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Ask the Readers: How Do You Set Up a Novice-Proof Computer?

You’re into technology, you like tweaking and tinkering with computers, and, most importantly, you know how to keep your computer from turning into a virus-laden and fiery wreck. What about the rest of your family and friends? How do you set up a novice-proof computer to keep them secure, updated, and happy?

It’s no small task protecting a computer from an inexperienced user, but for the benefit of both the novice and the innocent computer it’s an important undertaking. This week we want to hear all about your tips, tricks, and techniques for configuring the computers of your friends and relatives to save them from themselves (and keep their computer running smoothly in the process).

Sound off in the comments with your tricks and check back in on Friday for the What You Said roundup to add see how your fellow readers get the job done.

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 10/24/12

Comments (47)

  1. Grant

    I have two boys, now 8 and 10, who have been using the computer since age 2. I set them up on Linux (Debian first, now Ubuntu) with a limited rights account. They can only make a mess of their own area. Worst case, empty their home directory and let them start over. I have to install software for them, but they can’t break the machine without causing physical damage (hammers, water, etc.)

    My wife was on Windows, and I was on Debian, and before they had their own, they knew they could only use my computer, and only logged in as themselves. All accounts were password protected, so that was easy to enforce.

  2. Rahabib

    Ubuntu guest account for my 3 year old.

  3. Daniel Hoffman

    I wish I could just install Ubuntu but since they are on Windows I just automate a lot of tasks for them and that’s it.

  4. AG

    Limited or Standard account in a fresh Windows installation (no crapware).

    Security Essentials for anti-virus, with Malwarebytes free to back it up.

    CCleaner set to automatically wipe everything every night.

    Ninite Pro or Ninite Updater to keep everything up to date.

    Remove IE and set Chrome as default. Install Adblock.

    DO NOT install Flash, Java, or Reader. Use SumatraPDF or Chrome’s built-in PDF viewer.

    Set a task to reboot the computer every night so Windows updates get installed.

    Pain in the neck, but it works well. Or just skip all this crap and get a Mac.

  5. Tom

    I second the notion that Linux is a great solution for users with basic computing needs: e-mail, YouTube, viewing PDFs, using files created by MS Office, and so on.

    I installed Ubuntu on my wife’s 5-year-old Dell laptop after twice spending hours recovering the machine from two malware events that Microsoft Security Essentials silently ignored, like a worthless watchdog curled up on the couch while a thief burgles the home.

    There are still a few programs that won’t work with WINE (think online coupon printing at Target.com or Coupons.com), and she can launch XP via VirtualBox for those.

    So, despite the occasional minor inconvenience, Ubuntu meets her modest computing needs in a cleaner, more secure user environment. Zero headaches for me, the home tech support department.

    Plus, she can go for months without rebooting — only the rare kernel update requires a reboot.

  6. Tek9

    For Kids, I recommend Qimo (off-shoot of ubuntu) designed with pre-planned packages for education and entertainment centered on kids.

    In a windows environment, backup policy is the best thing you can do to protect your users. I have my grandmother set up on CrashPlan to sync to one of my storage locations that will keep her documents etc.. backed up within reasonable time frame. Use a disk image utility if possible occasionally so you can back up the entire system in the event of catostrophe. Other than that, I let her make mistakes and learn from them.

    If you’re dealing with kids and the internet, I highly recommend learning and understanding Group Policy and how to lock things down with that. WinLock is also a good alternative to easily disable some things and create custom Start Menus for the children.

    OpenDNS for URL filtering. Can be applied at the router level or the computer level depending on your need. Combine that with Group Policy to lock them out of making changes to the DNS settings on the computer and you’re good to go.

    Probably the number #1 thing to realize is this: If you’re helping a novice user get started, be prepared to dedicate a lot of time in large and small chunks to that person. If you don’t like them that much, don’t start the process and abandon them at it. There will be times when you want to push them to resolve a problem on their own, but the majority of it is teaching and hand holding.

  7. TheFu

    Install Lubuntu 12.04.

    * The GUI will not confuse someone used to WinXP.
    * Don’t give them root/sudo.
    * Setup hourly snapshots and weekly off-site backups
    * Setup automatic weekly patches for all OS and applications
    * Tell them to contact you before buying **any** hardware to be connected to the computer or network. Especially tell them to avoid anything from Apple, since it doesn’t work.
    * Tell them to experiment with any programs in the menus, they can’t harm anything on the system.

