPU upgrade, the GPU upgrade isn't solely about spending your tax return on the fattest GPU you can find and hitting the power switch. Today's top-end GPUs are hot, heavy, and gulp power like a Lamborghini Murcielago motoring down the interstate. Single-card upgrades are simple but still require some foresight.

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills


First, is your power supply up to snuff? To run Nvidia's GeForce GTX 480, you'll need a minimum of a 600-watt PSU that can supply 42 amps on the 12-volt rail. A Radeon HD 5870 needs a minimum of 500 watts and 40 amps on the 12-volt rail. Since you don't really know what other new components you'll stuff into your system down the road, we recommend buying more power supply than you need. A 750-watt unit is probably the sweet spot for price-performance.

Finally, power-hungry GPUs produce more heat than most CPUs, so factor that into your upgrade. You need adequate airflow to keep the card and the surrounding components cool post-upgrade.

Adding More RAM

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills


Adding RAM isn't always as straightforward as you'd think, but here are the fundamentals:

• LGA1156 and LGA775 users should add RAM in pairs. The RAM should generally match, but most motherboards are smart enough to deal with DIMMS that don't have the same timing.

• Because of their reliance on the ancient front-side bus, older Intel chips with 8MB or 12MB of L2 cache aren't greatly affected by running in single-channel. So if you want to add just one DIMM for financial reasons, you can do so without suffering much of a performance hit.

• Chips with integrated memory controllers, such as any Core ix, Athlon II, or Phenom II, should run in dual mode. Of course, LGA1366 boards should be run in tri-channel mode if possible. We say if possible because some budget-oriented LGA1366 boards have just four DIMM slots. That fourth slot could be used to add RAM, but memory in that slot would not be running in tri mode.

Upgrading Your Boot Drive

There are many reasons to upgrade your boot drive: Maybe you're running out of room, or you're switching to SSD, or your boot drive is failing. Regardless of the reason, there are several ways of moving into the new digs.

First, consider backing up your documents and performing a clean install. It's good to make a fresh start on a fresh drive. If you don't have OS recovery disks or installation media for your programs, though, or you'd just rather not go through the hassle of reinstalling programs and drivers, you can use free trial software to copy your entire OS partition to a new drive.

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills


Partition Wizard Home Edition is one of the few free partitioning programs that works with both 32- and 64-bit versions of Windows. You can use it to resize your boot partition if you're upgrading to a smaller, faster drive.

You'll need the trial version of Acronis True Image Home 2010 and (optionally) a partition program like Partition Wizard. First, defragment your current boot drive. Then run True Image, select Utilities from the left-hand menu, then Clone Disk. Select the Manual button, then your source and destination disks. Depending on the size of your old and new drives, you may wish to use either the As-is or Manual option and manually resize your partition later with Partition Master or Partition Wizard. Start the image. You'll be prompted to reboot, after which Acronis will complete the image and let you know when the drive is ready. Then just swap it in and go! Acronis even copies the boot sector for you.

If you're switching from a mechanical drive to an SSD, you might have to use the partition tool to shrink your old boot partition to the fit on your new drive. You may also have to use a tool like SSD Tweaker to make sure your new drive is optimized. Don't forget to turn off defrag for SSDs.

Flashing Your BIOS

Motherboard vendors frequently release BIOS updates that add support for new CPUs (even whole new architectures), as well as enhance certain features and improve stability. Because flashing your BIOS can potentially brick your board, most vendors only advise it if your rig isn't working, probably to cover their own butts.

Different mobo manufacturers dictate different methods. Some offer a tool that lets you flash the BIOS from within Windows. Some offer executable files that automatically flash the BIOS when you run them, while some require booting from a floppy or USB. You can find instructions and downloads on your mobo manufacturer's website.

Improving Your Cooling

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills


Proper airflow is important. In this case (Corsair's 800D), air from the PSU never enters the rest of the case. Cool air is drawn up from the bottom of the case into the main compartment, then exhausted at the case's top and rear. A separate fan cools the hard drives, then routes behind the motherboard tray and vents at the case's rear.

