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Apologies in advance! This is the kind of piece I used to post to my old blog – a geeky article about how to squeeze the most out of some aspect of technology. That blog is no longer active now that this blog has taken its place, and given that my interest in technology relates to its ability to improve people’s lives in a general sense, I figured some thoughts on simple computing would fit in nicely on Refocuser. It’s hard to contain my excitement these days for my day job in high-tech (what a luxury!) so there are worse things than having it bleed into my other passion. This post, however, will be a little more “basic” than some of the stuff I used to post about – there won’t be any hard drive partitioning here!
As many of you may have heard, Microsoft released the latest version of Windows – Windows 7 – on October 22, 2009. Disclaimer: I do work on the Windows team at Microsoft – but I’m a fan of good technology first and foremost, so this isn’t some sort of advertisement – nor does it represent anyone or anything at Microsoft. This new version of Windows is known for being faster, more reliable, more secure, and just plain better than any version of Windows to-date. I’ve been beta testing it for well over a year, and I can definitely say that it’s changed the way I feel about my PC. My PC is fun again with Windows 7 and works exactly how I want it to.
Getting a PC into the most optimal state isn’t something that just happens though. We aren’t (yet) at a place where computers are perfect all the time (despite what Apple apologists will tell you) – and they certainly can’t read our minds yet – it still requires a little bit of know-how and some work to get your PC into tip-top shape. And once you set it up how you want it, it requires some level of discipline to leave it that way…. to not ruin it with loads of junky software, and to avoid cluttering your desktop or personal files with things you don’t need. It’s important that if you’re going to spend the time to simplify your PC that you keep it that way for as long as you can (at least until Windows 8 comes out!) You’ll find yourself operating at a much higher level, focused on the task at hand instead of struggling to find files, or simply fighting with your computer every step of the way.
After all, that’s what this is all about. Focus. Very few of us actually enjoy configuring software or moving data from one computer to the next. But with a little groundwork, you can increase your ability to focus tenfold.
Now before you do anything, I’d recommend installing Windows 7 on a new computer, or at least a blank hard drive. I wouldn’t do a straight upgrade from Windows Vista (or Windows XP, which is a little trickier) – I would start on an empty hard drive and do what’s called a “clean install” so that you only have the operating system, and not the loads of old software and settings you’ve been carrying around. If you’re wondering which version of Windows 7 to buy for a new or existing PC, I would look at this chart and check out the Microsoft Store. If you’re still confused, or if you don’t know what you’re reading at all, I would just opt for Windows 7 Home Premium.
Once you have Windows 7 installation under way, here are the 12 steps I recommend taking:
1. Enable Automatic Updates during Setup. Windows 7 is a living operating system, constantly updated to keep your PC secure and running smoothly. In order to keep this up, the best thing to do is to enable automatic updates – that way you don’t have to worry about manually checking for new updates from Microsoft. Whether it’s an updated driver for a new piece of hardware or a security patch, you’re going to want these things automatically installed for you while you’re sleeping – so you can focus on things other than being an IT manager for your home!
2. Install Microsoft Security Essentials. While Windows 7 and Internet Explorer 8 are more secure than any other operating system and browser combination out there, hackers and virus hounds still like to pound on Windows since it has 1 billion+ users. This means you’d be silly not to have some additional protection to make sure you don’t inadvertently get any spyware or Trojans on your PC. Microsoft Security Essentials is free and it’s the quietest security software out there, only bugging you when something is wrong. Highly recommended over naggy, heavyweight, and expensive security packages like McAfee or Norton. You can get Microsoft Security Essentials from http://www.microsoft.com/security_essentials.
3. Install Windows Live Essentials. Microsoft removed many of the in-box applications from Windows XP/Vista in order to release them more frequently. These applications include Movie Maker (what I work on), Photo Gallery, Writer, Mail, Messenger, Silverlight, and others. These programs really do complete the Windows experience (without them, you only have very basic ways to manage your photo collection for instance) and they’re lightweight, fast, and full of great features for Windows 7. Also highly recommended. You can get Windows Live Essentials from http://download.live.com.
4. Install Office 2007 (if you need it). If you need Excel, PowerPoint, Word, and/or Outlook, Microsoft Office 2007 is the best way to go (note: Office 2010 is currently in beta testing). If your needs are minimal, you can get by with a web alternative – but given that Office 2007 runs like a charm on Windows 7 and gives you the “real deal”, enabling just about anything anyone would need from a productivity suite, it’s worth a strong consideration. The first thing I do when I install it is change the Theme to Black or Silver – the Blue theme is so 2001. You can do this by opening Word and going to Options. You can buy Office 2007 from www.microsoftstore.com.
5. Install Adobe Reader and Flash. These two programs are necessary evils – you can’t do much on the web without Flash, and with so many documents in PDF format, you’d be hard pressed to get by without Reader. There are alternatives (like Foxit Reader) but Adobe has been much less aggressive in the way it takes over your computer lately, so there’s not much harm in installing the real deal. When I install Reader, I turn off automatic updates when it prompts me because I just don’t want another program “phoning home” when I’m trying to use it. That’s a personal preference though. You can get Reader and Flash from www.adobe.com.
6. Install Windows Live Sync (if you need it). Keeping files “in sync” across multiple computers isn’t an easy concept for people to understand, but once you do, it’s really powerful. Windows Live Sync helps you roam specific folders (like your Documents or Pictures) across the Internet to other PCs. It’s also great to keep your Internet Explorer Favorites the same everywhere. I use Sync to keep a set of roaming documents synchronized between 4 different PCs (and a Mac) so that wherever and whenever I happen to be, I can get to my most important up-to-date files. If you don’t need this capability, I would just skip this step entirely. But if you do, this can change the way you work. You can get Windows Live Sync from http://sync.live.com.
