11:38 AM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa

Langa Letter: System Setup Secrets For Windows XP

Fred's real-world, step-by-step advice for setting up a Windows XP-based PC in ways better than the defaults.

New PCs usually arrive in a generic state designed to suit the lowest common denominator among buyers. This almost always means that a new PC will be configured with safe, conservative settings designed more to minimize product returns and tech-support calls than to deliver all the performance of which the new machine is capable. It also almost always means that the system, as delivered, is unlikely to be a good fit to your own specific needs or preferences.

This is especially true when the PC arrives chock-full of preinstalled software. Instead of being a lean, clean new machine, your just-bought PC is probably burdened with all manner of built-in software complexities, none of which you specifically chose or set up yourself.

This initial complexity may create conflicts and problems from the start, problems that the new system otherwise wouldn't have. And at the very least, this initial complexity will make later troubleshooting much harder. After all, the best troubleshooting techniques involve a stepwise simplification of your system setup until the troublesome element is revealed. But if your system is highly complex from day one, you may already have too many variables at play for efficient troubleshooting.

And then there's the branding that's common to new PCs: You'll see logos (ads, really) on a new PC's desktop, system tray, boot screens--everywhere. Maybe some don't mind paying for the privilege of being a marketing target, but it bothers me: I consider it system-level spam.

So, over the years, I've developed a setup routine that ensures that any new system I get runs right from the start, stays right for as long as possible, and can be made right with a minimum of fuss if or when things go awry. My technique lets you strip away unneeded complexity and lets you get your new PC working just the way you want it to, rather than the way some marketing department thought you'd want it.

Some or all of these tips--learned the hard way from painful experience in literally hundreds and hundreds of PC setups over the years--may help you. Yes, a few of them may be overkill for normal users who don't stress their PCs the way I do (in testing software, for example), but others are universal and can help anyone.

Today's article is actually the third major iteration of this process: We originally covered "Setup Secrets" for Win9x and ME (see also "Ten Ways To Make Windows 98 Run Better" and "Ten Ways To Make Windows ME Run Better"). We then revised that original setup information in "System Setup Secrets Updated For 2001" . If you're still using Win9x or ME, those articles are still completely valid.

But with the growth of XP, it's time to focus on that operating system. Coupled with a previously published companion article, "Ten Ways To Make Windows XP Run Better" , this article will give you the full outline of the steps I take when I get a new XP-based PC or when I want to recondition an in-use XP box.

Setting Up A New XP-Based System

1. Open the cover: You'd be amazed at what can come loose during shipping! Ensure that all cards are seated, all cables are connected, and that all socketed chips are firmly plugged in. Nothing should be loose or flopping around, except perhaps some unused power connectors, and they should be tucked out of the way of fans or other moving parts. (Use care to prevent damage to the PC components either through excessive force or static discharge.)

2a. First boot. If the system won't boot or has any problem at boot, contact tech support. Don't waste time trying to fix a problem that shouldn't be there--that's what your new-system warranty is for.

2b. If the system boots fine, right click on "My Computer," select Properties, then Hardware, then Device Manager. (Or: click to Start/My Computer/View system information/Hardware/Device Manager.) You should see no items flagged with the yellow exclamation marks or red Xs that indicate trouble.

If you see such indications, don't try to fix them: Call tech support, get on record that your system had problems at delivery, and let the vendor suggest remedies. (See 2a.)

2c. Still inside Device Manager, click on View/Show hidden devices. A red X in a hidden device may or may not indicate a problem (some hidden devices may be disabled deliberately, because they aren't needed). We'll show you how to check for proper operation in a moment, but for now, just make a mental note of any such red Xs or other potential problems shown in hidden devices. Exit the Device Manager.

2d. Exercise the system and try everything--ensure the sound card and speakers work, the printer prints, etc. Pay special attention to any hidden devices you discovered in 2c. For example, if some hidden network adapters showed up as disabled or otherwise problematic in 2c, thoroughly exercise your network connection: Try logging into standard and secure sites; to your office network or VPN connection; try downloading files via both HTTP and FTP; etc. But no matter what you find, make no changes to the system yet: Simply ensure that everything works. If you do uncover problems, see 2a.

