Unwrapping a brand new laptop or desktop PC is undoubtedly an exciting holiday moment. Unfortunately, most systems aren't really ready to go out of the box. The collection of hints and tips below mirrors what I do for almost every new laptop I unbox (usually a couple of new ones every week). Follow along with the first few hints, then pop over to our list of essential free software for new PCsand install whichever ones you think you'll need.
Note that these tips are written with Windows 7 in mind, but they should work with older versions of Windows and many of them are also applicable to Mac OSX as well.
Essential free apps for new laptop and desktop PCsSee all photos
The first thing I do (after going through the requisite Windows setup process) is tweak a new laptop's power settings (this applies mostly to laptops, but desktop PCs have similar settings for sleep and hibernation). My default settings are in the screenshot below and are designed to keep the laptop from running out of power while unplugged, but also let me use it as a desktop replacement all day without having to constantly worry about waking it up or adjusting the screen brightness. Note my 10/20/30-minute battery settings--you can tweak them to whatever works best for you; this is just my preference.
I've changed my mind over the years on what the laptop should do while running off of battery power. My previous default was to have the system hibernate when the A/C connection was unplugged and the lid was closed, but I ended up spending way too much time waiting for the laptop to resume from hibernation, so I've switched to simple sleep mode, unless i'm trawling the halls of CES for 12 hours at a time.
If you plan on streaming files to another device (such as an Xbox or networked television), remember to set the laptop up to stay active until you manually turn it off or put it to sleep, even if you close the lid (see the second screenshot). If you're not using your laptop all day, it might be better to have it turn off the display or go to sleep after 30 minutes or so, even when plugged in.
Repeal and replace (your antivirus)
The first thing you're going to get sick of on your new PC is the constant reminders to register, upgrade, or otherwise pay excessive attention to the bundled Norton or MacAfee antivirus software that's bundled in.
I'm sure there are many people who find the programs perfectly usable, but I find them to be bloated and annoying, and especially since your free bundled version is probably only good for a few months (or maybe year) before you have to pony up for a subscription, might as well fix this problem right away.
First step, run the appropriate removal toolfor your bundled antivirus app, then install a free, lightweight, tool, such as AVG Freeor Avast (or even Microsoft Security Essentials). You'll typically never have to touch them again, except maybe to download a new free version, maybe once a year, and you won't get nearly as many pop-up reminders.
Switch browsers ASAP
I'm willing to bet the farm that your new PC came with Microsoft's Internet Explorer as its default Web browser, and no other bundled options. Launch it exactly one time (and just hit "later" when it asks you to set up a bunch of annoying options, and use it to download Firefoxor Chrome. Install one (or both) of these alternate browsers, then you can safely close IE and never open it again. Ever.
You should also preemptively download the latest version of the Adobe Flash player, as you'll need it for most Web video streaming.
Those three basic tweaks will get you up and running on your new laptop or desktop PC on day one. From there, take your time and go through our list of essential free apps, and install any that you think you'll need. We keep this list updated, and welcome your suggestions for future additions to it.
Our pals over at CNET's Download.com have also put together some handy Starter Kit lists of essential software. Check them out here: