A guide to setting up your new Windows 8 PC or Apple Mac

Have you just bought yourself a new Windows 8.1 PC? Congratulations on your new toy! I wish I could say you're ready to go.

However, right out of the box, no computer is perfect. Unlike most electronic devices, which you can plug in and use instantly, Windows PCs need some adjustment before they're ready for everyday use. You need to make your new system safe, and personalise it with your own preferences. There are programs on the hard drive you should get rid of, and other things you should add immediately.

If you haven't yet been introduced to Windows 8/8.1, or it's been a while since you've set up a new machine, we'll walk you through it all in these 12 simple steps. If your new baby is a Mac, you've got a much shorter to-do list which we’ll cover later on.

1. First boot

After you've devised clever ways to use your new collection of Styrofoam and made the basic initial connections (power, monitor, Ethernet, keyboard and mouse), Windows 8/8.1 will ask you to do various things, like set your language, time zone, clock and calendar.

Perhaps the most important request is to create a user account and password; forgo this only if you're 110 per cent sure no one else will want to gain access to this PC, ever, or if you're so dull-as-dishwater that it wouldn't matter. For a computer that will have multiple users, this is a must. One new benefit of Windows 8 is that you can login with a Microsoft online account, and sync your wallpapers and settings among every PC you own.

2. De-bloat the system

Big-name system vendors typically install software on their consumer PCs at the factory. These "extras" go by many names: Bundleware, begware, bloatware, shovelware, and perhaps the most accurate, crapware. That's because a lot of it is just that – useless crap. The vendors install it under the guise of helping you out, but mostly they do it to get money from the software makers. The major system builders are reducing the amount of extra software (or at least making sure it doesn't appear all over your system), but there is a long way to go. You're pretty much guaranteed to find extra preloaded software on a retail-bought consumer system, less so on a business-oriented one.

What can you do to decrapify your new PC? Download and run the free SlimComputer or PC Decrapifier utility. Or try both. SlimComputer promises to use community-sourced info to find stuff you don't want, but either tool will get rid of most of the crap. If you find more “crapplications” left behind, try Revo Uninstaller, a free utility that does more to fully eradicate errant software than the built-in Windows control panel.

This is a good time to kill anything you don't want that's part of Windows 8 itself. Load up the Control Panel (search for it on the Start screen) and click Uninstall a Program. On the left, click "Turn Windows Features on or off." You'll get a User Account Control warning; click OK. Uncheck anything in the list you definitely don't want, such as games, Tablet PC Optional Components, etc. If you don't know what an item does, hover the cursor over the name for a description. If you still don't know what it does, it’s best to leave it.

Don't confuse crapware with trialware – a trial version of software you might actually want that is active for a limited time. It might be worth keeping, especially if it's a free trial of a solid security product, which leads us to...

3. Activate shields

If you're willing to pay to protect your system from malware and get some extra firewall protection to boot, we recommend you install a commercial Internet security suite. Our favourites are Kaspersky, Bitdefender and BullGuard – all will provide you with a very effective defence against malware, and their impact on system performance is minimal.

If you don't want to pay, check out AVG Antivirus Free 2014, the free version of AVG that lacks very little in terms of watertight security. It beats all the other free software we've seen in our tests for malware removal. You can also hope that Microsoft's free Windows Defender will help you keep your system free of malware, just be sure to keep the system's Windows Update set to download and install patches (see next step).

Everyone on a broadband connection needs a software firewall to control which applications on your PC can access the Internet. The firewall in your network router is not enough. When it comes to free firewall software, there are several to pick from – ZoneAlarm is a good choice. But if you don't install a third-party firewall, make sure Windows Firewall is turned on at the very least (it is by default).

4. Download updates

At some point, your PC will tell you there are Windows updates available, probably about five minutes after you successfully boot up. Grab those updates. You may have an icon in the system tray at the lower right, or you can select Windows Update from PC Settings menu.

Depending on when Windows 8 was installed on your computer, you could have quite a few updates – big updates – to download. Let this process run its course. Walk away, eat some leftovers, go out for a mocha latte, watch an Adam Sandler movie. It's going to take a while, and the Sandler flick will seem to last forever (especially Jack and Jill). When the downloads are done, run Windows Update again. Updates tend to beget updates. Three times should be sufficient – and by now, you should have a truly pristine system.

5. Setup recovery

After something catastrophic happens, some techies prefer to reinstall from the original OS disc or use the System Recovery utility built into Windows to get a fresh start. That means going through all those updates again. Instead, back up your pristine system right now with the full, updated Windows 8 OS, so you can restore everything quickly after a disaster.

