7 Steps to Get Your New Computer Running Right

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, December 20, 2007

The consumer electronics business can craft products that can be taken out of the box, turned on and properly used without a glance at a manual, but the home computer still isn't among them.

It's not that you can't get a computer out of the box and online quickly -- but without the right configuration, it will be less secure and less useful than it needs to be.

Setting up doesn't have to take vast amounts of time. But often the problem is that much of it isn't intuitive -- and the how-to details that ought to be in a manual get left out.

So I'll try to fill in those blanks.

Step 1

Your first order of business has to be securing the machine from online attack. The Internet abounds with crooks looking to hijack your computer with some virus, worm or Trojan horse program.

Protecting a Windows machine involves activating any security software bundled with the PC so it can download updates to spot new viruses. You may need to register an e-mail address with the security vendor. No matter how annoying this is, get it done first.

You can always switch to a better security program after the first month or two at no cost because most new PCs come with three months of free security updates.

Apple's Mac OS X has seen only a handful of malware attacks, none successful, so you don't need to buy a security-software suite. (Really. Download the free ClamXav program -- http://clamxav.com-- if you want, but so far it has only helped stop Mac users from forwarding Windows viruses by mistake.)

But Macs do arrive with an important line of defense left open: firewall software to block online worms. To activate it, click the "System Preferences" icon in the dock at the bottom of the screen, click its "Security" icon, click the "Firewall" heading and then click the button next to "Set access for specific services and applications."

Step 2

The next step is to download any available security updates. In Windows Vista, click on the "Start" menu, click "Control Panel" and then click the "Check for updates" link. On a Mac, go to the Apple-icon menu in the top left corner and select "Software Update." Leave the computer alone until it installs these patches.

Step 3

But wait, there's more! On a Mac or a PC, the Adobe Flash software that displays those nifty animated elements on many Web sites most likely needs updates. Go to Adobe's site for the latest version: http://adobe.com/flashplayer. Windows users will also need to hit http://java.com and http://apple.com/quicktime for updates to the Java and QuickTime software many Web sites employ.

Step 4

After you've added all these updates, you can get rid of some unnecessary programs. Most Windows machines arrive loaded with junk programs that mostly waste space.

Open "Control Panel" again, then click the "Uninstall a program" link to boot these unwanted items. The 60-day trial copy of Microsoft Office on most new PCs should be among them -- it's cheaper to add Office by buying the "Home and Student Edition." Also consider evicting copies of AOL and, if you're a Dell or Toshiba user, the third-rate Yahoo Music Jukebox.

Macs ship with far less junk, but their trial copies of Microsoft Office and Apple's iWork '08 can also be tossed once they expire or you've bought one or the other. To dump Office, open the Office 2004 folder inside the Applications folder and double-click "Remove Office." To do the same with iWork, drag its folder from the Applications folder to the Trash.

Step 5

You can then make some selective upgrades. The free Mozilla Firefox browser ( http://mozilla.com) works better than Internet Explorer in Windows; on a Mac, it's a useful backup to Apple's Safari. Apple's iTunes ( http://apple.com/itunes), in turn, beats Microsoft's Windows Media Player. And either Mozilla Thunderbird or Microsoft's Windows Live Mail ( http://live.com/wlmail/overview) provides better e-mail tools than Vista's Windows Mail.

Step 6

As you're moving over your old files and settings with Vista's Windows Easy Transfer or a Mac's Migration Assistant, you shouldn't rush to reinstall old programs. Some may not work with the new machine's operating system; others may seem redundant next to software already on the machine. But first, see if you actually miss these applications.

Never reinstall one type of software from the original CDs -- the "drivers" that let the computer talk to add-ons like printers. Download the latest versions from the vendor's Web site instead.

Step 7

If you're not sick of computer setup, picking up some inexpensive hardware can spare you vast amounts of trouble down the road. For a laptop or a desktop, a hard drive or flash drive that plugs into the computer will greatly ease backing up your files. And if you own a desktop machine, plugging into an uninterruptible power supply will stop you from losing work whenever the lights flicker.

If all this seems like too much work for the reward, remember some kinds of electronics can be even worse. Try wiring a home-theater system from separate components or coaxing a "universal" remote control into operating all the boxes under the TV.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrobp@washpost.com. Read more athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward/

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