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Building a New Computer – Part 5: Tweaking Your New Computer

Now that we’ve put our computer together, setup the BIOS, and installed Windows, it’s time to get down to the business of tweaking our new computer. In the final installment of this series, I’m going to cover the basic configuration and software tweaks that you should use to keep your computer safe, secure, and running at peak performance, and a few tweaks to make Vista easier to use.

Note that no configuration is right for everybody, these are general rules that will help you.

Keep Your Computer Patched and Protected

If you’ve ever had to deal with your computer being infected with spyware or viruses, you know that keeping your computer protected is of immense importance. There’s a couple of quick steps you can do to keep the hackers out and your data safe:

  • Always use a Firewall – You don’t have to buy any fancy firewall software unless you want to, the built-in Firewall in Windows will work just fine… as long as you make sure it’s enabled.
  • Keep Your System Patched – I’d recommend that you leave Windows Update set to update automatically, so you don’t have to think about whether you have the latest patches installed.
  • Keep Your Anti-Virus / Anti-Spyware Up to Date – What’s the point of using a malware protection package if you aren’t going to keep it up to date? For instance, if your trial version of some non-free package runs out, you are a lot less secure than if you simply used AVG Free with automatic updates enabled.

Windows Vista includes the Windows Security Center, which will tell you at a very quick glance how protected you are. You’ll notice in the screenshot below that Windows detected that my Anti-Virus is turned off.

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A quick setting change in the AVG panel, and now everything is enabled, and you’ll notice the Update Manager component is active, so I’m receiving the latest updates as well.

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I’m not necessarily endorsing AVG Anti-Virus over a paid solution, but it’s a pretty good product that will keep you protected… and you can’t beat the price of Free. Many of our great forum members both use and recommend it, and in my experience it doesn’t cause too many issues.

Download AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition

Keeping Your Computer Clean

Other than being infected with spyware, the biggest cause of system slowdown is clutter and junk all over your drive. You have a number of options to combat this, (including not installing every piece of software you see), but at the very least you should make sure to run the Disk Cleanup utility on a regular basis:

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If you want a more powerful solution, however, you should run the excellent CCleaner utility once every week or two, as it will clean out temporary files from not just Windows applications, but also Firefox and many other sources of file bloat.

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Important Note: CCleaner comes bundled with the Yahoo! toolbar, which you should make sure to uncheck during the installation. (screenshot from Mysticgeek’s article on the subject)

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Download CCleaner from ccleaner.com

Defragment Your Hard Drive Regularlyimage

Over time, your hard drive builds up so many files that they end up becoming fragmented across your drive. This can happen because applications create temporary files, which then get deleted, leaving little chunks of free space everywhere. When new files are written, they end up needing to be split up into smaller chunks in order to fill in those small chunks of free space… which leads to a really disorganized hard drive. This is the reason why you defragment your drive, which re-organizes the files so that they are each in their own place.

Windows Vista has completely automatic defragmentation of your drives, and there’s really no need to mess with it. If you would like to, then we’ve got an article on the subject: Set Automatic Defrag Options for All Drives in Vista Service Pack 1

If you want to manually defragment your drive, you can add an option to defrag to the right-click menu for your drive, or you can even create a batch file to defragment multiple drives at once.

Note: There are plenty of third party defrag tools that most likely do a much better job, but they always cost money. More on this in a future article.

Backup Your Computer

Backing up your data is so important that I’m planning on writing a series to discuss it in more depth, but at the very least you should use the backup utility bundled in Windows Vista to back up your files to an external drive, and make sure to set the backup to run on a schedule. If you have the Ultimate version of Vista you’ll also have access to the “Complete PC Backup” feature, which will create an image of your hard drive. If you are using a Home version, you can check out Mysticgeek’s guide to using the freeware DriveImage XML application for the same purpose.