7. Choose a Theme. Once you have the basics running on Windows 7, you can have a little fun with it. Open the Control Panel from the Start menu and go to “Change the theme”. From this screen you’ll be able to choose from one of seven great themes, which come with their own window color, desktop backgrounds, and sounds. You can also click “Get more themes online” to browse popular themes for your PC like Infiniti, Coke, Zune, and my favorite, Bing pictures. And if you want to get creative, you can even create your own – just choose a theme you like and then change some aspects of it (like adding your own background images to cycle through) and save it. I personally like great photography, so I usually stick with the simple but highly inspiring photographs.
8. Setup HomeGroup (if you need it). HomeGroup is a new feature in Windows 7 which connects all PCs on a home network to documents, music, video, pictures, and even printers. If you have a laptop and a desktop, or just multiple PCs at home, HomeGroup is a lifesaver. You can print easily to any printer in the HomeGroup, and access all of the files you need once connected to the network (yes, it works wirelessly too). It’s so much easier than standard file or printer sharing, and even works with laptops that are a part of a corporate domain – so your work laptop can connect seamlessly to your home network at home with HomeGroup. To setup HomeGroup, just click Start and type “HomeGroup” and enter.
9. Pin Your Favorite Programs to the Taskbar. Forget digging through the Start Menu when you want to find your favorite program, just add it to the new taskbar. You can do this a few different ways – the two easiest are to just drag and drop the shortcut from the Start Menu onto the taskbar at the bottom of the screen, or to right-click on the program you’d like to pin and click “Pin to Taskbar”. You can then rearrange your taskbar however you’d like by dragging and dropping. One fun trick: when you right-click on icons on the taskbar, if they’re designed for Windows 7, you get what’s called a Jump list – a list of actions you can start right from the taskbar. Another fun one: you can pin the Control Panel down there by opening up the Control Panel from the Start menu, and then right-clicking on it in the Taskbar and selecting “Pin to Taskbar”.
10. Put Everything in Your Users Folder. From now on, everything you save should go into your Users folder. You can access this by going to Start and then clicking on your name. If you keep all your documents, downloads, music, videos, and pictures in one place (C:\Users\Your Name) you can more easily move this stuff to a new computer in the future. You can also backup your system without fear that you’re forgetting something important somewhere. This is something I’ve been doing for over 20 years (long before Windows started supporting it) and feel very strongly that it’s a requirement for peace of mind. You want your backups to be actual backups of your stuff!
11. Clean Up Your Messy Desktop. If your desktop is littered with files, folders, and other shortcuts, I’d recommend booking an hour and going through every single thing on your desktop and finding a place for it in your Users folder (just not the Desktop folder). If you can’t do that, create a folder called “Old Desktop MM/DD/YYYY” (with the actual date) in your Documents folder and put everything into that. When cleaning up, don’t worry too much about deleting shortcuts to programs that litter themselves on your desktop – you aren’t deleting the program itself, just the pointer to it (which is also in your Start menu). One trick I also like to use is to turn off my desktop icons entirely since everything I need is either in the Start Menu or the Taskbar. You can do this from the Control Panel by searching for “Turn off desktop icons” and selecting the “Show or hide common icons” option. This keeps me from emptying my recycle bin all the time – instead, it actually serves the purpose it was meant to solve (namely keeping things “almost” deleted until I need them again!)
12. Setup Regular Backup. 1 in 3 people don’t view backup as a necessity, yet 50% of people have lost data at some point. Laptops are stolen all the time (over 2,000 each day) and hard drives crash every minute – and with over 500 billion digital files in existence, that’s a lot of potential data to lose. The average U.S. adult has well over 2,000 digital files – photos, documents, music, and other types. Having lost data in the past, I take my backup system very, very seriously (at any given time I have 5 different copies of my data in 3 different physical locations). It’s not something I have to think about anymore. While there are a number of great backup solutions out there, I’m going to recommend you do at least two of these three things:
- Backup to an external hard drive (preferably stored in a fireproof, locked media-ready safe) using Windows Backup. To setup Windows Backup, just type “Backup” in the Start menu and open “Backup and Restore”. Windows Backup will automatically backup the important folders (see #10 above).
- Backup to an online service. I use CrashPlan these days because I think the desktop software is a little better than the others, but Mozy and Carbonite are also good options. Backing up to an online service will take days (or weeks – or even months) but there’s no better peace of mind that your data is safe somewhere other than your home. Even though your hard drive is most likely to fail, fire, earthquakes, and burglary are real threats too.
- Backup to a Windows Home Server. Don’t let the name fool you – even though it’s called a server, it’s surprisingly easy to use. Windows Home Server backs up all the computers on your local network automatically every day, and lets you restore individual files or the entire computer. You can even go back to any date (depending on how many backups you choose to store) and restore your PC to an exact date and time from weeks ago. HP, Acer, and Lenovo make great Home Servers – check them out.
By the way, if you’re still using Windows XP and need access to something that’s only available in Windows XP for some reason, you can also use Windows XP Mode with Windows 7 provided your hardware supports it.
Naturally there are many, many other things you could do with Windows 7 if you want to. You have access to millions of programs, utilities, gadgets, peripherals, and so on. If you have an iPod or a Zune, you’re also going to want to install software (like iTunes or the Zune player) to go along with it. But for the most part, you should avoid installing too much stuff like the software that comes with your camera, webcam, or removable hard drive. Most of what you need comes with Windows or Windows Live, and cluttering up your PC with a bunch of half-baked software is never a good thing.
If you start with the list above, you’ll have a system that should hum along for years. It’ll be fast, full of great software for fun tasks like video and photo editing, but most importantly, it will get out of your way and let you do your thing. Exactly what a minimalist PC should be.