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Cheat sheets for setting up a new PC or Mac

I don't know how many of you will have new computers under your trees this year, given the continued crumminess of the economy, but I am pretty sure that those of you who do will have questions about how to set them up right. And so once again, I've set aside a column to walk people through that process.

This year's cheat sheet features the usual range of issues -- security, backup, getting rid of bundled applications you don't need, installing software you do need -- as in earlier versions of this column. But it covers two new operating systems, Microsoft's Windows 7 and Apple's Mac OS X Snow Leopard.

When I compare today's piece with its predecessors (2008, 2007 and 2006, plus two security-focused pieces I wrote in 2005 and 2004), three trends emerge.

One, security has become less a matter of what programs you use to protect your PC (Mac users don't have to worry about that, owing to the lack of viruses for the Mac and Mac OS X's built-in defenses) than of what sort of skepticism you bring to the Internet. In this year's advice, I'm actually suggesting that people get rid of some third-party security software for simpler, free tools either built into Windows or available free from Microsoft.

Two, PC manufacturers still can't recognize how much they hurt their own cause by treating Windows' Start menu and desktop as billboard space to sell off to whatever software publisher or Web site will buy a shortcut or link there. Today's column would be at least a third shorter if these computer vendors would stop tarting up their machines with third-party junk that so many users ignore or resent. And don't even get me started on those useless stickers on the outside of the computer (memo to Intel: We've all figured out that you guys make processors by now).

Three, Microsoft's Windows 7 represents a genuine advance over Windows Vista, not to mention XP, if only for its inclusion of a decent backup tool, a system "tray" (the notification area at the bottom-right corner of the screen) that's finally clean of random third-party icons, and the ability to pin frequently-used programs to the taskbar.

Now I'd like to turn the discussion over to you all: What are the changes you make to a new Mac or PC? What settings do you change, what programs do you remove, and what applications do you add? Share your suggestions in the comments, then stop by my last Web chat of the year -- starting at noon today -- for one more round of tech troubleshooting and gadget guidance.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  December 18, 2009; 10:53 AM ET
Categories:  Computers , Mac , Tips , Windows  
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After getting rid of the trial versions of software that I'll never use, I change the display on Windows Explorer to 'Details' and get rid of the stupid icons that take up an inordinate amount of space to display. This is even more important with a netbook with a small screen.

Posted by: blasher | December 18, 2009 11:03 AM | Report abuse

On the PC side, well, I've never bought one from a major manufacturer. All white boxes or home assembled. On my Mac I bought an external hard drive for Time Machine, and still plan to get 2 small external drives for offsite backups stored at the bank.

Software wise, get Onyx for the Mac. It's a system maintenance utility.

Posted by: wiredog | December 18, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

I delete unused icons from the dock (goodbye Garageband and iDVD), set the applications, documents, and downloads folders on the right side of the dock to list view and "folder" icon, and import my always-saved bookmarks file into Safari and Firefox.

Posted by: jcorwin | December 18, 2009 11:49 AM | Report abuse

I install Revo Uninstaller and use it to uninstall all trial software and crapware since it also digs into the registry and searches for bits leftover by the programs' crappy uninstallers. I then install Microsoft Security Essentials anti-virus.

Next I set up a backup routine on an external drive and begin to install the software that I need. I only install software that I actually use -- e.g. Chrome, Office, Foxit, the crappy iTunes (ugh only because of an iPod), Photoshop, TrueCrypt etc. I don't install lesser-used programs until I actually need them.

Once the software is installed I run the most current Windows Easy Transfer file that I keep on my backup drive which will transfer my documents and most of my program settings. I then make sure that the most current versions of my documents are synced from my backup.

Finally I begin to tweak the U.I. with any personalized details that Windows Easy Transfer missed which is very little in recent versions.