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You could alternatively use the free 2GB Mozy online backup to keep an off-site backup of your most critical data. You can also pay a few bucks a month for unlimited storage if you like, but I would use online backup as a supplement to local backup, not as a total replacement.

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I’d recommend checking out Lifehacker’s recent roundup of backup utilities, which also includes the one that I use, SyncBack SE. It’s an incredibly powerful application, although to get access to all the features you need to pay a few bucks. Well worth it for the peace of mind of knowing my data is safe.

Customizing the Look & Feel

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Now that we are all safe and secure, it’s time to start customizing the user interface. Almost anything in Windows can be customized if you don’t mind spending a little time tweaking.

I’m just going to list out the tweaks that I usually apply to a new machine, you can decide which ones are right for you. The one I simply can’t live without is increasing the size of the taskbar previews, cause the tiny default size just drives me crazy.

 

Add Shortcut Icons for Common Tasksimage

I like to add a bunch of useful shortcut icons to my Quick Launch bar for common tasks. Many of these I also place in my start menu so that I can use the hotkey features built into Windows.

These are just a few of the shortcuts that you can create… it’s really a matter of personal choice. My personal favorite is being able to turn the desktop icons on or off.

 

Power Up Your Context Menuimage

The context menu can be a powerful tool, giving you options specifically for a file type, or even allowing you to add an Open with Notepad to all files, which is probably one of the most useful additions you could choose.

Because I do a lot of tweaking, I also find adding “Take Ownership” to the menu to be another indispensable option that I couldn’t live without. As for the rest, it’s a matter of preference.

 

Fix Some Vista Annoyances image

The next stop is a couple of tweaks to severely reduce some of the annoyances in Windows Vista. Even though I wouldn’t choose a different operating system, there’s still a few things that grate on my nerves… but thankfully there are always workarounds.

Here’s a couple of annoyances that you can quickly fix…

For more on this topic, you can read my guest article on Lifehacker:

How to Make Windows Vista Less Annoying

Install Your Software

Now that we’ve patched, secured, tweaked and hacked our system, it’s time to start installing software so that we can actually use the computer for something useful. There’s no right configuration of software for everybody… if you like Internet Explorer better than Firefox, that’s your decision and there’s nothing wrong with it. I’d still recommend giving Firefox a try, but it’s really up to you.

Many people have asked me what software I personally use, so here’s a quick list of the mainstream software that I use, some of which is not free, and much of which won’t apply to you.

  • Firefox for web browsing, although I’ll admit that I often use both IE and Opera both for testing and because they start up a lot quicker.
  • Pidgin for instant messenger, because it works cross-platform and supports a dozen services so I can use all my accounts in one application.
  • CCleaner for cleaning up my system.
  • AVG Free for anti-virus.
  • AutoHotkey for incredibly powerful hotkey scripting.
  • Microsoft Outlook with Gmail IMAP for email. If you want to do the same, we’ve got a guide on that.
  • Microsoft’s Live Mesh for remote desktop and file sharing between my home and office.
  • Synergy for sharing the mouse and keyboard across my Vista and Linux computers on my desk. We’ve previously covered how to resolve issues using it under Vista.
  • Texter for setting up text substitution and automated form filling.
  • SftpDrive for mapping a drive letter to the How-To Geek server over SSH. (Not free or cheap, but worth it)  Note that you could alternatively use the free WinSCP, but it doesn’t create a drive letter.
  • SecureCRT for SSH connections to the How-To Geek Server. (Expensive, but very powerful)
  • Tudumo for my Todo list… it’s a great little application with very powerful hotkey support.
  • Google Calendar Sync to synchronize my Outlook and Google Calendar.
  • SyncBack SE for backups… I love this software, it’s absurdly powerful.

I use a ton of other software, but most of it would only be useful for programmers so I won’t bother listing those here.

Conclusion

I’ve had my custom-built computer for a few weeks now, and I could not be happier with it. If you are up to the task and like to use a desktop computer, I absolutely recommend that you build your own machine. In case you missed the rest of the series, be sure to read up on the rest:

Got any tweaks or tips of your own? Share them in the comments.

