10 things you should do to a new PC before surfing the Web

by Mark Kaelin

Takeaway: A Microsoft Windows PC that has not been updated for security vulnerabilities will be compromised by some from of malware within minutes of connecting to the Internet. Take steps to protect yourself before you start Web surfing.

It is only natural, when you get a brand new PC, especially one with broadband capabilities built-in, you want to connect to the Internet and see it action. For many, the browser and the World Wide Web are the “killer-apps” of the modern PC—the Internet is what you have a PC for, everything else is just extra fluff.

However, connecting to the Internet with a new unprotected and unpatched PC is practically inviting the nefarious and malicious to infect your PC. According to research published by Sophos in July 2005, there is about a 50 percent chance that an unpatched PC will be infected with malicious software within 12 minutes of connecting to the Internet. Once infected, it is almost impossible to get a PC clean again without completely re-installing the operating system. (We are restricting this conversation to Windows PCs for the moment.)

To prevent the frustration that comes with re-installing Windows, you should take the necessary steps to update, configure, and patch your new PC. Keep in mind that no matter how new your PC is, it will most likely need patching and it will definitely need to be properly configured. Here are 10 basic things you should do before attaching the Internet to a new PC.

1. Make a starter CD-ROM

Before you disconnect your old computer, take a few minutes to burn a starter CD-ROM that contains the latest version of your favorite anti-virus software. I prefer to keep this simple and inexpensive by using AVG from Grisoft, but if you like Norton or McAfee those will work just as well.

To save time later, you should put other security applications on this disk like Spybot Search & Destroy, AdAware, etc. It would also be a good idea to include any updated drivers you might need—drivers for your video card for example. Just like Windows, your video card drivers are likely to be a little old also. You should also put drivers on this disk for peripherals that you will be connecting to your new PC, like cameras, scanners, printers, and game interface devices. Having all of these device drivers residing on a single CD-ROM means you will not have to go to the Internet to retrieve them as you set up your new PC.

2. Remove the promotional apps

After going through the initial setup process where Windows identifies devices you may be asked to register and/or activate your copy of the Windows operating system—hold off on that for now, you can always do that later. This first thing to do is to clean up the mess that shipped in your PC. You should remove all of the promotional and trial software that you do not intend to use from your new PC. This is usually the first thing I do, because invariably one of those apps will ask if I want to activate it or register it—a process that usually involves accessing the Internet. (Some times they don’t ask—they just assume I want them on my pristine PC). At this point you should have no connection to the Internet at all, wireless or not.

The applications to be deleted are usually ISPs advertisements like AOL and Earthlink, an antivirus app from a competitor of your current application (something you should already have ready on your CD-ROM), trial versions of Money or Quickbooks, etc. If you are not going to use these, go to the Add/Remove Programs applet in the Control Panel and remove them completely.

3. Install antivirus software

Install the antivirus software that you burned onto a CD-ROM in step 1. The assumption is that any PC purchased after this document is published will have Windows XP SP2 installed, but if SP2 is not installed, you could have that update ready on your disk too. In fact, if you know how, you could have some of the more important Windows patches and updates on your disk also. This would be a good time to install anti-spyware software too.

4. Turn on a software firewall

Windows XP SP2 comes with a modest but still useful software firewall. Before you start surfing the Internet you should turn it on—or you can install an alternative third-party software firewall like Zone Alarm. Any alternative firewalls should have been included on the startup CD-ROM you made in Step 1.

5. Install printers and other peripherals

Before you connect to the Internet it is a good idea to install your other peripherals to your new PC. Performing this step means that when you do connect to the Windows update page, it will see your devices and make suggestions for new Microsoft-tested (WHQL) drivers if they are available.

6. Establish a password for the administrator account

One of the most glaring security vulnerabilities in any new Windows-based PC is that it ships with a wide open administrator access to the root directory. You never want anyone but you to have unfettered access to the admin settings on your PC. And while a password could easily be bypassed by a skilled cracker, it will deter the less determined intruder.

7. Create a new user account with password

This is almost as equally important as password protecting your administrator account. For general day-to-day activities, you do not want to be using your admin account. Instead, you should be using a user account that is also password protected (a password that is different than the one you are using for the admin account, please). This adds another layer of protection for your new PC because a user account does not have the same all-access permissions as an admin account. In some cases, malicious software will be thwarted by this level of permissions restriction alone.

