How to Set Up a PC, the Right WayS

All expecting parents have read What to Expect When You’re Expecting, because when that little bundle of joy drops out of mommy, you'd better be ready with lots of paper towels and a whole lot of specialized knowledge about what to do from that moment forward. Though it’s not quite as messy (or scary), setting up a new PC requires a similar sort of informed approach if you want to raise it properly from the moment it squirts out of the Fedex truck and into your life.

You'll be tempted to pick it up and coo, “Who's a widdle PC?,” and then immediately benchmark the shinola out of it. We understand the impulse, and the excitement, but hold your horses, cowboy. You've got to take it slow with a new rig, and get it set up correctly the first time, or else all your future efforts will be for naught. That’s where we come in. We'll show you how to set up a PC the right way!

In this handy guide, we’ll show you what to do with your new PC in those first crucial out-of-the-box moments, and will hold your hand all the way from the first boot until the PC is ready to run its first benchmark. With our help, your bundle of bits will quickly grow from a fragile, schizophrenic rig to a fully up-to-date, crap-free machine that’s secure, tweaked for maximum performance, and ready to make daddy or mommy proud. Sniff—they boot up so fast!

How to Set Up a PC, the Right WayS

Kick the Tires

You just unboxed your new desktop, all-in-one, or laptop, but do you really know what’s inside of it? After all, like doctors, lawyers, and journalists, system builders make mistakes, too. It’s a good time to grab the spec sheet that came with your PC and do a quick system inventory to make sure that if you paid for a machine with a $230 CPU, you actually got that CPU. You can poke and prod through the specs using tools such as CPU-Z (www.cpuid.com) and GPU-Z (www.techpowerup.com) and check the Device Manager and BIOS/UEFI for hardware IDs, or just run a system audit using Belarc Advisor (free from Belarc.com). Belarc Advisor will query the hardware and software in your PC and present you with a tidy list of everything that’s installed. Pay particular attention to what CPU is in your box, the SSD and HDD models and capacity, as well how much RAM and how many DIMMs are installed.

How to Set Up a PC, the Right Way

The inventory isn’t enough, though. You should also verify some key parameters to make sure your box is running at speed. Run CPU-Z while also running the Prime95 (www.mersenne.org) stress test in order to record the clock speed the chip is running at. With various turbo techs being pushed, you might also want to see how your chip performs under light loads. We generally run the Sunspider browser benchmark (www.webkit.org) to try to coax turbo speeds out of our CPUs. While you have CPU-Z running, click the Memory tab and verify that your box is running the correct memory channels.

Those of you running an SSD on an Intel system should verify that the drive is hooked up to a SATA 6Gb/s port and that Trim is enabled. Just download Crystal Disk Info (http://bit.ly/UKzt0) to see what state your SSD's run state.

How to Set Up a PC, the Right Way

Restoration Software

Old-timers, aka geezers, will remember when every new PC would ship with a set of restore discs. Well, buddy, those days are over for most large PC manufacturers. And don’t you kid yourself; even though Windows 8 has the capability to factory reset itself before your lunch break is over. Windows 8’s reset feature won’t do squat if your HDD or SSD decides to go south on you, or if some OS fault or infection is so bad you need to nuke it from orbit.

It’s not that Microsoft is preventing PC vendors from providing restore media, either—it’s just that most PC OEMs don’t want to pay for it anymore. Why bother if they can make you burn it instead? To be fair, the vast majority of folks never have issues and skip this step. We, however, like to hope for the best but plan for the worst, so burning the disc before your drive blows a motivator is the proper course of action.

How to Set Up a PC, the Right Way

Every major OEM seems to handle restore discs differently, so hunt around on your system for the utility and look for the “factory restore disc” feature. When we set up a new box for Aunt Peg recently, the first thing we did was burn a set of restore discs and then taped them to the back of the machine.

How to Set Up a PC, the Right Way

If your new notebook doesn't have an optical drive, consider creating a recovery USB key, which most factory utilities support as an alternative to creating discs. Just make sure it’s big enough. A Windows 8 Pro installation asked for a minimum of 23GB for our factory image.

The Nuclear Option

Rather than trying to remove the megabytes of trialware your OEM has preloaded on a new machine, some enthusiasts prefer to forgo the hour spent uninstalling unwanted crap and reach right for the nuclear launch codes instead. Yup, that’s right, they take a perfectly good, brand-new PC and immediately nuke-and-pave over the OS with a full, clean install. In the days of Windows XP, such an option probably made a lot of sense, but factory preinstalls of the OS from large OEMs are quite complicated and messy. What’s more, the factory-restore will quite likely contain all the same trialware. While nuking the OS from orbit was perfectly acceptable to many of us years ago, these days we think it’s just easier to declutter the box by hand first (continue reading below).

Still, there are times when the nuclear option is preferable. Some OEMs prefer to ship with a 32-bit version of the OS installed for compatibility reasons, but make both the 32-bit and 64-bit versions available. In this case, nuking the OS and reinstalling the 64-bit version is required if you want to upgrade.

