Step by Step: Get Any PC, New or Old, Ready for Everyday Use

Illustration: Richard Downs
If you break your brand-new PC in right, you can keep trouble at arm's length. During break-in, you'll set the system to standby or hibernate, schedule your backups, and customize Windows' appearance to your specific taste. Of course, you can improve any PC's performance and security by disabling many of Windows XP's automatic settings, and by activating certain features that Microsoft leaves off by default. You'll also want to rid a new PC of various preloaded applications and trial versions that you don't really need, and install and configure a couple of other programs designed to keep you safe and productive. Finally, you can take a few minutes to turn off many of Windows' more annoying and useless frills.

It may take a while to fine-tune everything, but in the end, you can point to your computer and say "There are many PCs like it, but this one is mine." These steps will improve the performance of any system, whether you've been using It for hours or years, and they'll reduce your irritation factor substantially. (Note that the steps described here are for XP Pro, but they should work with other versions of XP as well, though the options may be slightly different.)

Step 1: Show the My Computer icon. This desktop shortcut provides fast access to the Device Manager, your Services list, and other settings you're likely to need when you set up your PC and when you make changes later. Unfortunately, Windows XP doesn't display the My Computer icon on the desktop by default. To add it, right-click an empty area of the desktop, choose Properties, and click Desktop, Customize Desktop. Check My Computer and any other icons--such as My Network Places--that you want on your desktop (see Figure 1

Figure 1: Make sure your My Computer icon appears on the desktop by checking this option in the Desktop Items dialog box.
). You may wish to uncheck Internet Explorer if you don't open the browser via that desktop shortcut (it also appears on XP's Start, All Programs menu). And since I prefer to clean my own desktop, I uncheck Run Desktop Cleanup Wizard every 60 days.

Step 2: Disable unnecessary settings. For security reasons, I disable XP's Remote Assistance and Remote Desktop features. (Your PC vendor may use these features for online support, but they create potential access points for malware.) To close the door, right-click My Computer, Choose Properties to open the System Properties dialog box, select the Remote tab, uncheck all the options, and click Apply.

To improve my system's performance, I turn off most of Windows' fancy visuals, such as those that slide, fade, and otherwise animate menus and list boxes. (I prefer a menu that snaps into position as soon as I click something.) To disable these effects, click the Advanced tab in the System Properties dialog box, and choose the Settings button in the Performance section. Then uncheck the boxes on the Visual Effects tab to turn off the features you don't want or need. I leave 'Show shadows under mouse pointer' checked to make the pointer easier to find on the screen; and because I like seeing a window's contents while I drag it, I keep that box checked as well. But I turn off the other shadows and fading, sliding, and smoothing features by clearing their boxes. When you're done, click Apply.

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