Upgrade Your Router's Firmware

Your router is outfitted with a CPU, memory, and an operating system, just like your PC. The router's OS is known as firmware, because it resides in and executes from flash memory. Over time, the company that manufactured your router will likely release updated versions of that firmware to fix bugs and increase performance. With few exceptions, you should take advantage of these releases.

Third-party router firmware sometimes delivers better performance and might even expose entirely new features of the hardware that the manufacturer, for whatever reason, decided to hide or ignore. In this example, we'll replace a Linksys WRT-600N's factory firmware with the free alternative firmware DD-WRT (download from www.dd-wrt.com).

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills


First-party firmware updates will boost performance, while third-party updates may unlock new functionality.

Take care when updating your router's firmware, and always use a hardwired network connection to reduce the risk of bricking your router. The first step is to reset your router to its default values by inserting a paperclip into the reset hole in the back of the router. Then, open your router's web user interface by typing its IP address into a web browser. Since you've reset the router, the login-ID and password will have reverted to the factory default value (admin/admin in the case of the WRT-600N). The firmware update field is typically located in the router's Administration field. Once you've found that, click the Firmware Update button, locate the new firmware file, and click the Start Upgrade button.

It's critical that the update process not be interrupted-don't unplug the router, click the brower's back button, or anything else that might prevent it from completing. Many routers will display a message when the firmware update has been successfully completed. When the update is finished, re-enter the router's web user interface and begin exploring any new features that have been added. You might also need to re-establish wireless security and any custom settings you made to the previous firmware.

Use Network Jumbo Frames

Enabling jumbo frames can significantly increase your network's throughput while consuming fewer CPU cycles. This applies mostly to performing file transfers within your network. But you can only enable jumbo frames on gear that has a gigabit Ethernet interface, and any devices on your network in the path of the file transfers-your router, your PC, your NAS box, and any other switches in between-must all be capable of passing the same size frames.

If most of your network traffic is Internet-related (file transfers, email, web browsing, etc.), there's not much value in enabling jumbo frames because you don't have a gigabit connection to the Internet. If you use your network primarily for latency-sensitive traffic, such as VoIP or online gaming, enabling jumbo frames could cause performance issues because these apps generally perform better with smaller frames.

Click the Windows 7 Start menu and then right-click Computer and choose the Manage option. Click Device Manager in the left-hand column, click Network adapters in the center column, and then right-click the network adapter you're using to connect to your network and choose Properties. Click the Advanced tab and look for Jumbo Frame in the Property window. Now, choose the MTU size you wish your NIC to operate with. You'll probably want to experiment with these values by benchmarking how long it takes to transfer a large file. If you get a bump in speed at 4K, try 9K. If performance degrades at that size, dial it back until you find the optimum value.

If you want a better understanding of how jumbo frames work, check out this story.

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills

Special Projects

Ambition-the desire to boldly fly your PC into the computing stratosphere-is one of the dividing lines separating the normal from the hardcore. To qualify as a true power user, you'll need to possess knowledge of at least one of these three special skills.

Install Linux from a Live CD

Understanding Ubuntu is more than a source of pride; it's the quick path to rescuing a damaged OS or an outdated system

One of the quickest ways to prove that you're one of the high-tech hardcore is to run an alternative operating system. In case you can't figure it out, we're not talking OSX here-we're talking about Linux. Despite its reputation as being only for the most advanced users, Linux is actually remarkably easy to install. Here are the steps we take to get up and running.

Create a Live CD

There are other ways to install Linux, but we're going to show you how to install using a live CD, which is both the easiest and most useful way to go. Simply put, a live CD is a bootable version of an operating system contained on a CD. Almost all Linux distros can be installed from a live CD.

