PC Building Best Practices: Software

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Device Drivers: Go Get 'Em

Downloading and installing the latest drivers for all of your components is usually the best way to go. The drivers that come from Windows Update or on a CD or DVD bundled with the component are typically much older than what you’ll find at the manufacturer site. This is especially true for graphics cards.

After you've completely updated your firmware and fully patched your OS, it's time to install the latest device drivers for all of your components. This is arguably the most crucial step to ensure optimal system performance, compatibility, and stability. However, I recommend that you not install drivers from Windows Update or from the CD/DVD included with your components, if you can avoid it. As I’ve mentioned, Windows Update often serves up older drivers, and the physical media bundled with many devices can be old, too.

I recommend visiting each component manufacturer’s website to download drivers for:

  • Motherboards/chipsets
  • Graphics cards
  • Sound cards/controllers
  • Network controllers
  • Any other add-in expansion cards

For graphics cards, though, don’t bother heading to the website of the card brand; instead, go to the GPU manufacturer’s site. That means visiting Nvidia's site if you own a GeForce or AMD's site if you have a Radeon. The latest reference drivers available on the Nvidia and AMD sites are almost always the best drivers to use for your GPU. This step is especially important for gamers, as new graphics drivers typically address bugs or improve performance with the latest games.

Note, too, that you should install drivers in a certain order. Although there are no hard-and-fast rules, it’s usually a good idea to install your motherboard/chipset drivers first, because typically they’ll affect the system’s USB and storage controllers, PCI Express, and assorted other low-level settings. After installing the chipset drivers, move on to the graphics drivers, followed by all the rest.

Other Tweaks

With all of your driver installations complete, you can move on to the finishing touches. Countless tweaks to Windows can enhance performance or virtually any other aspect of the OS--there are too many to cover in a single article. I can provide a bit of guidance, however.

After your OS is installed and updated, and all of the latest drivers are installed, you still have to make a few tweaks to wring some additional performance from the system.

Many specific tweaks for particular components are worth doing. If you have a solid-state drive, for example, I recommend running the downloadable SSD Tweaker utility. SSD Tweaker modifies various OS settings, such as the indexing service and some legacy NTFS settings, to increase the SSD’s overall performance and long-term reliability. For graphics cards, great third-party utilities such as MSI’s Afterburner or EVGA’s Precision make it easy to tweak fan speeds or to overclock your GPU.

Tweaking Windows for optimal performance (and minimal annoyance) is advisable as well. Manually specifying a static pagefile is a good tweak to ensure that your PC never runs out of virtual memory, and to minimize any thrashing of a hard drive or unnecessary writes on an SSD. Don’t disable your pagefile, however; although it’s not always required, some applications still need it to function properly. I also advise replacing some of Windows’ included apps with better third-party tools. For instance, you can replace Windows’ built-in defragmentation tool with the superior Defraggler and augment the Disk Cleanup tool with CCleaner, both from Piriform.

Once you’ve completed all of your installations and tweaks, run Disk Cleanup (and CCleaner) to sweep out any leftover junk and temp files, and to reclaim as much storage space as possible. Don’t be surprised if you gain gigabytes of space, even on a clean system. And if your PC has a hard drive, once it’s clean, defragment it (but never defragment a solid-state drive).

Although I couldn’t possibly cover all of the tweaks and nuances of every possible hardware and software combination in this article, I hope I’ve given you enough high-level guidance to set up and optimize your new rig properly. Just remember, your build isn’t finished simply because you’ve put together a few parts and run the Windows installer. Update the firmware, install the latest drivers, patch and tweak the OS, and clean out the junk before considering your build complete.

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