    An end-user can’t really do anything to a Linux machine that is harmful to the system. They can harm their own account and their own files, however. That’s what all the backups are about.

  8. r

    …I give then a Fisher-Price Color Flash Laptop

  9. Josh B.

    ChromeOS is about as bulletproof as I can think of.

  10. thegeekkid

    I have an old server sitting in my basement, so my entire house uses active directory. Therefore, group policy editor works wonders! ;)

  11. Computer Magic Solutions

    I am a computer consultant and I make sure all my novice (and advanced) clients with Norton 360 to deal with allot of the security and tasks for them. I also try to remove as much bloatware as possible as well as giving the computer a good initial cleanup. It is also important to customize the computer for THEIR needs (ie easy accessible shortcuts to what THEY use as they will only touch what they use/need.)

  12. Z

    When I was at school, the machines were sandboxed in a way that I could download, install anything I wanted for that session, the moment I logged out it was all gone, and went back to the default configuration. I can’t remember what the software was, but I think that this is a great “novice” proofing. If they need something to be on the machine everytime like updates to firefox, then the admin has to take care of that.

  13. ubutnut

    account with limited rights should do the job but that implies every dad or gramps or whoever has the skillz in the family would become sysadmin and like in real life their urged to upgrage there skillz on regular basis – if needs be with certification – so that they wont bring down entire family’s IT infrastructure simply becuz there knowledge aint up to date.

  14. Scott

    @Z – My school does that too. At our school its called Deep Freeze. It resets the computer to whatever system image the school chooses at the end of every day.

  15. Ashish

    my kid is two years old, i some time want to lock everything (keyboard + mouse)
    he should be just able to watch movies.

  16. Chemical

    I use Deep Freeze on two family computers that are internet and documents use only. The family knows to save their work to a thumb drive.

    You can literally download several viruses, install 18 toolbars, delete system 32, etc. Simply restarting the computer brings you back to a fresh copy of Windows 7.

  17. YaYa-Whatever

    I’d love to comment. But our HTG (pronoun) seems to have me (and quite a few other people) on some sort of censorship blacklist. Too many times I have tried to actually contribute in a positive way with no vulgar language, staying on topic and even avoiding judgmental statements (not that I’m exactly doing that now) only to later see my comments get pulled!

    So in case our (pronoun) is maybe feeling generous or possibly asleep at the censorship button, I would offer this: Linux! It’s dead simple one you get it running. And you almost never need to worry about what a newbie is going to do too. I could go on but I’m afraid it might be all for nothing.

    …Love the articles but hate the draconian treatment there, HTG.

  18. NSDCars5

    1) Password. I just lock my laptop as I leave, and only I know the password.
    2) Anti-virus. It just works.
    3) Rights. I have the right to stop people from doing stuff on my laptop, so I forbid them to download anything.
    4) Eyes. I keep looking at the screen, so as to stop them from doing anything harmful.
    That’s it.

  19. RR

    thumbs up for ubuntu and derivatives

  20. Rayneman

    Ubuntu for netbook – LinuxMint Cinnamon for desktop – Simples eh!

  21. TheHub

    Just give them an ‘Etch-A-Sketch’ and tell them it’s a laptop !!

  22. Huisie

    Firstly, I try and drum into them that: “Hardware is replaceable, data isn’t.”.
    Getting users to be active in data backup and redundancy can be a thankless chore, so I try for setups that take most of the work off their hands.
    All those I support use Windows and Office, though I occasionally help one relative with a Mac.

    Install:
    Partition primary HDD – C: for OS and Apps, D: for Data
    Point default folders (My Documents, etc.) to locations on D: partition
    Make several system image backups during install: Windows, Win + drivers, Win + drivers + Office, etc
    After install, I show them how to restore from these backups
    I show them that default folders point to D: partition and try and drum it into them to save all data here, never on C: partition

    Data
    The 4 data areas most worth preserving for those I support seem to be email, photos, documents and browser profile.
    For these items I try to use online backup and syncing, so they are accessible and easily recoverable.
    Dropbox (now that it’s easy to get 5GB or more)is my preference, for its versioning,
    Email – set up own domain (I manage and pay for it, so a nice little pressie, a gift that keeps on giving) using IMAP/MAPI with GMail/Outlook.com or Office 365.
    Documents – all to D: partition, vital stuff to Dropbox
    Photos – same as documents
    Browser – Firefox profile to D: partition and inside Dropbox

    Apps
    I try and get as many of their apps into a portable launcher (Liberkey, PortableApps, etc.) and install it to D: partition. This goes into Dropbox, too.
    Office – point default folder and templates to D: partition and backup signatures.