There are tons of distros out there, with different advantages and disadvantages. As usual, we're going to use Ubuntu as it's the most popular, and also the most user-friendly of all the varieties of Linux. To download the Ubuntu live CD, just hit up www.ubuntu.com and click Download Ubuntu. Select the version of the OS that you want (32-bit for more compatibility, 64-bit for a modest performance boost) and download the .iso file.

In Windows 7, all the necessary tools to burn the .iso image to a CD are included in the operating system, so you can just double-click the file you downloaded, insert a CD, and follow the instructions. If you're still on an older version of Windows, you may not have image-burning software. If that's the case, we recommend ImgBurn, which is powerful, lightweight, and free.

Install Ubuntu

Once you've got your live CD burned, just pop it in the tray and restart your PC. You should be given the option to boot from this disc. If you aren't, you'll need to go into your BIOS and change the boot order so that your CD drive is ahead of your HDD. When you boot from the disc, you can choose to install right away, or to try using Ubuntu without installing. If you choose to try it out, you can begin the Windows-like installation wizard at any time by clicking the Install Ubuntu icon on the desktop.

Install Linux from a USB Drive

Live CDs are a convenient way to run or install Linux from any machine, but there's a problem: If a new version of your preferred Linux distro is released (which happens pretty frequently) you're going to have to burn a new disc.

Fortunately, there's a way around this: Use a USB thumb drive. As long as your computer supports booting from a USB drive (most modern PCs do), installing from one is a convenient, easy and economical alternative to using a live CD.

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills


UNetbootin makes creating a USB drive installer a one-step process.

To do it, you just need a small application called UNetbootin. Download the application and run it. UNetbootin can make a live USB key from an .iso image, such as the one you downloaded to create a live CD, or it can download a distribution automatically from a long list of Linux options. Select whichever you want, point to a USB drive, and click OK. That's it! Now you just need to plug your thumb drive into a computer and restart.

Overclock Your CPU

It's easier to accomplish than ever, but amplifying your CPU's clock speed is still one of the last frontiers of the power user

Even if you don't overclock, as the tech expert your friends and family turn to in times of need, you should know the fundamentals of the process.

Overclocking is literally running your CPU out of spec. Isn't this dangerous? Sure, the usual caveats are voiding your warranty, risking data corruption, and even blowing up the CPU. OK, the PSA's over. Let's get on to the fun.

We all know that many new AMD and Intel CPUs can run at far higher speeds than they're rated at for retail, but for sales and marketing reasons, they're locked at lower speeds. Unlocking this free performance is the goal. So how do you do it? There are three major platforms in circulation today: Intel's LGA1156/LGA1366, AMD's Socket AM2+/AM3, and Intel's slowly fading but still quite popular LGA775 Core 2 series.

Despite amazingly dissimilar designs and microarchitectures, these platforms all overclock the same basic way. Each CPU features a clock multiplier. This is a ratio that sets the clock speed when the machine is booted. It's usually something like 20x or 18.5x. In all CPUs except for Intel's Extreme and K chips and AMD's Black Edition chips, this is locked so you cannot increase the multiplier to overclock.

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills


Whether you're tweaking the base clock, host clock, front-side bus, or reference clock, the process of overclocking is amazingly similar on the Core i7, Core 2, and Phenom II platforms.

The second half of this equation is the base clock, or bclock, for Intel's Core i7/5/3 chips. (This is equivalent to the front-side bus in the Core 2 parts and the reference clock setting for AMD chips.) Our example will utilize the 2.66GHz Core i7-920 chip. This chip has a multiplier of 20x and a bclock of 133MHz. Take 20 and multiply it by 133 and you get 2,660MHz. Get it? To overclock this chip, we go into the BIOS and slowly increase the bclock. For even the oldest Core i7-920, we can run the bclock up to 160MHz for a total overclock of 3,200MHz. That's a moderate overclock that will likely never give you any problems.

