Wednesday, September 24, 2008

How to Set Up Your New Windows PC

When you buy a new PC that comes with Microsoft Windows, keep in mind there are some critical tasks that Windows can't perform, for example virus protection. For this reason PC manufacturers will pre-install other software to fill these needs. Sometimes they create their own brand of software and include these with their PCs, but usually they will bundle trial versions of third-party commercial software. Sadly, in most cases the software that is selected to be bundled with your new PC is not what's best for your needs, but is chosen based on business alliances.

Here is an example of how it works. Software company "X" pays PC manufacturer "Y" a fee to pre-install a 60 day trial version of their anti-virus software on all it's PCs. A very large percentage of those who purchase those PC's will do the easiest thing when the 60 day trial ends, they will purchase a license for the anti-virus software that is already installed. Now they will be paying overpriced license fees every year only to be stuck with an inferior, bloated and performance-killing product.

To avoid this dismal situation, I
suggest removing the trial programs and replacing them with free alternatives. By using well-known, trusted, high-quality free software you save yourself time, money and frustration. In my post on Windows security I point out better alternatives to the bundled trail versions of anti-virus and anti-spyware software. The first set of links below takes you to step-by-step instructions on how to remove those trial programs and replace them with the suggested alternatives.

But wait... there's more! Windows Vista places serious restrictions on copying of media such as CDs and DVDs. Previous Windows versions also won't copy audio CDs or even copy the songs to the computer in CD sound quality. Luckily, we have free alternatives for that too, listed below.

Then there is the issue of Microsoft Office. A lot of folks still think it comes with Windows but it doesn't. Often there will be a trial version installed just to get you hooked, then you find out the full version cost more than Windows itself! Free alternative? Follow the Open Office links below.

Virus Protection: Windows is extremely vulnerable to viruses. It is absolutely critical to have the best possible protection against them. To do so, replace your trial version of Norton, McAfee or other virus protection with Avast! Home Edition. It is 100% free for home users and is higher quality software. If you are going to use it on a business machine their licensing fees are lower than the previously mentioned options. Avast not only is better at virus protection, it's lighter on system recourses meaning it won't slow down your PC nearly as much. If you have software not listed here the steps might be similar enough to get you through the un-installation, otherwise you can do a Google search for "how to uninstall (name of software) antivirus".

Spyware Protection: You will need spyware protection as well. No one wants rogue software taking over their PC, spying on their browsing habits and slowing down their internet access. Microsoft created Windows Defender to combat spyware and included it with Windows Vista. It runs in the background automatically and constantly guards against infections. For Windows XP, it's available as a free download. Windows 98 and ME users are left out in the cold, but fear not! For them there is Ad-Aware, another excellent free spyware killer. Installing both Windows Defender and Ad-Aware will give you the best protection from spyware. The free version of Ad-Aware will not remove spyware automatically like Windows Defender, you must remember to scan your PC manually once in a while. You can, however buy the full version that does support automatic detection and removal.

How To Install Ad-Aware on a Windows computer
How To Install Windows Defender
Follow the "Get It Now" link to download, scroll down for installation instructions.

CD/DVD Backup: Do not expect Windows alone to be able to copy CDs or DVDs. While there are some PC manufacturers that do include audio CD and DVD copying software on the computers they sell, there are plenty who don't, or use buggy second rate programs. Why doesn't Windows have this ability? We'll have to ask Microsoft. The following question and response is from Micosoft's Windows Vista help web page:

"How do I make a music or a video disc that will work in a CD or DVD player?"
"Use a music or video burning program to make playable discs. If you use Windows to copy music files to a disc, for example, they will be copied as files and will not play in most CD players."

So there you have it, right from the horse's mouth. Microsoft would rather you get your CD/DVD copying tools elsewhere. Let's take a look at a couple of great free options:

InfraRecord: This free software will burn CD and DVD, including dual-layer. It can copy audio CDs as well as save audio tracks to your PC in many file formats including .wav, .wma, .mp3 and more. It can burn unencrypted DVDs, like the ones you create with your video camera but can not duplicate copywrite-protected DVDs. It also can create custom data, audio and mixed-mode projects such as slide shows with audio. You will need to MP3 plugin if you want to burn mp3 files as an audio CD playable in an ordinary CD player, or if you want to copy an audio CD to your computer in mp3 file format.

DVD Shrink & DVD Decrypter: If you want to back up your store bought DVDs, you can do it with the help of these two wonderful peices of sotware. Unless the blank DVD you are copying to is dual-layer, chances are the contents of the origional DVD won't fit. This is where DVD Shrink comes in handy, it resizes the contents to fit on your blank DVD. It can reduce the size of the content to fit the blank disk automatically while minimizing quality loss. You can also copy the disk to a file on your PC to burn later. In some cases you will encounter problems copying because of a form of copyright protection called encyryption. This is where DVD Decrypter comes in. It can seem like a complicated process to the uninitiated. Lucky for us there is an excellent step-by-step tutorial on how to backup DVDs with these two programs:

Quick disclaimer: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act has made the backing up of encrypted CDs and DVDs a crime even when you own the original, even if you don't share, or distribute it, and only use it for private, personal home use. Check your local laws before copying anything to make sure you are not in violation.

Open Office: This is a free, open source alternative to Microsoft Office that can open, edit or create Microsoft Word, Excel and Power Point files. This means files created in Open Office can be opened and edited with Microsoft Office and vise-versa. Sometimes there can be bugs, for example one person I know complained that when she opened her essay she created in Microsoft Office with Open Office, the margins were bigger. Generally though it's a fully functional replacement and is even more flexible in terms of supported file formats.

Firefox Web Browser:
Last, but definitely not least I suggest using Firefox web browser. Internet Explorer security breaches are usually the cause of virus and spyware infection. Firefox is more secure, stable, flexible, and it runs faster. It has excellent bookmarking tools, privacy controls, tabbed browsing, and a whole universe of add-ons that make it infinitely customizable. An excellent example of a useful add-on is AdBlock Plus, which blocks most web page advertisements automatically as you browse. You won't be removing Internet Explorer because you can't, Bill Gates won't allow it, and even went to court over it. Even if you could, you shouldn't, because some sites still require it. Just use Firefox whenever possible.

If you have any recommendations of your own to add, or have any questions you would like answered, please leave a comment here.

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