If you're lucky enough to have a backup utility pre-installed by your PC manufacturer, run it now. Lenovo calls it Rescue and Recovery; Dell calls its version Backup and Recovery Manager. Depending on the system, it will either ask you to insert blanks DVDs, hook up a USB drive, or use a local partition for backup purposes.

If your system doesn't have a recovery utility from your PC maker, at the very least backup your files by using an external hard drive, cloud-based storage, or use the backup built into your PC's System and Recovery control panel. Windows will let you create a System Image, which can help recover your system in case it won't boot up in the first place.

6. Transfer files

Windows 8 makes it relatively simple to move files from your old computer to the new one with the Windows Easy Transfer utility. It works with various methods (external hard drive, USB flash drive, network, and transfer cable) to move not only data files and folders but also settings from your old Windows system to the new. It can even recreate your user accounts, if you want that. It does not move your old applications. To take advantage of Windows Easy Transfer, your old PC must be running Windows 7, RT, or 8.

You can always use old-school sneaker-net – copy files from the old PC onto a CD, DVD, or USB flash drive, then copy them over to your new machine – but if you've got a lot of files, this could take hours or days. That really big external hard drive with a USB connector you bought for backup is an option. A better solution might be to reuse the hard drive from your old computer. A USB 2.0 to SATA/IDE Adapter, like this one from StarTech (which is £22), can turn an old drive into an external drive for use on your new PC. It's just not very pretty.

The home network is your slickest alternative – once you have it set up right. Go into the Windows Control Panel, click Advanced system settings, and then go to the Computer Name tab under System Properties. Click the Change button. Make sure the new computer has a name that's unique among the computers in the house, and that the Workgroup name is exactly the same for all the computers in the house. Otherwise, they can't see each other to share. Go into your software firewall and check that it's open to other PCs on your network (and that the firewalls on the other computers are open to the new PC, as well). Find the folder containing the files you want to share on the old computer, right click on it to get Properties, and tell Windows to share the folder. On Windows 8 systems, the folder should now show up in the Network and Sharing Centre when you click View computers and devices. (The HomeGroup feature in Windows 7/8 is great, but is only going to be useful if all your computers run Windows 7 or 8.)

Avoid the temptation to buy a migration utility or some special, expensive USB cable to use with its Easy Transfer utility. Neither option is worth the money, especially for a process you'll only be doing once.

Consider instead something that does much more, like IOGear's USB Laptop KVM Switch with File Transfer. It not only handles file transfers between computers but lets you switch instantly from PC to PC, using a single keyboard/monitor/mouse to control everything. It is also expensive at around £60, but it's one way to ensure that both your old and your new computers remain useful.

7. Prep for data backup

No doubt you've heard this a zillion times, but in case this advice hasn't taken, I'll repeat: A simple backup regime is great for peace of mind. Online backup services like MozyHome make it painless. You can start with a free account that stores up to 2GB of data, which is perfect for your unfinished novel or other small projects.

If you've got multiple machines, consider one of the many services that synchronise files between computers with online backup in the middle, so you can get to files when you're at someone else's PC. Dropbox is our top pick in this category. It supports sync between multiple Windows, Mac, and even Linux PCs, and allows access to files via mobile devices like the iPhone. The basic service is free and gives you 2 GB of online storage, and you can get more via referrals (persuading your friends to sign up).

Local backup of your data gives you more control. One option is to partition your hard drive into multiple drives – C: for the system and programs, D: for data, E: for items you don't need to back up. That way, you can tell Windows Backup and Restore control panel to look at one drive only. Buy an external hard drive that's at least 1.5 times larger than the data partition (a 500GB external drive to back up your 300GB partition, for example) as a target drive. Now even huge video and photo files are no big deal to back up. Simply put them in the same spot every time – always "D: for data" (for example) – and let the software do its job.

8. Geek out the browser

Microsoft Internet Explorer – IE to its friends – comes with every copy of Windows in this country, but it's far from the only choice when it comes to browsing the web. Google Chrome is our current favourite browser with its incredible speed, instant installation, customisation via extensions, built-in Flash and PDF support, and so much more.

And even Firefox remains a favourite, because when it comes to extensibility, Firefox wrote the book.