    Security
    I check their router to make sure they aren’t using the factory defaults for passwords, etc.
    Install MS Security Essentials (MS don’t get enough credit for this)
    Install LastPass and show them how easy it is to stop using the same password for everything.
    Recently, I’ve stopped installing Java and told them to find an alternative or stop using anything that requires it.
    In Firefox – Adblock Plus, Ghostery, Flashblock,
    Windows Updates – set to automatic

    Media
    Some users have large and/or organised media collections with metadata.
    This can be photo collections too large for Dropbox, ebooks, music, video, etc. I also include archived documents in this.
    If there are other PCs in the house, I see if its possible to use something like Live Mesh to sync this info to one or more PCs.
    An external HDD is an option, but I find most users are terrible at making regular backups, even if you try and automate it as much as possible.
    Re-purposing an old PC is a better option for this – a NAS seems like it would cause more problems than it would solve.
    I see ASUS has released a router with USB 3.0, – I hope this becomes standard, as it would make backup of large data a lot easier.

  23. TROLOLOL

    Deep Freeze dude

  24. Paul

    Tom’s story is almost my own.
    Linux with just the programs that my companion needs, and I am tech support.
    Win 7 is installed in VirtualBox, “just in case”, but never used.

  25. Michael

    I put Linux Mint on a computer for my parents and put 3 huge icons labelled Word, Spreadsheet, and Internet taking up most of the desktop (inspired by the article on Eldy). Then I showed them how to shut down and told them not to touch anything else. I also installed Teamviewer just in case.

  26. Aruldd

    Just put a Freezing software in it and configure it to work on all drives.

  27. DarkWinterNights

    I started originally with setting up Ubuntu stations for various people (skinning to XP for those who couldn’t initially make the jump), unfortunately many of these workstations were spread around the country and some of my older users just couldn’t make sense of the units. There would also be issues with them wanting to install windows packages that wine couldn’t emulate properly and did not have compatible alternatives. Further, some of the users would terminate during major updates like upgrading to 12.04, rendering the system pretty much useless.

    Team Viewer helps to an extent until the system is unbootable.

    Eventually, I ended up settling for a do-what-you-want approach; users who liked Linux were not much of a jump for, but I started setting up Windows machines under Deep Freeze, which had the nice effect of allowing users to pretty much do whatever they want to the system and restore it at reboot/shutdown. If they wanted a software package permanently installed I could push it remotely.

    So far everything is running great – short of physical damage to the units they appear bulletproof to general blunders and more.

  28. MdKnightR

    Windows – don’t grant local admin privileges. I like the idea of using Deep Freeze as well and may do that in the near future.

    I recently installed Jolicloud Linux on my child’s netbook. It’s mostly web-based, so the only thing to keep up with is the password.

  29. Ken

    I have used Freeze on a machine, but you have to be careful. It becomes a little tricky when it comes to updates. There is always the possibly of putting it in a continues loop. In which case you have to re install from scratch.

  30. Israel

    Good cuestion, this is how I do it. After a new installation of Windows, I install everything necessary for them. Adobe Reader, Office 2010, 7zip, Chrome, Avast!, Thunderbird, CCleaner, Defraggler, Soluto, and Teamviewer. Regarding the Antivirus, I configure it for them not to use it, so I program Scans weekly. CCleaner configured to clean everytime the user powers on the PC and Defraggler every month.

    I change the ‘My Documents’ folder location, as well as the ‘Desktop’ ‘My images’ and other user’s folders to the second partition of the HDD. If someone want to install any kind of software, they should contact me and ask for it, that’s why I set for them the limited account of Windows. If they do it on their own, they end up installing annoying and unnecessary browser toolbars every time a program prompts a message regarding that.

  31. Rabo

    don’t let them near one.

  32. Jithin

    I create seperate accounts for my family member’s. In our family I’m the computer geeky person :P and my parents are novice users. Me and my sister share the same account my parents share a guest account. It saves us from all the hassles caused as a result of changing the settings. Even if my parents change any setting, its not going to affect the computer in a bad way because most important settings are locked in a guest account.

  33. A

    Barbed Wire. simple, easy, effective.