3. If everything's working OK, record and preserve the as-shipped system state. Make note of things like the BIOS settings (see "CMOS, BIOS, And Other Alphabet Soup"), the network properties, the printer settings, and any other special or customizable settings you find. One fast and easy way to do this is to use a digital camera--even the very cheapest kind will do--to take a snapshot of various system screens. This gives you an easy-to-reference visual record of how things were set up at the factory, so you can always revert to those settings should you need to in the future. Alternatively, you may be able to use the "Print Screen" function either directly, or by pasting the captured "Print Screen" image into a document and then printing the document. You can even just jot down the settings by hand. But the key is to make some sort of record you can refer to in the future.

4. Make a full backup or image of the system, and label this first backup "factory setup" or something similar. You should make this backup even if the manufacturer included a "Recovery CD" or similar tool. Often, those vendor CDs will restore the system to a working state, but not necessarily to the same state it was in when it arrived on your door. Similarly, the vendor-supplied Recovery CD may not be useful as a backup tool after you've modified your system or added new files or software to it. For complete coverage of backups and "drive imaging" tools, see "Drive Imaging" and "Fast, Easy Backups For Win98 / ME / NT / 2K / XP".

5. It doesn't happen often, but in the past, some vendors have accidentally shipped brand-new PCs that were infected with viruses picked up at the factory or from preinstalled software. So, before going any further, install and run a good, up-to-date antivirus program, and scan your as-delivered setup. If your system comes with anti-virus software preinstalled, do a scan only after you've downloaded the latest available version of the AV tool and its virus definitions. (See this; for more info.)

6. Make and test an emergency boot floppy or CD. Check to make sure you can restart you system from the disk and access your backup files from that disk.(For example, if you store your backups on a CD-R (Compact Disc-Recordable) make sure the emergency boot disk contains the drivers needed for you to access your CD.) For more info, see our two-part series on making your own custom boot CD: Part One and Part Two.

7. Here's a step that's bound to be controversial: Reformat the C: drive from the emergency boot disk or CD. Restore the factory setup, if you need or want to.

8. Setup XP afresh using your setup CD, if you have one, or the vendor recovery CD if you don't. But either way, don't automatically accept the default settings: Select any/all "custom" options you're offered, and look at the choices available to you: You may find that a custom setting is a much better fit for your needs than the standard or factory settings.

9. After the base operating system is installed, run Windows Update iteratively until you've installed all the "critical" and "recommended" updates that make sense for your specific situation.

10. Rein in the two worst space-hogs on your system: System Restore and the Recycle Bin. For example, on its own, the Recycle Bin will take 10% of your hard drive space, an insane waste of space on today's huge drives. The Recycle Bin should be sized to hold either the largest files you're likely to have on your system; or a typical day's worth of deletions; or some other rational amount. I generally start with the Bin sized at just 2%-3% of the hard drive total, and adjust up or down from there after several day's operation, if necessary. You can adjust the Recycle Bin's size by right clicking on its icon, and selecting Properties.

Similarly, System Restore will consume huge amounts of disk space, if you let it. The space might be worthwhile if System Restore were a truly complete and foolproof form of backup, but it's not. At best, System Restore can and will get the core operating system running again after a bad crash, but it doesn't return all files to the pre-trouble state, and it can't remove all traces of a program that went bad. As a result, System Restore's usefulness is limited, and so should be its appetite for disk space:

Right click on My Computer, select Properties, and select the System Restore tab. Select your main drive (usually C:), click Settings, and move the slider to reserve a reasonable amount of disk space. With a good regimen of daily backups, you can even move the slider all the way to the left. (I do.)

If you have more than one drive, you may wish to turn off System Restore entirely for non-system drives. There's little, if any, benefit to be gained by having them monitored. And if you're really religious about making a full backup before you alter your system or install new software, you may wish to completely turn off System Restore for all drives. For more detail, see "Maximizing 'System Restore' In WinME and WinXP")

11. Next, adjust XP's virtual memory settings: On its own, XP places your "swapfile" or "paging file" (a portion of your hard drive that's used as a kind of pseudo-RAM) on your C: drive, and sets it up so it can grow and shrink as needed. However, you may be able to do better. For example, if you have more than one physical disk in your system, you may get better performance by either placing the swapfile on the lesser-used disk (assuming it's as fast as or faster than the primary disk) or by splitting the swapfile across two disks. You also may see modest improvements in responsiveness if you set the swapfile to a fixed size, so Windows won't waste time growing and shrinking the file on demand.