I know Rob has a long-articulated bias against Windows, but I'm typing this in Chrome in Windows 7 on an iMac and the installation and use of Windows 7 has been no more troublesome than OSX and this is _before_ Apple officially supports 7 through Boot Camp. There are some things I prefer about the Mac (audio and video editing) and some things I prefer about Windows (window management and Windows Explorer) but neither is perfect nor light-years ahead of the other. His constant whining about Windows these days is misplaced since his bias doesn't allow him to extend the same level of critical analysis to OSX as though it were perfect, which it most certainly is not. But it gets a freer pass for its shortcomings which doesn't serve his readers well.

Almost universally the complaints that Mac fans make about Windows (crashing, blue screens etc.) are relics of past versions of Windows from years ago, and years ago Apple's OS was horrible too. Make all the fun of Windows 95 you want, but you can't compare it to OSX like Apple's marketing does since what was available from Apple 15 years ago was arguably even worse. The difference was nobody used it.

Posted by: scarper86 | December 18, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

I prefer to do a clean install of Windows 7 on my PC's. Once I have it booted up, the first thing I do is navigate to and select what I want installed on the computer. The Ninite site downloads a custom installer for me that I run and it silently installs my Anti-virus, security, multimedia, and utility software all at on shot with out any intervention by me. This little gem saves me a bunch of time and is free to use.

Posted by: realneil | December 18, 2009 7:31 PM | Report abuse

When I buy a new PC, the first thing I do is turn it on and make sure it's not defective.
Then, I replace the factory hard disk, and start from scratch.
I keep the OEM drive intact, just in case the computer needs to be returned for warranty repairs. In that event, it goes back without any of my data, and I can restore my files & settings by simply reinstalling my drive.

Sure, this adds about $75 to the cost of each new computer, but it's well worth it.

Posted by: williehorton | December 18, 2009 10:17 PM | Report abuse

A couple of gaps for Windows installs:
* update the printer and video and sound card drivers (the ones that come with machines tend to be obsolete)
* show file extensions, show the full path in the address bar, show all files, etc. (I'm not a moron. Stop treating me like one.)
* add a few other critical programs like 7-zip (while Windows has native support for .zip files, it is very slow), the VLC Media Player (it can play practically any video format), Skype (the only messaging/VOIP app that's even remotely reliable), WinAmp (it supports FLAC and both my MP3 players, unlike iTunes), etc.

Posted by: slar | December 19, 2009 12:42 AM | Report abuse

Just bought a HP Pavillion with Windows 7 after checking out a couple of Windows 7 machines at electronic stores.

To me, the cool thing about Win7 is the addition of Multi-touch. I saw a really cool set of software tools on the HP Touchsmart that I thought did a great job with touch and multi-touch. But, I didn't like the TouchSmart computer. I figred, if it was HP, it'd be ALL good and I could get the hardware I wanted and still have access to that program or others like it.

Unfortunately, there don't seem to be any cool programs for using multi-touch readily available on the web for download. What's my number 1 rec for Window 7 installations: more software that takes advantage of new tech.


Posted by: lepanto | December 20, 2009 2:21 AM | Report abuse

I usually takes about 24 man-hours for me to change over. It's truly a grind. The updates, then the virus programs, and their updates. About 30 restarts. Then, I have a color scheme to prevent eyestrain which I have to program in by hand because Windows can't seem to keep it all straight and won't store these preferences in any place it will easily let me know about. Not to mention the endless multitudes of optically challenged people who are convinced screaming electric blue colors are "cool" and "restful."

The graphics card.

Lose the cheesy sound effects, and any most-offensive bits which treat me like a child or moron. Are there little cartoon dogs in 7? Then start loading every single program. Tweaking browsers. Struggling with awkward email address list changeovers.

Then, as others have mentioned, lots and lots of deleting. If not unwanted software, unwanted file structures full of junk. Such as folder after folder each with links to Microsoft vending pages.

Posted by: Jumper1 | December 21, 2009 9:13 PM | Report abuse

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