Lowell Heddings, better known online as the How-To Geek, spends all his free time bringing you fresh geekery on a daily basis. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 07/20/08

Comments (34)

  1. USBman

    I’d like to suggest simply downloading (and installing) the version of CCleaner withOUT the yahoo toolbar. This “slim” version, as well as a portable version, can be downloaded from: http://www.ccleaner.com/download/builds

  2. Lord samnon

    I highly HIGHLY suggest getting another firewall , and maybe a better anti virus.
    For the Firewall i suggest comodo , its free and VERY powerfull (for proof check out this site http://www.matousec.com/projects/firewall-challenge/ ) and for the best overall anti virus check out (www.av-comparatives.org )

  3. Mark Schneider

    Thanks for another great post. wish I’d had it last year when I built my 1st PC. Simple things , like the fact that XP doesn’t recognize sata drives is the type of thing that can drive you crazy.
    Anyway, a great guide, I recommend your RSS feed to anyone I know interested in computers.

  4. Amr El-Helw

    Excellent post!! I’ve been following your posts, especially the “Building a new computer” series, and I really appreciate the time and effort you put into them. I definitely recommend it for anyone interested in the topic.

  5. Dethtoll

    Excellent article. The one thing hat I would have added is, if at all possible, use some sort of router for connecting to the internet. This is easily one of the best upgrades I have made recently, as it keeps the computers behind it that much more secure. I have a 2wire modem/router combo and simply love it. If anyone decides to heed this advice, PLEASE make sure you spend a bit of time tweaking and securing if it has wireless capabilities. Failing to do this will almost certainly make it a useless bit of hardware if a dedicated hacker decides to break into it. Changing the encryption from WEP to WPA and changing the default admin passwords are an excellent defense against intruders. Thanks Geek, and keep up the excellent posts.

  6. tbone87

    I like this article and this website however i have some issues with the article. AVG is known to be the worst of the free virus scanners and there should have been mention of avast or anti-vir in the article who scored better in the virus labs tests. Defrag is also for the most part useless and just increases the wear and tear on your hard drives. The speed increase is very minimal. also digsby is an awesome IM program and vlite is a must for people who reload frequently as well as vista boot pro for the dual booters in the crowd.

  7. The Geek

    @tbone87

    While you are welcome to your opinions, you are just flat out wrong… a fragmented drive is painfully slow, and defragmenting it will increase the speed.

    There’s also nothing wrong with AVG, it scores just as well as other anti-virus products in most of the tests.

  8. Talyn

    Quote – Defrag is also for the most part useless and just increases the wear and tear on your hard drives.

    Unfortunately – rubbish, and rubbish. (Sorry, no offense intended)

    Defragging drives is a good thing to do. if you only use your PC once a week, don’t defrag every time, do it every 6 months or so. If you use your machine every day, constantly d/loading things, changing/deleting/creating files, maybe defrag once a week. There’s a reason it’s called ‘Housekeeping’

    As for wear and tear on your HDD’s, they are designed to be in constant use. It’s better for an HDD to be on 24 hours a day than turned off and on and off and on. (As for being energy efficient, um…get a smaller PSU if you can get away with it?)

  9. quahog

    I dont think the windows firewall is very good, and I dont use it because it can be manipulated pretty easily because its software.

  10. Sons_Of_Liberty

    On Defragging software, their’s a host of free one’s out there that do a good a job as pay-for ones do.

    Examples are: JKDefrag, Iobit Defrag, and Defraggler….

    JKDefrag
    http://www.kessels.com/Jkdefrag/
    JKDefrag GUI
    http://www.emro.nl/freeware/
    Just google for Iobit and Defraggler.

