There is an order to my madness. Each of the steps I follow below helps build towards the system I want to use. I try to time the steps to provide security as I need it, but functionality is the mantra all the way
The first thing I do is install a better, smarter file manager than Windows Explorer. My preference continues to be the kissin' cousins Powerdesk and ExplorerPlus. Currently, I prefer the ExplorerPlus incarnation of the version 6.x of each product. You MIGHT be able to buy it at FindMysoft, but the last publisher of the program I am aware of, Novotix, no longer deals with the program. PowerDesk, however is out with a version 7 and it's the only one that will work comfortably with Vista, if you should be so incredibly unfortunate as to have to work with that operating system. The problem with either of Powerdesk or ExplorerPlus is that they cost money. If you are looking for a free alternative, I recommend Ultra Explorer. In addition to the more refined window interface that the listed alternatives possess, I also recommend adding Q-Dir, which looks like an old-fashioned DOS file manager. It's lean and quick and if you are going to be mostly moving files about, rather than looking and working with them, than Q-Dir does its job very well. Finally, I add 7-Zip to make sure all my programs, even Windows Explorer, are well-equipped to handle most of the compressed files they might run across. It's so much easier to use than perpetually answering that WinZip nag screen (hint, hint).
A great little tweak out there is to list all drives with their letters first. Trust me, as you accumulate local, logical, network and USB drives, having those letters first is a godsend. Here's a reg file you can save and then merge with your registry to acheive the letteer-first appearance. By the way, this, and many others tweaks, can be found at: www.kellys-korner-xp.com/xp_tweaks.htm.
Next up, you have to protect yourself against the incipient creeps that stalk the internet and might have infected files on your system. Ergo, we install the ZoneAlarm firewall, Avast! anti-virus, Crap Cleaner and then Spyware Blaster and Spybot-Search and Destroy to form the basis of our shield. Yes, Vista has things in it that does part of the same jobs as these programs. No, Vista's protection is not an answer, being awkward to use and too tempting to turn off to remake the user experience bearable. ZoneAlarm in its version 8 has gotten around most of the issues that forced me to abandon it recently. Avast has succeeded AVG by staying within itself and remaining an anti-virus program rather than a do-it-all wannabe. Crap Cleaner cleans out the garbage and regular running against the registry will reduce bloat and slowing down. And the latter two programs, when combined, actually do a fairly good job of preventing the worst and most persistent of the scumware. NOTE: All of these programs are free for home use, as will be most of the rest of the utilities described below. And no, they are NOT as good as the best of the commercial utilities. But they will do 97 per cent of what you need them to do.
By the way, now that you have active on-going protection installed, make sure none of Windows' native versions are getting in the way. Deactivate them through Control Panel. After that, schedule a weekly run through the programs to check the computer for something that might have gotten through before the latest updates.
I then install pdfRedirect and make that PDF print-to-file printer my default printer. The reason I do this is simple. Occasionally, I get tired and hit the print button in some program that just starts shooting out paper like I'm made of money. It's a lot easier to occasionally have to change the target printer, than run out of paper. Murphy's Law means you'd run out of paper on Sunday, with a report due first thing Monday. This is a fact. And, since we need a PDF reader, I install Foxit Reader, which is leaner and quicker than the defacto standard, Adobe Reader. Adobe's made good strides with v9 of their free reader and it wouldn't hurt to install both. But make Foxit your default reader.
Next, I install Gadwin PrintScreen, which controls saving areas of the screen to the clipboard, a file or the printer (or all three at the same time!). Lately, I have been adding FastStone Capture 5.3 (later versions are NOT free for home use. Googling the file will take you to a place like Software Informer that will let you download the last free version.), in order to do some modification of the screen captures. I set Gadwin to use the PrintScreen key, FastStone to use Ctrl-PrintScreen. That should be easy to remember.
I follow up the print screen programs with two more items for the systray in the lower right. I want to know what the temperature of my computer is, to better anticipate problems like a fan stopping, stopping my computer. By installing SpeedFan, I can monitor the regular temperature of the computer, even if I'm sitting a few feet away. If you notice the temperature has zoomed 10-15 degrees since you started up, you don't have to wait for inconsistent results to start occurring on your computer. You will KNOW something is up that requires immediate attention. Usually, it's a failed fan. Trust me on this one, it's better to be informed than deal after the fact. I also take this moment to install TClockEx that puts a date, calendar AND the time down in my clock area. Saves having to have some space and resources-hogging widget on my desktop to tell me the date and time. I used to include the memory used counter in TClockEx, but having 4 gigs of the stuff in my computer now sort of makes that number irrelevant. By the way, the string I use for TClockEx in the settings dialog is " ddd d MMM yy '<=>' h:mm:ss tt ". Note the leading and trailing spaces.
Not being a hardware tech, I find the easiest way to get a decent set of info about the innards of the computer is to run BGinfo from the Systernals Suite of programs. This creates a desktop picture that has all the info I usually need quickly, when talking to Patrick, my hardware guy, over the phone. I then use Gadwin print Screen to save the information to a picture file. Easy! Setting up BGInfo to run every time you start your computer and update your desktop is quite easy. NOTE: I use plain backgrounds, which save on resources and make reading icon titles REAL, REAL, REALLY EASY! Those of you who insist on ornate picture backgrounds and go blind hunting for the shortcut they need on the desktop, can use BGInfo as the excuse to stop the madness!!
TweakUI XP is the last of these free utilities that good guys from the Microsoft employee pool donated to the public through its PowerToys program. Going through the settings in TweakUI lets you set a fair bit of stuff that you'd be required to hunt and change in a dozen places otherwise. Not the least of which is auto logon, if you are going to be the only user of the computer you are on, and don't fear housemates dabbling on your computer in your absence.