The same concept can be applied to Core 2 and Athlon II/Phenom II processors. AMD chips, however, have a few other settings you need to pay attention to such as HyperTransport speed and north-bridge speed. Since you'll be increasing the reference clock for your overclock, you may unintentionally overclock the Hyper Transport or north bridge to unstable heights. To keep these from becoming problematic, you may have to manually set the HyperTransport and north bridge to lower values.

Memory speeds on all three platforms may also rise beyond what your RAM is rated for as you overclock. On Core ix, Core 2, and Athlon II/Phenom II, you should be able to manually lower your RAM clock speeds to keep the modules within a stable range.

Voltage

Here's where it gets sticky. Not all CPUs overclock equally-even within the same product line. And some will require additional voltage increases to the chip to get to higher levels. A bclock/FSB/reference overclock poses almost no danger. Adding voltage, however, is where you can screw things up.

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills


Many midrange and enthusiast motherboards allow you to overclock from the comfort of the operating system.

For the various chipsets and motherboards, you may also have to add a little voltage to the north bridge to hit those higher clock speeds. We recommend that you add voltage judiciously. To find out how much, it's best to learn from others' experiences. Search MaximumPC.com's forums and other enthusiast sites to see how much voltage other people had to add to hit their overclocks. It's likely that someone else out there has already overclocked your system configuration.

Install and Operate a Virtual Machine

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills


The ability to safeguard your system via virtualization can be invaluable. Here's how you make it happen

A virtual machine is exactly what it sounds like-a machine (a computer, really) that doesn't have its own hardware. Instead of having a hard drive, the virtual machine writes to and reads from a single file on the host machine's HDD. Since it doesn't have its own processor or memory, it also borrows those resources from the host.

So why would you want to run a virtual machine on your system? For one, because the virtual environment is totally self-contained, anything that goes on in the virtual machine cannot affect the host environment. This makes it an excellent sandbox for trying out software or operating systems that you might not feel comfortable running on your primary system. If you suspect a document might contain a virus, for instance, you can clone a virtual machine, transfer the file onto it, then read the document. Whether or not there's a virus, you can just delete the virtual machine, and your real machine is safe.

VirtualBox can show you detailed stats for all your virtual PCs.

Another cool feature virtual machines permit is the ability to support "guest" operating systems. In other words, a virtual machine running on your Windows PC can provide a Linux environment for you to use, without the need to dual-boot or restart and boot from a live CD. Of course, this works the other way, too, so you can use virtual machines to run Windows applications on a Linux desktop.

Installing VM Software

Numerous virtual machine solutions are available online, though many are really only for businesses, and most aren't free. There are several popular free offerings, but we're going to focus on VirtualBox, a totally free VM program maintained by Oracle. Getting a virtual machine up and running is easy:

First, visit the VirtualBox homepage and download the free application. Install it using the default install settings.

Once installed, run VirtualBox. The window that opens will be mostly empty at first, so click the New button to create a virtual machine. You'll be asked what operating system you want to install, and how much memory and hard disk space you want to allocate to this virtual machine. Allocating a greater amount means better performance and storage space (respectively), but at greater cost to the host system.

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills


Just like a real PC, you have to install an OS on a virtual machine.

Once your virtual machine has been created, it will appear in the VirtualBox window "powered off." Click it and select Play. VirtualBox will start the virtual machine and run a wizard designed to help you install the OS that you specified when you created it. Generally, this is as simple as pointing VirtualBox to the drive that includes the install CD for your operating system. This can be your Windows install disc, or a live Linux CD, but it has to be bootable.

At this point, you're essentially doing exactly what you would with any new computer. Click through the OS installer, and you'll find yourself with a brand-new virtual PC. When you have the VirtualBox window active, all your keystrokes and mouse movements will be "captured" by the virtual PC, rendering you unable to control your host PC. To switch back to the host PC, just press the "host button," which is Right-Ctrl by default.

Illustrated Merit Badges by Jim Kopp

Master the Essentials: 29 Crucial PC Skills

Maximum PC brings you the latest in PC news, reviews, and how-tos.