    Also, I highly, highly recommend not using the Windows firewall. Use Comodo, it’s free and the best out their right now, and if you never heard of it, go check it out, been using it for a long time now.
    http://www.personalfirewall.comodo.com/download_firewall.html

    On Anti-Virus I’ve tried them all, all the free ones anyway, and AVG and Avast! are about the same, and Avast! actually did worse in virus testing, and Avira is really good, but really annoying at the same time, because it catches stuff that’s not even a virus or spyware.

  11. Marco

    Thanks for this wonderful article. And the FIRST one I read that is not urging users to install a third party firewall. In VISTA the firewall is indeed just fine for home use. Why spending much memory for Comodo and other firewall software when Microsoft’s FW is working.

    Serious, how many percent have had a hacker attempt? 0,01%? A hacker wants to hack a banking account and doesn’t want to see the photos of the naked neighbor.

    Anyway, Xellent article!

  12. The Geek

    @Marco

    Indeed. Of course there are third party firewalls that are free, but the one in Vista is quite decent… and I absolutely recommend keeping it enabled.

    The real problem that people have is Spyware, phishing attempts, etc, which firewalls aren’t going to stop anyway.

  13. Sons_Of_Liberty

    Well, Comodo actually does that as well, and even prevents installing of some items, it has a Defense + system that is great, but maybe not needing, but if you install a butt load of apps like I do, it’s appreciated, because I test alot of apps mainly freeware and ya just never know Also with SpywareBlaster, and using NoScript And AdBlock in Firefox, pretty much defeats anything. Why run scripts, there’s a great majority of malware waiting to happen. Comodo is only eating of 2mb, so I wouldn’t say it’s a resource hog my any means.

  14. The Geek

    @Sons_Of_Liberty:

    I have nothing against Comodo… it’s a perfectly fine product. I think the problem is that there’s a culture of fear around Windows in general that makes everybody automatically hate the Vista firewall, while it’s actually a full-featured firewall that can easily compete.

    You should think about testing out freeware apps in a virtual machine… that’s what I do… then there’s virtually zero potential for infection of your main machine. If anything happens, you can just roll back the virtual machine, no big deal.

  15. BG

    One more recommendation for JKDefrag. IMO, it’s the best free defrag program on the market. Defraggler is good as well, and it’s from a reputable company; however, in my tests, it’s been slower and not as thorough as JKDefrag.

    Also, I am a bit disappointed that this walk-through only suggests that people install Windows. I’m a Linux and Windows user, and with distros like Ubuntu and SUSE out there (which are so easy to install and configure), I would have thought you would have at least mentioned this as a viable option.

  16. Sons_Of_Liberty

    I have one grip with Ubuntu and Kubunut for that matter, I have a dial up modem and it’s Conexant (sp?) and will not work with either distro, unless I compile a driver myself (no clue on that), or pay for a driver, pay for a driver lol. I don’t have Vista and don’t see any need to have it, all I know is the XP firewall is crap and can very easily bee gotten past, which I assume from other fear mongers that it can as well be bypassed….Comodo on the other hand is defeating leak test after leak test. I recommend to anyone I can. As for virtual machine, I do sometimes, but I use DriveImageXML http://www.runtime.org/driveimage-xml.htm and just restore my backup’s, to a fun state of windows.

    A great guide here:
    http://www.lifehacker.com.au/tips/2007/11/27/hot_image_your_pcs_hard_drive_.html

  17. gewilli

    I hear comments about the Vista firewall being OK but XP firewall not so good. Aren’t they the same?

  18. Jon

    @The Geek in regards to tbone87’s comment about AVG and defrag…

    I am sorry, but I agree with tbone87. These days hard drives are so massive and fast that a defrag literally does nothing. Have never seen any performance (transfer or search) improvement after a defrag in my entire life. I think that Microsoft made defrag automatic as a scheduled task just to quiet people that don’t understand hard drives very well.