8. Turn off unnecessary Windows services

Microsoft has been doing a better job of this with the release of SP2, but there are still numerous unnecessary Windows services and processes running by default on most PCs. If you’d like to see how many there are just perform the three finger salute (CTRL-ALT-Delete) click Task Manager and then the Processes tab. All of those applications, services, processes, etc. are operating in the background on your PC. The problem is that many can actually open access to your PC to the outside world without your knowledge or active consent. That access is usually justified for what the process is supposed to be doing, it is just that many times your PC doesn’t need that process at all—Web servers, network messengers, debuggers—are all processes you probably don’t need on your personal PC. (Check out this TechRepublic download for an in-depth examination of these services and for some suggestions for which can be deactivated.)

9. Establish a system restore point

Now that you have performed the first eight steps you should take a moment to establish a system restore point. To manually create a Restore Point, you launch the System Restore utility by clicking Start | All Programs | Accessories | System Tools | System Restore and then follow the steps in the wizard. This step will establish a fall back point if something happens to go haywire later.

10. Install and configure a router

This last step may seem like an unnecessary added expense to some, but in this age of viruses, worms, and other nasty Internet infections, a router standing between you and the outside world coming at you at broadband speeds offers another significant layer of protection. Connecting a PC directly to the Internet means that PC gets its own IP address, which means it can be seen by every sleazebag with malicious intent. By adding a router to your broadband setup, the router gets the visible IP address and gives your new PC an internal address. In addition, routers have hardware firewalls and other features that help block the bad guys before they get to your new PC.

This is especially helpful because the first thing you should do when you do actually connect to the Internet is head directly for Windows Update. This is the most important tip in this guide—the only place you should be heading on the Web when you first connect your PC to the Internet is the Windows Update page. You will not have time to check movie times or football scores. The 12 minute countdown to possible infection starts as soon as connect.


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10 things you should do to every Windows PC

by Mark Kaelin

Takeaway: This document lists 10 enhancements you should make to every new Windows PC, no matter whether it is a workstation or the family media computer.

Getting a new PC, whether it is at work or at home, is one of those “makes you smile” moments. Just like the “6 Million Dollar Man” we all want better, stronger, and faster. However, every new PC that crosses your path is in need of a few tweaks. This document lists 10 enhancements you should make to every new PC, no matter whether it is a workstation or the family media computer. These tweaks will bring out the best in your new PC and give you a solid foundation for future applications and operating system updates.

1. Prepare it for the Internet

The first step should always be to implement the necessary security measures required for connecting it to the Internet. For office workstations and PCs installed by network administrators, much of this preliminary work will have already been done, but for home PCs these steps are essential. Connecting a new PC to the Internet before taking the proper security steps outlined in a previous TechRepublic article will be construed by the nefarious citizens of the Internet as an invitation to infect your PC with a virus, worm, or Trojan horse. The scariest part of that scenario: the infection is likely to take place within 12 minutes of connecting to the Internet.

2. Turn on ClearType and adjust Desktop settings

One of the first things I do when I sit down at a new Windows PC for the first time is activate the ClearType effect located on the Display Properties control panel. To get to the right control, open the Control Panel and then open the Display Properties control panel. From there, navigate to the Appearance tab and click the Effects button. (See Figure A)

Click the second check box for smoothing font edges and choose the ClearType option. Click OK a few times and you should see the fonts displayed much more crisply on the screen. For tired eyes, like mine, this can literally save you a few headaches, especially if you have to stare at a monitor screen all day. Once you install the Microsoft PowerToys (See #9) you can adjust the ClearType settings to achieve a more personalized display.

This is also where you would adjust the size of the Windows icons, choose whether to allow the screen contents to show while dragging, specify themes, and designate font style and size. Those are all personal choices and will vary, but for those of us that look at the screen all day, these setting must be adjusted.

One important thing I do is change the background color for text areas in Windows. The default is white, but that is often too bright for me. I change it to off white to reduce the intensity and the eye strain it causes. It is a small change, but I think it makes a big difference.

Figure A

Display Properties – Effects

3. Configure file system

Sometimes large software companies like Microsoft take on a motherly role by configuring their software to protect us from ourselves. This is the case with the default manner in which the file system is displayed in Windows Explorer—system files are hidden, file extensions are hidden, and big icons are displayed instead of a detailed list. Some of these settings may be a matter of personal preference, but if you are going to truly know your PC and the Windows OS up and down, front to back, you will need to see all the information about a file displayed in every listing you see.

To set up the file display to your liking, open Windows Explorer and navigate to Tools | Folder Options on the menu and then to the View tab. Next, you want to look down the list of checkboxes and radio buttons to find the one that says “Show hidden files and folders”. (See Figure B) I also recommend you click the checkboxes next to:

  • Display the contents of the system folders
  • Display the full path in the address bar

You should also uncheck the boxes next to:

  • Hide extensions for know file types
  • Hide protected operating system files

Revealing the protected OS system files can be dangerous if you are one who likes to delete files and ask questions later, but as long as you are careful, I think the benefits outweigh the risks.