Swapfile management has been somewhat of a black art in previous versions of Windows, but the XP Help System actually has good information on the subject (a first for Windows!). Select Help And Support from the Start menu, and do a search for "virtual memory." Be sure to check out the "related topics" delivered by the search for additional good information.

12. Run the System File Checker (SFC.EXE) to verify that your newly installed operating system contains the correct versions of all important system files. (It should, but it doesn't hurt to check.) Click to Start/Run and type the following command on the Run line:

SFC /scannow

Hit OK. SFC will then look for possible conflicts caused by incorrect versions of dynamic link libraries and other important system files. (Note: You must either be logged in as Administrator or as a member of the Administrator group to run SFC. You may also be asked to insert your setup CD.)

An aside: If you're as hard-core as I am about system maintenance, you can run SFC again (with the "/scannow" option) after installing any new third-party software in the future to see if the new software changed your system for the worse. For example, some badly done installation routines may try to overwrite newer system files with older files. Although XP is quite good about catching and preventing this kind of error, manually running SFC can add an extra measure of surety.

13. Run Chkdsk to check the integrity of your hard drive's files, and to repair any errors: Click to Start/Run and in the run box, type


and hit OK. Chkdsk may tell you that it can't check the drive because it's in use; if so, it will offer to check the drive at reboot. Say yes, if so asked.

Repeat for any/all drives or partitions on your system (for example, "CHKDSK D: /f" or "CHKDSK E: /f" and so on. If you were told that would be necessary to reboot to finish checking any drive, reboot now so Chkdsk can run to completion.

14. Run a fresh antivirus scan (See #5). In preparation for the following steps, which will add lots of new software to the system, make a second backup now (see #4), and call it something like "perfect new operating system setup." This second backup ensures that you can get all the way to Step 15 in just one step (by restoring this second backup) if you need to.

15. Install any non-original-equipment peripherals you want to use on the system. Visit the OEM's and peripheral vendors' sites; download and install updated drivers, patches, etc.

16. Install your software applications and utilities, plus any updates and patches for that software.

17. When all your third-party software has been installed, run a fresh antivirus scan to ensure that no viruses got onto your system. You may also wish to run tools such as AdAware, SpyBot or Pest Patrol to verify that your system also is free from other types of hostile code (spy ware, Trojans, etc.) . And you may also wish to run SFC again to help ensure that your applications haven't meddled with your system files. (See #10)

18. Install a good third-party desktop firewall (see "Firewall Feedback") ; or, minimally, enable XP's built-in firewall. (It's not much, but it's better than nothing. (See "The 10 Best And Worst Things About Windows XP")

19. Make all cosmetic tweaks, tune-ups, and changes--the icon spacing and arrangements; system sound effects; mouse pointers and movements, etc. See "Ten Ways To Make Windows XP Run Better".

20. Defragment all drives/partitions on your system. (If you need help, click to Start/Help and enter "Defrag" as the search term.) Then make a third backup and call it something like "perfect new full setup."

With that, you're done. Not only do you now have a fresh setup with everything newly installed just the way you want, but you also have three backups. You can, if need be, quickly get back to the original as-delivered-from-the-factory setup; or to a fresh, new, virgin operating system setup; or to a perfect, full-blown operating system and applications setup.

In my work I find I use that last backup a lot, especially when I'm testing software. I'll copy my data files to a safe place, then run the tests without worry that the new software will ruin anything. When I'm done, I'll restore my system from the "perfect new full setup", then copy my data files back, and pick up where I left off with a known-good, rock-solid setup. It makes my system essentially bulletproof!

Of course, running through a 20-step setup process is a hassle and it's clearly not for everyone. But taking the extra time, one time, up front, to get everything perfect pays off again and again over the years because you can restore your system to perfection in its entirety--operating system, apps, everything--in just minutes.

Or you also can cherry-pick, using only those steps that make sense for you, if you needs are less rigorous than mine. You even can adapt the same overall process for use on older systems, too--it's never too late to start perfecting and preserving your PC setup!

But that's what I do. What about you? Please join in the discussion: What tricks or techniques do you use? What tips can you share? What steps do you take to get your system running smoothly? Join in!

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Fred Langa's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Fred Langa, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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