    Sure, there is fragmentation but when internal transfer rates are in the hundreds of megabytes per second it won’t really matter. Also, how many average users add and delete files enough that it would even cause an issue? Most people add files and let them sit there to gather dust. At most you’ll get fragmentation when you edit and save a file. If you move the file to another volume/partition then it’s already contiguous after you move it.

    Also, AVG isn’t the worst AV program. It’s probably the least resource using but in regards to actually catching viri? I used AVG up until version 7.5 and one time I downloaded a file off of an internet website and ran the file, it tore right through my computer and even infected the AVG process running at the time. Nothing worse than your AV program detecting that itself is infected and does nothing while the virus destroys your hard drive.

    After reformatting I tried out Avast 4.7 instead. I tried to get that same file and Avast wouldn’t even let me download it! Now that is what I call a real AV program. Of course Avast is a bit more resource intensive but at least it is going to protect you and far more than AVG ever could. In fact, the new version of Avast has anti-rootkit protection, something that AVG does not.

  19. Sons_Of_Liberty

    Actually I delete and move GiB’s a day. I’m always re-arranging things. So I’m that person who you just said doesn’t do that. And with a external hard drive I did notice a difference, but I have varying files sizes ranging from a MiB to 5 GiB’s.

  20. Jon

    @Sons_Of_Liberty

    When talking about large files like that it will make no difference. They will be contiguous when created and on the new volume you move them to. Default cluster size with NTFS for a 2GB+ sized volume is 4KB. You get fragmentation with smaller files (documents, web cache, etc) especially when you save and edit them. At no point are large files going to cause any performance problems with fragmentation at all.

    http://support.microsoft.com/kb/140365

    Defragging a disk to make any considerable performance increase is merely a myth…or just kept on from legacy days where processors, memory and hard drives were so slow that you’d actually notice a difference.

    In comparison, we’re talking about dual/quad core processors, DDR2/DDR3 memory and hard drives with so much cache buffer (16-32MB) and blazing fast internal transfer rates that it will never make any difference at all.

  21. Scott

    Wow, parts 3 through 5 of this guide were exactly what i needed. i just built a system for the first time ever and i’ve been searching for a site to help me with a few pesky BIOS problems as well as a central location for some good testing software. THANKS!

  22. Digital

    A great guide that helped me build my computer from start to finish. I would only suggest adding Part 6: Overclocking.

  23. ComputerPro

    Okay,I did use CCleaner for a while(i LOVE your joke about it being CrapCleaner!)But I found a MUCH MUCH better program that cleans everything THAT CCleaner does NOT!!It is Advanced SystemCare it is FREE and you can get it from download.com But,Obviously the Pro is MUCH better.

  24. KooL

    Anti Virus programs are a waste of resources, money, and time.In 6 years and about a dozen computers later, I have never had a virus once. I used to run a Norton scan once in a while to check, and it never found any infection whatsoever. I never click on ANY flashing ads, or open email from someone I don’t know. Windows firewall, and Windows defender(Vista default), are sufficient.If you are running XP, Microsoft has a Windows Defender XP version, to download(free) Also free on the web is Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware, which will rid your computer of the spy’s that follow you around,although Windows Defender does such a good job, the scan very rarely find any problems.I spent money on VistaBootPro, but have not used it since I crashed one of my computers(It wouldn’t boot) I have several dual boot computers, (XP & Vista,), one older one with Win98se & XP, and a triple boot with XP, Windows7, and Vista. Just install XP first, or when you reboot, Vista will not be available on the boot menu. You can install Vista first, but you have to fix the boot, or it goes straight to XP, without a choice for Vista.Dual boots are great, if you partition the hard drive into two small partitions for the OS, and the remainder of the drive for storage. This eliminates the need to back up your files. You can do a clean install on either one of the OS’s, and when your done, viola!, all your files are still there, on the storage partition, witch can be shared by both OS’s. This is great for games. Just reinstall the game in the same folder(in the storage partition), and your progress is exactly where you left it. Copy photos,music,or whatever to a folder in storage, and copy them back to there original spots when your done installing the OS. I’m not much of a geek, so when I encounter a problem with the computer I can’t fix, I just reinstall the OS, and I don’t loose a thing. For all you Vista haters, all I can say is having the choice between XP & Vista at the click of a key, I find myself using Vista over 90% of the time. I can’t get Vista to boot faster,but with a few simple tweaks, Vista is WAY faster than XP(and more secure)