Once you get the folder view the way you want it, you should click the Apply to All Folders button to make the view common to all folders.

Figure B

Folder Options

4. Set screen resolution and Hz and DPI

Once again, this suggestion may stem from my aging eyes, but the general concept is sound for all new PCs. Go to the Control Panel and open the Display Properties. While you may want to change the Appearance or activate a Screen Saver, my concern is with the Settings tab. The resolution determined by the install process (includes any OS) may not be the best resolution for your hardware or for your eyes.

For LCD monitors, the resolution settings should match the native resolution of the monitor itself. The native resolution is easy to determine, it the maximum resolution the LCD monitor can actually display.

For CRT monitors, the resolution settings should be set to values that are most comfortable to your eyes. For monitor sizes of 17 inches or more that would most likely mean settings of at least 1024 X 768. However, the actual settings available are determined by your hardware, which includes not only the monitor but also the video card.

Perhaps even more important than the resolution are the settings for Dots Per Inch (DPI) and the Screen Refresh Rate. These controls are under the Advanced button of the Display Properties. (Figure C) The DPI, found under the General tab, determines how large the display fonts will be on a Windows PC. The default is 96 DPI, but at resolutions above 1024 X768 I prefer a DPI of 120.

The Screen Refresh control is found under the Monitor tab. (See Figure C) Your monitor will determine what settings are available here, but for CRTs I prefer a relatively high refresh rate of 85 Hz. Although you may not notice it, the monitor screen is constantly flickering. This flicker can give you a headache and make your eyes hurt if it is too slow, especially with CRTs. LCDs are a little different. They are usually limited to 60 Hz, but because they use a different technology, the strain to the eyes is much less pronounced.

Figure C

Advanced Display Properties

5. Activate Windows

At some point during the setup process you will likely be asked to activate Windows. (Linux you would similarly be asked to register your particular distribution.) This is a good time to get that out of the way. Taking this step assures your operating system is legitimate and opens up a new set of support features including community forums and FAQs.

6. Copy over browser shortcuts

For many of us, our list of favorite Web sites is a reflection of our lives. It is more than a mere list of places on the Word Wide Web; it is our connection to a dynamic virtual world. However, once a link is placed into your browser, you don’t really have to worry about remembering what can often be a cryptic URL. However, because you don’t have to remember, you may actually forget what it is. This is why porting over your browser favorites is so important.

It is a two step process. First, export your browser favorites to a file. In both Internet Explorer and Firefox, the Export and Import features can be found under the File menu. (Figure D) Once you have exported to a file, copy that file to the new PC and then import that file to your browser of choice on the new PC.

Figure D

Export and Import

7. Install needed applications

If your new PC is at work, chances are that all of the “necessary” applications are installed already. But for home PCs, there is still work to do. Everyone’s idea of what applications should be installed is going to be a personal choice, but there are likely to be some selections common to us all. Here are some of the applications I have to install with each new PC:

  • Office Suite, including e-mail client
  • Money, QuickBooks or some other money management application
  • RSS Reader
  • iTunes
  • Graphics/Paint program beyond Paint for Windows
  • VPN client (for connecting to the office)
  • CD/DVD burning applications beyond what shipped with the PC
  • HTML Editor
  • Application developer IDE (often two—VS and Eclipse)

I’m sure you can think of some others. Of course there are always the entertainment applications like World of Warcraft, Call of Duty and Civilization.

8. Set up e-mail and home page

Now that you have your e-mail client and browser installed, it is time to configure them. Specifying the browser home page is an easy thing to do, but it is also quite necessary. The default home page for browsers is not where you want to go every time you fire it up. The e-mail client configuration will be dependent on the client application and the service provider. In Outlook, the configuration is under Tools | E-mail Accounts, which starts a wizard that will walk you through the process.

9. Install PowerToys

One of the more important things you can do to enhance your new PC, especially if it is a Windows PC, is to install the Microsoft Windows XP PowerToys. These free applications can simplify your Windows PC life by making it easier to change default configurations, synchronize across computers, and manipulate files and photographs.

10. Save system and registry, back up

Once you have your new PC setup the way you like it, you take a few moments to backup your hard drive and save the system files and the registry. Taking these steps to establish a restore point now will create a new base configuration for your PC. This is a state you can return to if something goes wrong in the future.