Windows Update It!

With your new PC connected to the Internet, the absolute first thing you should do is manually run Windows Update. Once it’s done, run it again. Why? It’s not because Windows 7 and Windows 8 are particularly soft targets, but as the world’s dominant operating systems (well, Win7 anyway), they’re basically the biggest targets around. With the dangers of infected Flash ads, JavaScript exploits, and an untold number of threats poised to attack unpatched machines, wading into the Internet with an unpatched box is about as wise as running buck naked and blindfolded into a cactus patch.

So before you step one foot onto the Internet, run Windows Update at least twice—some updates require the presence of a preceding update in order to be installed. Then you can run out to procure the other much-needed utilities and tools for your new PC. On Windows 8 machines, go to the Modern UI and start to type update. On Windows 7, go to Start and search for update.

How to Set Up a PC, the Right Way

If It’s Broken, Fix It

Former Maximum PC columnist Alex “The Saint” St. John said it best: “Drivers, she is always a-broken.” OK, we added the Mario Brothers' sentence structure and accent for style, but he was right on. Drivers are usually a work in progress and they are often the cause of system wonkiness, even on brand-spanking-new machines. In fact, new machines are often the ones most in need of updated drivers, given their state-of-the-art hardware. Case in point, we unboxed a brand-spanking-new Windows 8 notebook for some testing and immediately had to update no fewer than four drivers.

This is where the big-boy “tier 1” OEMs often have the edge over the smaller companies. Most pack their own driver update applications that will hunt down the latest drivers for their machines. On an HP Win8 laptop, for example, rather than having to chase down individual drivers, the HP update app did the work for us. This can work against you on occasion, though, as big companies often don’t want headaches, so once a driver reaches a certain level of stability, they don’t push new updates unless absolutely needed, even if the new driver may add improved features or performance. Then, a manual search will produce more satisfying results.

If you don’t want to hunt for every single device driver by hand, there are alternatives, such as Slimware’s SlimDrivers Free (www.slimwareutilities.com). This utility uses “crowdsourcing” to do what the large OEMs do with their driver updaters. Running SlimDrivers Free on another big OEM laptop, for example, yielded 14 updated drivers, while the OEM’s update tool said nothing new was available.

How to Set Up a PC, the Right Way

Which drivers do we typically recommend that you update on a new box? The most obvious are GPU drivers. Next up would be chipset drivers. We will add that results of driver updates will vary depending on your OS. Windows 7 is quite mature and drivers at this point are unlikely to add much beyond bug fixes. Windows 8, though, is constantly changing, so GPU, chipset, audio, USB, network—basically everything—should be checked for new drivers and generally installed.
How to Set Up a PC, the Right Way

Beware the BIOS

We used to believe the conventional wisdom that if it ain’t broke, don’t break it by touching it, but not anymore when it comes to the BIOS. We’ve experienced so many fits of weirdness that were fixed by updating the BIOS in the last couple of years that we now recommend updating the BIOS/UEFI as a top priority on a new PC. We’ve seen Wi-Fi that wouldn’t install properly get fixed with a BIOS update, and overclocking-gone-whacky similarly remedied, so we say just do it. Even on notebooks, which many people believe don’t need a BIOS update, an updated BIOS can correct serious performance issues. Case in point: The BIOS often has direct control over acoustics on a laptop. Updating the BIOS could add new fan profiles that either make the laptop quieter or enable higher turbo clock speeds because the fan will spin up higher. You simply don’t know. Even more interesting, newer machines, especially new laptops, often benefit the most from BIOS updates, as the engineers tweak them in response to the feedback they’re getting as the products actually reach consumers' hands. Since BIOS updates are often handled differently for each PC, we can’t walk you through it step-by-step, but we recommend that you visit your vendor’s website to check the BIOS versions and/or run any built-in update utility to check for a new BIOS.

Lighten the Load

Do you know how you got your PC at such a fantastic price? Well, it’s partly the result of the preinstalled and subsidized trial software. So while you gnash your teeth at the 12 trial apps clogging your hard drive, remember those same software vendors helped pay for your new rig.

How to Set Up a PC, the Right Way

So please mouth a quiet thank you and then download PC Decrapifier (www.pcdecrapifier.com) stat. This handy utility will let you quickly and easily uninstall most of the preinstalled software in one single swipe. And after you’re done blowing out the hundreds of megabytes of trial software with as much effort as it takes you to eat a delicious Big Kahuna burger, also thank your PC for even letting you uninstall the trialware, unlike your blasted smartphone, which has precious, precious space being wasted by trial apps you never, ever use, either. Freedom!

