Seven simple steps for setting up Windows 7

Woody leonhard By Woody Leonhard

When you’re the designated alpha geek for your family, friends — and maybe the office, too — you know certain duties come with the territory.

One of those duties is setting up new PCs. Here’s my quick-and-easy checklist of tasks to do it right.

It usually starts out with something like this: “Hey, I just got a new PC! You know all about ‘em — could you help me set it up?”

If you’re lucky, the invitation comes attached to a satisfying supply of leftover turkey sandwiches, pecan pie, and cold beer; if you aren’t so lucky, it’s take-out pizza and warm soda. But whatever the inducements, you know full well you’re on the hook.

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You could easily write a book about setting up Windows 7. (Come to think of it, I have.) But after setting up a hundred or so Windows 7 PCs, under a wide variety of circumstances, I’ve developed some specific steps to make setting up a new Win7 system as painless as possible — a sanity-saving checklist, if you will.

So the next time your Aunt Gertrude invites you to help her — or your boss calls you into her office to fix the mess left behind by the corporate IT guy — take these seven steps to a well–set-up machine.

1 – Get rid of the pre-installed junk software

PCs ship with tons of useless software. If the friend you’re helping has played with her new PC for more than an hour or two, chances are good it has even more garbage installed. Before you try to do anything else, defenestrate (to use my word of the day) the junk.

Begin a thorough cleaning of a new PC by going into Windows 7’s Uninstall or change a program utility. Click Start, Control Panel; then, under Programs, click Uninstall a program. Now sit your friend down next to you and decide whether any of the more questionable programs are absolutely essential to her future happiness. Those that are not — zap ‘em.

And while you’re at it, get rid of the trialware; she’s likely to end up paying for apps she doesn’t need.

Next, remove all the space-wasting programs preinstalled on the PC, starting with the devils you know — such as manufacturer-specific utilities, unwanted browser plug-ins, and other digital detritus. Then take a few minutes to download and run PC Decrapifier (download page), a remarkable, free-for-personal-use utility that roots out and destroys the most common offensive programs. PC Decrapifier is particularly good at finding stubbornly attached pieces of unneeded antivirus programs.

2 – Free does not always mean useless

If your cousin Bill’s new PC came with a so-called free antivirus program preinstalled, get rid of it. (The exception to this rule is Microsoft Security Essentials. Fred Langa weighed in on the superiority of MSE in his Sept. 16 column in the paid section of the newsletter.) Antivirus companies pay computer manufacturers big bucks to install trial versions of their software on new PCs. These apps are usually good for a few months, and then you have to pay to keep them current.

Once you’ve removed the trialware AV app, install Microsoft Security Essentials. It’s free for personal use or for use in companies with 10 or fewer Windows machines. MSE is fast, very effective, and unobtrusive; and best of all, it never begs for money.

If your cousin has already paid for a different antivirus program, tell him to wait for the subscription to run out and then replace it with MSE. One final — and extremely important — point: make sure you download the real Microsoft Security Essentials (download site), not one of the cleverly dressed malware fakes Fred discussed in his Dec. 2 column.

3 – Change Windows settings for safety

Windows 7 has a handful of default settings that drive me nuts. Your opinion may differ, but at the very least you should consider these changes:
  • Show filename extensions: In all my books, I rail against Microsoft’s decision to hide filename extensions by default. The ‘Softies argue that neophyte users don’t need to see the .txt on a text file or .doc on a Word document or .xlsx on an Excel spreadsheet.

    But in my experience, not showing filename extensions leads to all sorts of confounding behavior: errors such as accidentally naming a file incorrectly — mystuff.txt.doc, for example; running an unsafe or unexpected program — double-clicking on iloveyou.txt.vbs, for instance; or making their files difficult for other people to open — such as sending XL2007sheet.xlsx to someone using Excel 2003.

    To make Windows show filename extensions, click Start and Documents. Next, click Organize in the upper tools bar and choose Folder and search options. Click the View tab and uncheck the box marked Hide extensions for known file types. (While you’re there, consider checking the Show hidden files, folders, and drives box.)

  • Create a user account: Most people get a new PC with just one administrator account, typically with a name such as Admin, Owner, or even something silly such as Satisfied Customer. Whatever it’s called, this default admin account usually doesn’t have a set password. You know the dangers of unrestricted system access, but many PC users don’t.

    Give them a leg up on safe computing by first assigning a password to the default admin account (it doesn’t have to be anything fancy). Then, set up a new account — under the user’s name — that is set to the more restrictive Standard user security level. You can add a password for that new account, too, or create additional accounts — whatever the situation dictates. Give your friend the password to the admin account, but emphasize that only the standard account should be used.

  • Consider turning off Automatic Updates: I always get a flood of hate mail when I make this recommendation. If your Aunt Gertrude doesn’t understand Windows security and fears that winning a game of solitaire will make her PC blow up — fair enough — she needs to have Windows Automatic Update turned on. If a PC is likely to run unsupervised for a while, it should get automatic updates, too.

    But most moderately alert PC users are capable of regularly checking whether the monthly Black Tuesday, er, Patch Tuesday updates are safe to install. Excellent information on the latest patches can be found in the Patch Watch column of the paid section of Windows Secrets, on my AskWoody site, and in many other sources. Give the recommendation that it’s better to apply patches when the user want to — not when Microsoft first rolls updates out the chute, sometimes to ill effect.
4 – Needed or not, set up a Windows homegroup

If cousin Bill has several PCs on his network, but only one with Windows 7, he can’t use Windows homegroups — Vista and XP don’t support it. But on networks containing more than one Windows 7 PC (even if there’s currently just one) setting up a homegroup now will make it much easier later on to get additional Win7 PCs talking to the network.