Sure, you could go your whole life using both browsers and never change a thing, but once you install a few key extensions, you'll wonder how you ever lived with a plain, vanilla browser. If you used Firefox on your old computer, you probably want the same settings, bookmarks, and extensions. Back up the old Firefox using freeware MozBackup, save the file to your new PC, and use MozBackup to restore. It also works with Thunderbird to back up email.

If you want to get anything done online, you better quickly install these helper programs no matter what browser you use, assuming they're not already integrated upon installation: QuickTime, Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight, Windows Media Player, and a PDF file reader.

9. Place your programs

We can't decide for you what software is most necessary for your needs, but we can say generically that no PC is complete without at least an office suite, a photo editing tool, a media manager, web browser (see above) and email. And there are free alternatives for almost any program you might need; see our software comparison which pits the best free apps against the top paid-for apps.

If you want the same setup as your previous machine, check the Program Files folder on the C: drive of your old PC. Make a list of the programs there using an online word processor like Google Drive or the Word Web App so you can access the list from any computer. Bear in mind that you'll also want to carry over the settings and login info for email and IM clients.

Gather those monstrosities known as registration codes for your software, and record them somewhere permanent and accessible. Write them on the discs themselves with a thin-tipped marker, keep them in a notebook, get a tattoo; use whatever method you have for preserving data you know you will need again. Passwords are a must-keep too: Use a password manager to keep all those website and app passwords straight.

Some software is limited to a certain number of machines. For example, iTunes 11.1 will only play songs you've bought online on up to five PCs. So check that the software is de-authorised on the old PC if you won't be using it there ever again.

10. Tune-up time

On the right hardware, Windows 8 is impressively fast, but tweaks always help performance. You have to decide: Do you want a system that works with the maximum speed possible, or one that’s good looking? Here are a few steps to tweak your new PC's performance in favour of speed, not appearance:

  • Set the desktop to a plain, one colour background. Large photographic wallpaper can slow loading time.
  • If you're not into desktop widgets along the screen's edge, or maybe prefer those from another source (like Google), turn off Windows Sidebar. It takes up space on your desktop. In Vista, go to the Windows Sidebar Properties control panel and deselect Start Sidebar when Windows starts. In Windows 7, the Control Panel is renamed Windows Gadget – but you can just right click a gadget to remove it, and it won't come back unless asked. Windows 8 has eliminated Windows Sidebar in favour of full-screen apps and split-screen mode.
  • Aero is the name for the fancy graphics interface that delivers things like transparency in windows. Cool as it looks, Aero can slow down your system. In Window's Personalisation control panel, select Windows Colour and Appearance. In the next window, click Open classic appearance properties. Change the colour scheme to something else, such as Windows Standard, and click Effects to turn off menu shadows and the ability to see windows as you drag them. In Windows 7 and 8, you can deactivate features like transparency individually.
  • Go to the System Control Panel, click System Protection, and on the Advanced tab, click the button in the Performance box. If you turn off every option under Visual Effects (like animated controls, fading menus, and shadows under your mouse cursor) by selecting "Adjust for best performance," it should speed things up.
  • If you've got a very fast USB thumb drive, insert it and activate Windows ReadyBoost. This cache can help a bit with performance while the drive is inserted.
  • Adjust the power settings, especially if you've got a laptop that is unplugged while in use. The "high performance" presets will drain juice faster.
  • Download and install Soluto, a free tool that measures your boot time and helps you either remove or delay applications that might be slowing your start-up time.

11. Review hardware

Getting a new PC is the perfect opportunity to reassess the hardware peripherals attached to your old PC. Before you start plugging things from that ancient XP machine into that snazzy Windows 8 system, consider carefully how much you need them. Do you really need that ancient flatbed scanner now that the pictures you take are digital? For some, the answer will be no. Ancient USB hubs (you probably have more ports on your new box, and you don't want a hub that doesn't support USB 3.0), old-school inkjet printers, and low capacity portable hard drives could probably all stand a refresh if not outright dumping.

Old hardware moved to a new PC means you need the latest drivers. DriverMax can back up drivers for when you need them later. However, it doesn't upgrade your old XP drivers to new Windows 8 drivers, so you still need to do the legwork. Hit the manufacturer's website for your scanner, printer, camera, media player, and so on to download what you need.

That mouse and keyboard that came with your new system should be considered suspect. PC vendors aren't known for including highly ergonomic or quality input devices. Consider instead the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop set, which comes with a wireless ergonomic keyboard and mouse.

In fact, consider an ergonomic keyboard and mouse even if your new PC is a laptop, especially one you don't move around much. Your wrists will thank you later.