We're getting down to the finer details of the install. The Same Systernals Suite also boasts Process Explorer, AutoRuns and Rootkit Revealer. All get added to my desktop for those times when you have to look deeper at what's going on behind the scenes of your computer. I pair AutoRuns with the easier-to-use Startup Control Panel by Mike Lin. The internal tools are almost completed with the hard-to-find TaskMan+ (Google it. I found a downloadable version are Wareseeker), a replacement with slightly better petigree than Microsoft's Task Manager. Mind you, if you think Task Manager will kill all the recalcitrant programs, you are wrong. So, make sure you add Unlocker, which saves opening and closing your file manager to delete the occasionally locked file.
CapsBeGone, from the greatest name of any website ever (www.ihatethecapslockkey.com) is a utility that eliminates the archaic CapsLock key from causing havoc. I know some data entry people keep CapsLock turned on, all the time. I'm doing my best to have them all fired. Data and text is hard to READ WHEN EVERYTHING IS IN CAPS. THAT'S THE TRUTH!!! Getting rid of the Capslock key would be one of the signs computers are becoming more useable again.
Stickies is a computerized on-screen version of 3M notes. And by on-screen, I mean pixels, NOT gummy-residue leaving real life stickies. Once you get used to using them, you'll save a bundle not buying bundles of the real-life Stick-it Notes. You can find more organized, better programs than Stickies, but it's a great free starting point. Of course, if a little text editing and saving is really in order, there's no reason not to get a better notepad to do the work. Current preferred superior? MetaPad.
So, we can look at compressed files, PDFs and text files. Pictures? Irfanview is the program of choice. Easy to use and to print from, it also does basic manipulation. If the picture is moving or the file is making sound, then by all means be sure to have KLite Mega Codec installed, with its outstanding Windows Media Player Classic as the viewer/listener. Waaaaay better than that creepy spying Windows Media Player installed on your computer. It doesn't come with the psychadelic lava lamp while the music is playing, but I bet you won't miss it. As a fallback, VLC is a solid lightweight bet to play any files MPC balks at.
Recuva is a file recovery utility from the same folks as Crap Cleaner and it gives you added chances at getting things back that the recycle bin seems to have recycled. It won't work all of the time. But short of hiring the guys the military hires to go spelunking on supposedly erased disks, this is your best shot.
Everybody needs a good password program to store all the passwords into one safe place hidden by one password. I like Password Safe. Easy to use, very secure and can be moved from one computer to the next. It will suggest passwords and the ones it suggests are REAL GOOD PASSWORDS.
Of course you are making backups. I think Drive Snapshot's the best actual backup program out there, but it costs money. Not much money and WAAAAAAY worth the money, but it's not free. Having tried it, I see no reason NOT to spend the money. End of discussion. For internal backups that you can set and forget, you can't go wrong with Karen's Replicator. I use it here nightly to make various backups and it's saved my bacon as recently as three months ago when I managed to foul up three backups, but had a fourth waiting and lowering my blood pressure. Recommended very hightly. And while you're backing up, consider doing a regular defragment of your hard-drive. I waffle between jkDefrag and 10Bit Smart Defrag, both of which are very nice for this purpose.
Moving onto accessing the internet (finally), install Firefox, rather than use that security sinkhole Internet Explorer. Add in the NoScript add-on for Firefox, and you're as protected as you're going to be in the morass that is the internet these days. For email, I use Firefox's companion program Thunderbird. I used to prefer Eudora because of Eudora's separation of email and attachments. That was preferable when the default action of anti-virus programs was to delete the whole inbox when dealing with Thunderbird or horribly insecure Outlook and its variants. Now Thunderbird has the same capabilities. Get the Lightning add-in for Thunderbird and there's nothing Outlook and the ilk have to offer but headaches and security issues. For dealing with people who insist on sending you Outlook emails infested with winmail.dat files, you can use Bruno Marotta's Winmail Reader. The .dat format is Microsoft's proprietary compressed file format for attachments. It's a default setting and one you should ask Outlook-using friends (a question ... should friends let friends USE Outlook?) to change.
One last backup program. MozBackup will backup Firefox, Thunderbird and Lightning and that's a good thing.
Grab a copy of Crossloop to let your expert friend take over your machine remotely when the need arrives. It's ultra-secure, incredibly easy to set up and run, and means you can have help immediately, without forcing your friend to get dressed and come over to where you are.
Finally, I then do the Autopatcher download routine. You unzip the file you just downloaded, which creates APup and later, Autopatcher. First, you run APUP to get all the updates downloaded from Microsoft and elsewhere TO your local drive. Then run Autopatcher itself to make all the updates and changes. Autopatcher will, by default, get what you NEED updated, and leave the rest of the stuff (Windows Media Player 11 anyone?) off your computer. Run APUP/Autopatcher once a month, usually on the weekend after Microsoft's Update Tuesday, which is the second one every month. And YES, this means I don't run Windows Update. No telling when it might just decide it doesn't like my local machine's setup, after I changed a hard drive or two. Not worth the hassle to let them hassle me with that Genuine Disadvantage program.
The computer still needs stuff like Open Office, games and other necessities of computer life. But it's a good starting point. And any good starting point needs saving. Hook up the external drive, run Drive Snapshot and tell it to backup the C: AND D: onto the external drive. Will take you about a half-hour on average. When it's finished, THAT'S when you can start adding the fun and frivolity stuff to the computer.
There you have it, a computer devoid of wasted dollars on software, ready for whatever productivity, fun or games software you ARE going to pay for and throw at it.