I explained homegroups in detail in my October 1, 2009, Woody’s Windows column (paid content). Suffice it to say that, assuming you trust all PCs on your network, setting up a homegroup makes sharing files, printers, and other hardware much simpler.

To set up a homegroup, click Start, Control Panel. Under Network and Internet, click View network status and tasks. Look below the heading View your active networks. If you see a house icon (as shown in Figure 1), you’re connected to a home network. In that case, get a homegroup going by clicking Start, Control Panel; under the Network and Internet heading, click the link to Set up a homegroup.

Windows 7 home network type
Figure 1. To set up a homegroup, you must tell Windows that you’re connected to a home network.

If you see an icon that looks like a computer with a shield (work network) or bench (public network), it’s easy to change to a home network. Click the link marked Work network (or Public network), choose Home network, and click Close. As soon as you change to a home network, Windows asks whether you want to join a homegroup. Click Join now, and you’re in.

5 – Get automatic daily backups working

Yeah, yeah — do as I say, not as I do.

Setting up cousin Bill’s new PC for regular backups? In Windows 7, it’s easy. If the machine has Windows 7 Home Premium and a second hard drive, he can use that for backups. With a one-drive system, talk him into running out to the nearest computer shoppe and buying an external hard drive. It’s the best hundred bucks he’ll ever spend.

(If Bill is running Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate, and he’s connected to a network, he can use a network drive for backups.)

When you plug the new external hard drive into a USB port, Windows 7 should automatically ask you whether you want to use it for backups. Follow the easy instructions, and you’re soon good to go for nightly backups.

If you don’t get the prompt to set up backups when you plug in a new external hard drive, click Start, Control Panel; then, under System and Security, click Back up your computer. Click the link marked Set up backup, and follow the wizard. It’ll take two minutes, max, to get daily backups running.

This would also be an excellent time to make an emergency boot disc (see the Fred Langa’s Top Story item, “Build a rock-solid net for Win7″) and a complete image backup of Bill’s machine. Win7 comes with its own image-backup tool: select Control Panel and, under System and Security, click Back up your computer. Select Create system image.

6 – Install the basic helper applications

There are certain base applications that every PC needs. No doubt you have your favorites; permit me to list mine.

I won’t preach about the superiority of Google Chrome for Web browsing — I’ll simply direct you to the Chrome download site. If you prefer the largest selection of browser add-ins, head over to the Firefox site.

Every PC needs a PDF viewer. At this point, I’m thoroughly ambivalent about Foxit Reader (product page) because the company has started infesting its installer with junk. But if you carefully choose the correct check boxes when you install it, Foxit is a much smaller and nimbler alternative to Adobe Reader.

Alas, most PC users still need a Flash player. The Chrome browser has a sandboxed version of Adobe Flash Player built in (info page), but if you use any other Web browser, the only real choice is to dance with the devil and download (page) the standard Flash app.

For keeping your PC completely up-to-date, install Secunia Personal Software Inspector (product page). This free-for-personal-use program periodically scans your PC and tells you whether you need to update common programs to patch security holes. It’s worth its weight in gold.

7 – Add useful but unobtrusive utilities

Beyond the must-have base apps, there’s a whole world of useful Windows add-ins and utilities. A handful I highly recommend include the following:
  • 7-Zip: Because we live in a world that still has Apple computers, I always install 7-Zip (download page). (No! Put down that brickbat!) Seriously, people are always sending me .rar files, almost invariably from Apple computers. You need to have a .rar-savvy program to decompress them. If all you ever receive is .zip files, Windows handles those nicely.

  • Paint.net: Windows Paint is good enough for very simple tasks, but I generally install Paint.net (download page) on all the PCs I set up. It gives you excellent, compact, fast tools for editing photos and otherwise manipulating image files. IrfanView (info page) is another good choice, particularly if your cousin has to cope with many different file formats or needs scanning tools.

  • VLC media player: Windows Media Player has its strong points, but it doesn’t play many kinds of media files. It also won’t work with iPods (and I refuse to struggle with iTunes). VLC media player (site) handles every type of file I’ve ever thrown at it — and it connects to iPods, iPhones, and iPads, too.
Finally, two excellent utilities are ideal for anyone who depends on the Web. (And who doesn’t these days?)
  • Dropbox (site) lets you drag and drop files into a special folder on your Windows desktop. The files then magically appear on all PCs, laptops, phones, and iPads that also have Dropbox installed. It has good password-based security and fine file-sharing options.

  • LastPass (info page) stores your passwords in the cloud, where they can be retrieved with ease (as long as you’re connected to the Internet) and are protected by strong security. I don’t know how I ever managed without it.
You can probably work through these recommendations in under an hour. Once done, you’re ready to set your friends, relatives, and co-workers free, knowing they can start safely and effectively using their new machines. They can transfer data from another machine, install the other apps they need, and safely work on the Web. (For more on moving data from one PC to another, see Fred Langa’s LangaList Plus column in the paid part of this issue.)

Having been given a solid computing foundation, they might offer a better beer the next time they need help. Being an alpha geek has its privileges.

Feedback welcome: Have a question or comment about this story? Post your thoughts, praises, or constructive criticisms in the WS Columns forum.

Woody Leonhard‘s latest books — Windows 7 All-In-One For Dummies and Green Home Computing For Dummies — deliver the straight story in a way that won’t put you to sleep.
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Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.