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Setting up a Windows Box

June 21, 2010

A friend of mine recently bought a new laptop, and is looking for advice regarding software. I thought I’d blog a little about how I’ve come to set up a fresh Windows install in response.

A couple of caveats:

  • I use Windows for home use and for web programming, so my needs are both modest and hardly original. I don’t really need to do extensive modifications; just a few bits on first boot-up, and then install software.
  • I play games, but I’m not a hardware nut. If my system can’t handle it, too bad.
  • This is for Windows XP; I’ve avoided Vista, and haven’t installed Win7.
  • This isn’t a tutorial. I assume you know how to install software, and you can use the Help system to find operating system settings and the like.
  • I’m assuming you’re as broke as I am, and can’t spend thousands of dollars on software. Most of my choices are high-quality open source applications.

That being said, this is mainly what I do when I have a new box, or have completely reinstalled Windows on an old box.

First Things First

I’ve been walking through the following steps since Windows 95. Almost all of it is designed to: turn off the training wheels (since 98, Windows has been shipping in ‘Mac mode’ where it hides a lot of internal stuff by default) and increase performance. I need to see the whole system for my programming tasks, and I don’t need anything slowing me down.

Change the default Windows theme

This is neither about programming or performance. It’s about not having that insufferable default pastel blue theme. There. I said it.

However, you do get a few performance benefits if you do the following:

  • Don’t install a desktop background
  • Remove the gradient fades at the top of windows and applications

Turn off all audio prompts

I go into Control Panel > Sounds and turn off everything. The audio prompts are almost never relevant because most applications provide visual feedback as well.

Turn on ‘see hidden files and folders’ and file extensions

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to everyone, but I need to see file extensions, and I sometimes need to add stuff to the operating system. Even if you’re not a programmer, I suggest you turn on ‘see file extensions’.

Tweak my folder preferences

I turn off all animations, and choose to see only an outline when moving folders around on the desktop. Both contribute to bottom-line performance.

I also turn off the confirmation for the recycling bin. You never need to see that prompt, because you can always retrieve whatever you’ve just trashed.

Screensavers

Like desktop backgrounds, everyone wants a shit-hot screensaver that expresses their inner personality. Don’t do it. Choose one of the cheesy screensavers that ships with Windows, and make sure it’s set to not go off prematurely. Everyone has different work habits; I tend to stare at double, triple, sometimes quadruple-nested loops and if-else statements all day, so I’ve set my screensaver to trigger at 10 minutes.

Run and configure Windows Update

In it’s default mode, Windows Update will check every frakking time you connect to the internet and ask you to download and install dozens or hundreds of megabytes of software that requires a reboot. You should set this up to run once a week or month. You have to run it the first time you boot your system because the default Windows installation disk only gets burned once or twice during that version’s lifecycle, so it’s missing a lot of updates. Get updated, then do it at regular intervals.

Install fonts

As a programmer who also has to handle Photoshop files, I install fonts regularly, but try to keep the list to a minimum. Both starting up Windows and office and multimedia applications take longer the more fonts you have. I install all the fonts I’ve purchased myself, and Andale Mono, a programmer’s dream font.

That’s about it

That’s all the time I take on system tweaks. Now I install the basic software.

Software: free, pay, and Warez

When I bought my first computer 15 years ago, almost all software for Windows was commercial or shareware. If you couldn’t afford it, you ‘borrowed’ installation disks, downloaded trial software that never expired, or went to ‘Warez’ web sites. It was really depressing, because the most useful software was almost all in the hundreds or thousands of dollars range. Most people wanted to pay, but just couldn’t afford it. I skirted this issue by having my workplace pay and install all my commercial apps at my workplace, and just played games at home.

Starting in the early 2000’s, though, open source software took over the Windows landscape with a vengeance. It’s now possible to have almost all of your software for free, legally. There are drawbacks to this, but I removed almost all commercial software from my system years ago, and haven’t had a problem yet.

My only bit of advice for installing software on Windows is this: don’t do it often. The fabled ‘Windows tax’ (where the system keeps slowing down as you install and un-install new software and updates, until it’s simply unusable and you have to reinstall from scratch) will always have to be paid, but you can keep your system running longer if you don’t install much, and only upgrade at set times. I try to only install upgrades about once every six months.