Clutter It Up

You just spent an hour decluttering your new PC of trial applications (if you didn’t use PC Decrapifier), now it’s time to clutter it up—your way. Rather than download each app one-at-a-time, point your browser at Ninite.com. Once there, you’re presented with a page of popular applications that just about everyone installs on a new machine—Chrome, Dropbox, Foxit Reader,7-Zip, Steam, TeraCopy, Revo, Digsby, VLC, etc. Simply scroll through the list looking for an app, utility, or runtime that appeals to you and check the box. Once you’ve picked from the menu of software, click the Get Installer button and you’ll get a small executable to download. Once you’ve downloaded the executable, run it, and Ninite will automatically download and install the software you selected. Just drive on down to the In-N-Out Burger near Radford, grab your lunch, come back, and voilà, it’s done. The only improvement we wish Ninite had is an enthusiast utility selection that includes CPU-Z, GPU-Z, and other handy-dandy tools we all use.

How to Set Up a PC, the Right Way

While we’re on the subject of installing software, if you’re planning to install free antivirus software, you can do that as well with Ninite, which gives you the choice of Microsoft Security Essentials,Avast, and AVG for real-time scanners; and Malwarebytes, Ad-Aware, and Spybot as secondary, on-demand scanners. SuperAntiSpyware is also an option but the app has real-time protection, which may be an issue for any AV app you run. More on this later, but if you’re going the cheap route with AVG, MSE, or Avast, now is the time to do it, or install a paid solution. For your info, Windows 8 boxes come out of the, um, box with Microsoft’s creaky-old Security Essentials installed and running.

Secure It

Your work is just getting started after you’ve installed an AV product. The old-school scan-your-drive-for-an-infected-file model has long been worthless. These days, malware often is installed in a nanosecond, using zero-day infections via broken browser plugins and scripting exploits. As much work as Microsoft has done to enhance security in Windows 15 (7 + 8), that doesn’t help if you have an unpatched version of QuickTime, VLC, or Adobe Reader.

First, may we recommend that you consider paying for a good AV product such as F-Secure,Kaspersky, Norton, or BitDefender, among others? These products are highly rated for their ability to intercept zero-day attacks, and with rebates you can get enough keys to cover all your devices for a few dollars a year. If you’re too cheap, consider using AVG Free, which is better at stopping zero-day attacks than Microsoft’s Security Essentials product. MSE is the least bothersome, but it’s lost a lot of luster of late.

With a proper AV app in place, you now need to be wary of your browser plugins. We recommend weekly checks of your browser using Qualys BrowserCheck. This free web tool will check your browser’s plugins to see if they’re the latest available. The intermediate and advanced options offer checks of all browsers as well as Windows Updates, too. Keeping your applications updated is also a key to avoiding infections. For that, we turn to Secunia PSI or the web-based OSI (www.secunia.com). Secunia’s tools will check your installed apps and inform you if there are any risks, and either automatically download them or offer you a download link.

Running two AV apps is not recommended, but keeping one around for a second opinion isn’t a bad idea. We often keep Malwarebytes installed just in case we need it. You should also consider installing VirusTotal Uploader (www.virustotal.com). This lets you right-mouse-click a file to have it sent to VirusTotal where it will be analyzed by more than 40 virus engines. Even more trick, if you suspect a process is mal, you can use the VirusTotal Uploader to send the executable that is running the process to be analyzed.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Just remember security guru Bruce Schneier’s words: “Security is not a product; it’s a process.”

How to Set Up a PC, the Right Way

Have a Backup Plan or Two

The system-restore discs you created earlier will get you back in business should you experience a total meltdown, but you should also strongly consider setting up a backup plan now, not a day after your drive has died and you’ve lost all your data. For those times, we’ve found Window 7’sBackup and Restore to work amazingly well. You’ll need a second drive on the machine for the backups; we highly recommend that its capacity is equal to or larger than that of your primary drive. Remember to heed the warning that one is none and two is one.

With a USB optical drive plugged in or a second HDD in place, use Backup and Restore to create a system image, and then burn a boot disc that you will need should your drive fail. Now, also set up a file backup from your primary drive to your secondary drive and set it for a schedule that you're comfortable with. In the event of a primary drive failure, just replace the drive, boot to the restore disc you created, and point it at your backup images and files. When completed, you should be back in action with access to the files you had just before the failure.

Windows 8 users can set up the same file and image backup system from Windows 7, but it’s called Windows 7 File Recovery. Just pull up search and start typing file recovery and look under Settings to access the same utility. Win8 actually has different options: File History will create backups on a file every hour, whereas Windows 7 File Recovery will run only once a day. What’s better? Since our time and data is invaluable, we do both. File History is the Omega 13 of backup that lets you, say, go back to a file version from three hours before. Refresh is a great feature that “resets” the OS but it won’t help if the drive has died. In that case, having a disc image and Windows 7 File Recovery backup set lets you drop in a new drive and be back up and running in a couple of hours, rather than the usual 12 hours of manually installing apps and recovering settings.

How to Set Up a PC, the Right Way

For more information on how to transfer your files and tweak Windows 8 to your liking keep reading over at Maximum PC. [Top image: Mny-Jhee / Shutterstock]

How to Set Up a PC, the Right Way

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