How to set up a new computer

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 20, 2009

There's a reason computer stores sell concierge services to set up your new machine -- getting these things out of the box and plugged in represents only the start of the fun.

Outsourcing the labor of fixing system settings, ditching unwanted software and configuring a backup routine can save time, but doing the job yourself will save cash and help acquaint you with the computer. And with the arrival of Microsoft's Windows 7 and Apple's Mac OS X Snow Leopard, some of this work has gotten easier than it was just a year ago.

The first step, as ever, has to be securing the computer against online threats. On a PC, you won't be able to avoid this -- the bundled security program will pop up windows demanding that you register and start your trial subscription.

If you like whatever software your vendor included, follow those prompts to set it up. If not, dump it -- as with any other program, go to Windows 7's Control Panel and click its "Uninstall a program" link -- and then install Microsoft's free, effective Microsoft Security Essentials (

On a Mac, you have to do only one thing, but it's not obvious: Turn on the system firewall that Apple inexplicably left off. Open System Preferences, click its Security icon, click the Firewall tab and click its Start button.

At this point, either Windows or Mac OS X should have begun fetching software updates for you (if not, click the Windows Control Panel's "Check for updates" link or select OS X's Software Update program from the Apple-icon menu). After they do their job, you'll have to fill in a few gaps.

Whether on a Mac or a PC, get the latest version of the Adobe Flash plug-in, used to play videos and other interactive content on the Web, at Windows users will also need the latest fixes for Adobe's Reader (, Sun Microsystems' Java ( and Apple's QuickTime (

Your second move has to be setting up a backup routine. In Windows, type "backup" into the Control Panel's search box -- or click the little flag in the bottom right corner of the screen, Win 7's way of reminding you about pending system-maintenance chores -- to have Windows start backing up your data to a CD, DVD, or external flash or hard drive. Apple's Time Machine software is simpler but pickier, requiring a separate hard drive. If you don't have one, make that your very next purchase.

With security and backup done, your third move can be de-cluttering the computer. There's far more of this to do on most PCs, thanks to the inept software bundles that most manufacturers inflict on their customers. Drag any unwanted desktop links or shortcuts to the Recycle Bin; hide space-wasting browser toolbars by clicking the "x" at the left end of each; and uninstall trial software and other bundleware you're sure you don't want through the Control Panel.

The free PCDecrapifier ( can automate much of this work -- but decline any offers by it to remove updater tools for Java or the computer vendor's own software.

Apple doesn't ship the junk that the PC vendors seem so fond of, but you can still tidy up the Dock, that strip of icons at the bottom of the screen, by dragging away shortcuts to unused programs.

You may want to replace a PC's vendor's bundleware with the useful programs that it should have installed. The free, open-source Mozilla Firefox browser ( is a faster replacement for Internet Explorer (and a good alternative to Safari on a Mac). Because Windows 7 doesn't include e-mail software, many vendors load Microsoft's free Windows Live Mail; if your PC didn't include that, you can download it yourself ( or the competing, free, Mozilla Thunderbird ( For photo management, consider Microsoft's free Windows Live Photo Gallery ( or Google's free Picasa ( Finally, while Windows Media Player 12 has grown into a pretty good music application, it can't subscribe to podcasts or work with iPods; for either of those tasks, get Apple's iTunes (

Not tired yet? You might as well wrap up the day by customizing the computer a little. On a Mac, try moving the Dock to the right-hand side of the screen to leave more room for your applications, renaming the hard drive to something more interesting than "Macintosh HD" and enabling right-clicking (a.k.a. "secondary click") in System Preferences' Mouse or Trackpad window. On a PC, "pin" shortcuts to programs on the taskbar so you don't have to find them in the Start menu, change your user name from the default (most often, the name of the PC's manufacturer) and peel off all those useless stickers. You own the computer now; you might as well make it yours.

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