  25. Steven

    Another thing that i recommend is creating a “data” partion that you redirect all your profile folders to. In Xp you would need to use partion magic or some similar software if you did not set this up on the install of the OS, but in Vista it is very simple. Open disk management (right click computer, manage) and you can choose shrink or extend. I always do this so i dont keep all my documents on my OS partition in case my OS crashes for whatever reason. You can reload your OS and all your documents and personal information is not lost.

  26. Lynn

    Hi,
    How can I disable the autolaunch of a file or application when I’m using the touchpad on my laptop? You know when you leave mouse hovering on a file or link and it decides to be helpful and go there for you? I don’t want it to be helpful unless I click on it.
    Thanks

  27. IDK

    Hey Geek,

    Nice guide! You forgot to mention, creating a system restore point?
    Got stuck on Part 4, accidentally installed the wrong Vista Edition.
    I wasn’t bothered trying to re-install, so i bought the edition I selected, (Vista Ultimate)
    What’s with the HomeBasicN, when it says in Vista Installation?

  28. someone

    hi my computer is just doing some crazy things like it logs off by its self and it gets alot of virises what should i do?

    from

    someone:)

  29. Erin

    G’ Day all,
    I have found this article to be a excellent source for the beginner like myself that is thinking of building my own PC. The comments were also enjoyable and educational. As for the anti Virus all I can say is that Bit Defender “JUNK” Nothing but problems with it, Mcafee “JUNK”, Norten “JUNK” I have tried all of these and have had nothing but problems with them either left over registry errors and ghost files. I have not tried AVG but I have heard good things about it. I have been using Avast for the last year and have found it to be a great deal “Free” and I have not had any problems with the program itself and I have not seen any un wanted Malware, Spy ware etc. or viruses and would recommend it to anyone.
    As for Someones question, read all these comments and you will find the solution to your problems.
    E

  30. catgirl

    Is it possible to do a search on the internet of an item in a picture? I am looking for a ring I lost. I have searched hundreds of websites, trying to find the same ring to no avail. Is it possible to scan or load a picture and search similarities of pictures posted on the internet. Sorry if it sounds futuristic or silly, but I’m old and not exactly computer savvy, and at my wits end.
    Help! Anyone.

  31. Khna

    Catgril its not possible still but i hope soon it wil
    Thanks
    khan

  32. Tosh

    get a smaller PSU if you can get away with it?) how stupid! its the amount u use not the size of the ps!
    nothing wrong with AVG
    this is about building a computer not getting on internet – the router crack
    u guys are idiots that dont know squat. He’s trying 2 help.. bunch of newbees

  33. crazyITninja

    Hey there Geek,

    Like everyone else said, great great post. I enjoyed it very much. I’m at work now but my newegg shipment is at home waiting for me, and I’m using your guide as a reference just to make sure my excitement doesn’t make me mess up!

    I own a small computer repair business and I recommend your site to all of my customers who wish to learn more and how to do it themselves.

    If I may, I do have a question about stock heatsinks and thermal compounds. You mentioned a tidbit about getting aftermarket thermal compounds, but what did YOU use? I’m holding off on setting up my rig because I’m not sure whether stock heatsinks and thermal compounds in your opinion will be good enough.

    I have an AMD 3.4 GHz quad core processor and do plan on overclocking. I’ve done some research, but most of it brought me back to square negative 1. So may I ask your opinion?

    Thanks again

  34. Jiimy

    @KOOL

    I never had a virus because I use Linux. Simple as that.

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