12. Register everything

It's no guarantee of great technical support, but if you register your PC with the manufacturer, as well as the software and peripherals with their respective creators, you stand a better chance of being recognised when the time does come to call for help – and you know that time will come. Getting a vendor to honour a warranty might depend on knowing when you bought or received the product.

Registering online is relatively painless. One downside is that registration can also put your name on endless mailing lists, so if that bothers you, deselect that option when signing up or create a special email address that you can use to filter them. For example, Gmail users can stick a random full-stop in the first part of their address (such as your.name@gmail.com) and it will still come to the account, but you can filter messages sent to it into special folders. Bear in mind that it's smart to be registered in case there's a recall – you don't want to be the only person walking around with a laptop battery that might catch fire, do you?

How to set up your Mac

One thing you don't have to worry about with a Macintosh computer is crapware. Companies like Dell or HP can justify lame extras by claiming they provide functions that are unavailable (or insufficient) in Windows. The Mac OS and hardware is a closed system controlled by Apple, a company that prides itself on user experience. It's not about to sully that reputation with a bunch of third-party junk; it would have no one to blame but itself. New Macs even come with the iWork and iLife suites now.

OS X Mavericks (version 10.9) comes with an application firewall to control any connections made by your software to the Internet. You can find it in the System Preferences folder to make adjustments. As for antivirus software, you can buy it – Symantec makes some. Not everyone bothers much about malware on the Mac, but it has been a growing target of late, so you’d be wise to consider some precautions.

After your initial setup, the first thing you should do is get going with Time Machine. Simply connect a USB or Thunderbolt hard drive that's larger than your internal hard drive, and OS X will ask you if you want to set it up as a Time Machine backup drive. Say yes, and the drive will be erased (make sure it's a drive you can spare). Then OS X will periodically backup your changed files to the Time Machine backup. Time Machine backs up your entire computer, including the OS and applications. That way if your internal drive ever falls apart, you can simply put in a new drive and restore from the Time Machine backup. Time Machine will also help you migrate to a new Mac once your current Mac becomes too slow, in three to six years from now.

Migrating files from an old Mac to a new one is a breeze. In the Applications/Utilities folder, find the Migration Assistant. Hook the two Macs together with a Firewire cable and run the Assistant. The settings from the older Mac will transfer to the new system with Mavericks – that includes data like browser bookmarks and user profiles. However, it doesn't include apps that come with the Mac OS; Apple assumes the new Mac will have the latest Safari, for example. If you've got a modern MacBook, including the Firewire-free MacBook Air, you can migrate files over your wireless network. If you use Apple's iCloud service, it will go further still: Your Safari bookmarks, contacts in the address book, iCal calendars, and even your documents folder can be synced over the Internet. Just sign into and tick the checkboxes for each function in the iCloud control panel. Most of that info can be synced to your iOS devices (iPhone, iPod, iPad) as well.

If you're going from Mac to Windows, or vice versa, you can always fall back on a USB drive to move files, but you're on your own finding the data you want to transfer. And it's slow. A faster method would be to network the Mac and Windows machine, but that will take a fair bit more doing, and might be a struggle for the less tech savvy.

Of course, if you plan to use both the Mac and Windows PCs regularly, real-time synchronisation is definitely the way to go, and as we already stated, our favourite, DropBox, will do that between folders on multiple Windows and Mac OS systems.

What to do with your old PC

You can probably put your old PC to some kind of good use. But sometimes, you want that old dinosaur out of your sight. Here are some options to consider:

1. Revitalise it. You may think that ancient laptop is too slow for use, but try installing a Linux-based operating system like Ubuntu. It may turn that venerable geezer into the perfect web surfing speed demon.

2. Give it away. Whether you hand it down to family or to a local charity, there's got to be someone clamouring for your old, functional PC. If you can't find anyone, check out Freecycle for a mailing list of people in a city near you who love free stuff. Your junk is their gold.

3. Pick a dump spot. Find a PC Donation centre in your area that will make sure PC toxins don't end up in a landfill.

No matter what, sanitise that hard drive before you pass it on. At the very least, format the drive and reinstall the operating system before recycling the old PC. Bear in mind that formatting isn't nearly enough to be 100 per cent certain data is completely unrecoverable. Speciality software such as Darik's Boot and Nuke or Active@ KillDisk will do the job for free, but the job can take hours and hours.

There's always the Swiss cheese option: Take the drive out to the workshop and drill holes through it. Alternatively, hit the drive repeatedly with a big hammer until it rattles when you shake it (due to the broken platters).