  34. Tom Taborda

    Windows (pre-7) used to have ‘Steady State’, here’s the alternatives
    http://www.instantfundas.com/2010/09/5-alternatives-to-windows-steadystate.html

  35. George

    Hi,
    I use Virtualbox with windows 7, and just tell them to make a snapshot before and after they use it. I also set up group policy to make sure ONLY Virtualbox can be run for their accounts!
    Its simple, but if they mess up then I can just restore the snapshot!, I also set a shared folder to go on the desktop and set up their user profile to go there, so they do not loose their files if they restore and I just use \\vboxsvr\(folder) instead of mapping a network drive

  36. Justin Garrison

    This was my solution for my mom’s laptop running Linux Mint XFCE
    http://i.imgur.com/mKiCo.jpg

  37. Divya

    this is what i recommend for novice

    1) anti-virus
    2) ccleaner
    3) Chrome
    4) change updates settings to automatic

  38. TechGeek01

    I have never set up computers for little kids, but I do set up computers frequently (wipe, recover, etc.) for close friends, and I usually install Ubuntu (If the OS has to be wiped).

    In any case, when I do something to someone’s computer, I always leave a readme text file explaining what I’ve done, and how to live with and work the modifications (a new OS, new program, uninstall, etc.). I also hunt down and install any necessary drivers (for a new OS), and get that set up.

    In some cases, depending on the user’s skill level, I’ll also install something similar to Dropbox, so we can chat or collaborate if trouble or confusion arises.

    As previously mentioned, I always install Ubuntu if possible, if it’s a situation where the OS is wiped, and the readme file explaining how to get around in Ubuntu, and how to work it, so they at least have a basic understanding. If they have questions, I make sure to give them an email address, so they can ask me directly.

    I don’t make the computers completely novice-proof, but I do install an antivirus,unless its a special case where I’m just recovering files and redoing the entire computer. In that case, the AV is a separate job.

  39. stephenvbc

    Well I have finally trained my brother to bring all his machines to me and i decrapify em then add team viewer so as to keep em up dated ….(no on in my family can be trusted to keep em up dateed or clean)
    I got tired of them bringing me virus laden and locked machines…so i make the rounds while they are asleep….Avast free, c cleaner, malwarebytes , spybott 1.62..and keeping al lplugins up dated with firefoxes up date tool/test…..I on the other hand have multiple OS’s that i use for various things from Ubuntu ultimate to windows 7 and Android 4.1 (and i even have a ugh mac)(team viewer is free for non commercial use, I love it because I prefer to see what I am doing , and it is available on all operating systems)

  40. JeffS

    @daniel Hoffman, why not install Ubuntu? It’ll dual boot with windows and won’t mess anything up on the windows side

  41. Robert Firestone

    Novice Proof is a term that became relevant when computers entered the home and people of all ages were using them wit or without reading the instructions. The term used to be called ‘Bullet Proof’ and began when mainframe ‘online’ systems wee first developed. The idea ‘Bullet Proof’ really meant that the non-technical user could not break the system or cause incorrect or undesired things to happen. Many people building those systems also used the term ‘Idiot Proof’ which essentially meant the same thing, but was a reflection of the frustration with some of the earlier non-technical users of some of the early users of online systems. One of my programmers was at our first test site and after spending hours training the people on how to use the system, stayed to watch what they did on their own. She came upon one user whose screen was filled with error messages from the system. When she asked if she could help, the response was ‘Oh no – everything is fine’ Over the next several months, about 95% of the errors we found in the system had that operators initials related to them. It was a great tool we used to make the system ‘Bullet Proof’ so that user could no longer make mistakes that generated a general error message.

  42. RC

    Very simple, no one touches my machines but me. Selfish and stingy, but gets the job done.

  43. Wolf

    I use DeepFreeze on my home computers and server, I also install it on the computers I build for people who have children or friends use the computer online. I tell the most tech-savvy in each house what the program is and how to turn it off so that Windows can update along with the various other programs that need to update.

  44. zeepkist

    please HTG, could you also ask what free software people use to keep their kids amused?
    that would be great.

  45. TsarNikky

    It was suggested earlier that one buy Fisher-Price’s Color Flash Laptop. Or, for a more expensive route, buy a tablet with Windows-8 on it and install some games. The big fat tiles with a touch-screen should make for easy infant/child navigation.

  46. Xilsoh Freeman

    I did a fresh install in my PC, with all security software… then at the end of it I installed Deep Freeze (Windows)… I just have to turn it off when OS and security software updates are needed… Period!…

  47. bedlamb

    I have a friend. (no, really).
    I put Deep Freeze on her machine. She keeps the machine on, puts anything she wants to save on a flash-drive like pics, txt files, whatever.
    Once a week I go to her place and update everything for her.

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