My only advice on choosing software is: if you already have a lot of experience using a tool, continue using it. If you are in the process of re-familiarizing yourself with or haven’t chosen a tool for a particular task, choose a tool that is available across all platforms (Windows, Mac OS, and Linux/Unix). Even if a platform-specific tool seems better, learning a multi-platform tool pays itself forward when you need to switch platforms.

Office Software

You will need to view and make presentations, word processor documents, and spreadsheets. You may also need a small database program. Open Office is free, and is the best choice outside MS Office if you need a complete package.

If you need a desktop publishing suite, Scribus is a free DTP program that rocks.

Email and Communications

I use whatever my workplace has standardized on, which has been mainly Outlook. My current workplace has locked down instant messaging fairly well, so I’ve stopped using it.

The best non-Outlook program out there is Thunderbird.

I’ve used both Pidgin and MS Messenger, and both are ok. Pidgin has the advantage of connecting you to many different chat services. Depending on your needs, either are fine.

Protection

Install these before you go any further, or even connect to the net. Although getting viruses can be a rare experience (if you install decent software and keep away from the seedier web sites), the few times my system has been infected, it took re-installing Windows and losing data to fix the problem.

The best free anti-virus software is from Avast! Your next best bet is Clamwin. Both are free, but Avast is nag-ware (worth the nagging).

Lavasoft’s Ad-Aware is one of the better ad-removing applications out there. The Plus version is only $30, and worth it.

Piriform makes two free programs that you can’t live without: CCleaner and Recuva. CCleaner gets rid of unnecessary files that crud up Windows and make it run slower; Recuva recovers files that are so badly damaged they may not even be viewable in your filesystem. These are both powerful and free products that are worth their weight in gold. Check out all of Piriform’s products while you’re there, and make a donation if you download these apps…these guys are helping every Windows user sleep safer.

Browsers

Update to the latest versions of Internet Explorer (version 8), and you’re mostly fine. I hate saying that, but, for the most part, it’s true. Other popular alternatives include Firefox, Safari, Opera, and Chrome. All of these are fine for browsing.

Remember to install Flash and Reader…without them, a lot of websites will have empty boxes where animations and cool stuff would normally be.

Music

iTunes is fine. Nothing I’ve seen from the open-source community comes even close on Windows, but that gap is narrowing. iTunes will play certain types of video, but you want something dedicated for that, which is the next section. The only gotcha on iTunes is making sure it rips to MP3, not AAC, which is a proprietary Apple format which won’t play on other music software. My settings for ripping are 320kbps, variable bit rate.

Multimedia

With all the fuss surrounding the MPAA and RIAA, I won’t mention a lot of the free DVD-ripping software out there. Suffice to say this is a grey area, and you can find resources for this on the net.

For viewing, the VLC Player is a free Swiss army knife that makes Windows Media Center look like a chump.

If you need to edit or record audio on the cheap, Audacity is your friend.

For an alternative to Photoshop, try the GIMP. Basically, there is no software on the market that comes close to PS, but the GIMP is free, and does a lot. If your graphic needs are more photo-oriented, knuckle down and spend the $100 on Photoshop Elements. Dollar for dollar, it’s the cheapest ‘pro’ program on the market that does the job.

For 3-D, vector graphics, and diagramming, the design section in the Open Disc has some great choices.

General Utilities

You will need the following: a good text editor, zip and archive support, and CD/DVD burning software.

For basic text documents, Notepad2 and Textpad are good, free (Textpad is nag-ware) editors.

7-Zip is the best single zip-file and archive utility out there, handling almost all of the obscure and weird archive formats with ease.

I’ve used both CDBurnerXP and Nero Burning ROM, and both seem to be fine. Nero is around $60, which is reasonable.

The rest is your individual needs

Everyone has different needs. I’ve intentionally left off all the programming software I use from this list. I would also suggest a backup program, and CD/DVD burning software if you have a CDR/DVDR.

I would also suggest the following two software collections. Both offer a lot of free, open source, high-quality software, and are worth the download.

A final note: when you decide to download and install software from the internet, save the installer. Make a folder called ‘apps’ or ‘software’ or whatever is cool for you, park them there, and back this folder up regularly. You’ll be glad you did.

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