03:21 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa

Langa Letter: Make The Most Of That New PC

Here's the info you need to ensure long, safe, trouble-free computing whether you're starting the year with a brand-new PC, or with an older, used PC that's new to you.

Happy New Year, everyone--and happy new first-quarter budget, too! It's that time of year when business purse strings may loosen a bit, making money available for new hardware and software purchases: Many of us will be getting new PCs in the coming weeks and months.

Others of us already have a new or almost-new computer: Perhaps an end-of-the year splurge, or the result of having a few extra dollars left in the hardware budget at the close of the fourth quarter; or on a personal level, perhaps you received a holiday gift PC.

Even if your PC isn't new from the factory, it still may be new to you, passed along as part of a departmental PC shuffle or reallocation of existing hardware, for example. Whatever the reason, many of us are facing questions such as: What's the best way to get off on the right foot with a new PC? What steps can you take to ensure that the hardware and software is set up as solidly as possible for long-term safety and reliability? And there are other real-life concerns, too, such as these, voiced by reader Richard M. Terlecki:

Dear Fred: I just got a brand new PC ... and my questions and comments are as follows: The last "System Setup Secrets" was published back in July 2003, is there any possibility you could update this article...? I am fearful of reformatting the C: drive. I want to do it because I want to set up partitions such as you have described in previous articles. I want C: to be for the operating system, D: for applications and data, and E: for backups in addition to using an external drive for backups also. My fear is that I will not be able to reload all of the applications that came installed on the system and have them work properly utilizing the d: drive due to insufficient standalone programs from Dell. Any suggestions? I have my current system set up as you have recommended in the past. Why when I select custom install on all programs and select the d: drive do I still get c:\ program files with some information in it? I can understand why programs need to install information into \windows on the c: drive but not why these programs need to install information on both the c: and d: drives under program files?
-- Best Regards, Richard

Let's step through the questions in sequence. As usual with the information we present here, you can go as deep or shallow as you wish: If you follow all the steps, you'll go deep indeed, but will end up with a PC that's as near perfect as you can reasonably achieve. Or, you can follow fewer steps to focus just on areas of particular interest to you. It's entirely up to you how far you go. But no matter what your preferences, the keys to a better-running, better set-up PC are in the next few pages.

(SPECIAL NOTE FOR IN-USE PCs: If you're cleaning up a PC that's new to you--that is, one that was previously used by someone else--or if you just want to make your existing PC work as well as it can, start with the information in Year-End PC Tasks and then cherry-pick the appropriate additional steps from the rest of this article.)

Update: System Setup Secrets
Richard's right that we haven't specifically updated the classic System Setup Secrets For Windows XP article, but there's a very good reason: Many other articles have separately expanded on and enhanced the topics of the original article in far more depth than we could otherwise present in a single new article. In total, it amounts to an entire minilibrary of tips, techniques, and best-practice information on perfecting your PC setup:

In themselves, the above will go a long way to getting any PC in great shape, but there's more you can do, too, as Richard's other questions suggest.

Partitioning Schemes
With today's huge hard drives, it makes a lot of sense to partition a physical drive into two or more virtual drives, each with its own drive letter. That way, you can organize your files in a logical way instead of just tossing everything into a gigantic C: drive. It also simplifies backups, because your partitions can be sized to "fit" your backup method so you never have to face trying to back up the entire contents of, say, an 80-Gbyte hard drive. Instead, your backups can be smaller, faster, and far more conveniently sized.

Richard's suggested method of a three-way partition is a popular one; placing the operating system files on the C drive, the applications and data on D and everything else on E. But, as he says, there can be problems, not least of which is the inability to move installed files in a system that only ships with an all-or-nothing "Restore" CD, instead of program-by-program setup CDs.

I recommend a slightly different partitioning scheme: Rather than organizing files by type (operating system, app, miscellaneous ...) I suggest you organize them by backup priority. By placing files with similar backup priorities on the same logical drives; each logical drive can have its own backup set and schedule, which hugely simplifies backups--and restores! Most times, your most important, most-changeable files will go on the C: drive, so you can just focus on that for your day-to-day backups. All less-important files will go on other partitions--D:, E:, F:, and so on--where they're out of the way of the high-priority files.

In my systems, that means I use the C: drive for the operating system, for my most-important (or hardest-to-reinstall) apps and utilities, and for my most-current data files. The copy of XP Pro I'm using right now to write this article, for example, currently occupies about 5 Gbytes of an 8-Gbyte partition. This 5 Gbytes is a self-contained whole, comprising my essential, must-back-up user files, my operating system, and my most essential applications and utilities. I have many, many static files and less-essential stuff out of the way on other partitions, separate from the files that need regular and routine backup. Thus, in routine use, I can concentrate my backups just on the C: partition, and be well-protected against data loss. The rest of the drive--multiple dozens of gigabytes--does *not* need daily backup, and so doesn't get in the way.

So, the first step in partitioning your hard drive is to think about your files, and come up with an organizational plan that will work for you. In Richard's specific case, using the method I suggest--placing the operating system, essential software, and data files on C--also helps avoid problems with vendor-installed software that cannot be moved to another location on the drive: They can be left on C, where the vendor originally placed them. For more suggestions, see A More Rational Organization For Your Files

Nondestructive Partitioning
Once you have a partitioning plan in mind, it's time to implement it. The information in How To Safely And Nondestructively Partition An In-Use Drive will tell you all you need to know for most setups. There's also extra info available if, like Richard, you have a PC that only came with an all-or-nothing Restore CD: It's important to handle the "Recovery Partitions" on that kind of PC correctly. See Wiping Out Special 'Recovery' Partitions in items #1 and #2; and Preserve Your Warranty By Preserving Your Factory Setup.

When you're done following the suggestions in those prior articles, you'll have your hard drive safely partitioned in a convenient, easy-to-back-up way; and you will have preserved any preinstalled software that you wish to retain. You'll also be able to restore the original factory setup, if you ever need to; or restore your newly implemented partitioning scheme. That's about as safe and flexible as you can be!

Installing New Software
As Richard discovered, even when you select a nonstandard location (e.g. the D: drive) to install new software, some pieces of the software may end up on the C: drive anyway. This most often happens when software needs to install or access a shared component; or when some file, marker, or setting needs to be placed on the C: drive in order to point the rest of the installation to the nonstandard location; or for similar reasons. (And yes, sometimes, it's just the result of sloppy programming!)

But whatever the reason, in practice it's nearly impossible to end up with a 100% "clean" install of software in a nonstandard hard-drive location. Almost always, the best you can hope for is to have most of your programs installed to the nonstandard place.

Fortunately, by following the organizing principles outlined above, it doesn't matter: You'll mostly be backing up the C: partition anyway, so as long as your essential software is self-contained on C:, with only the nonessential stuff installed to other partitions, you're fine.

In my own case, for example with an 80GB hard drive partitioned as C: through H:, and some four years into heavy, daily use of XP, my C: drive still only has about 5GB of files on it, including the OS. With the standard compression built into my favorite imaging tool ( BootIT), the entire partition fits comfortably on one blank DVD; I back up the entire partition that way about once a week. My daily backups focus just on the "C:\Documents and Settings\Fred" folder, and those backups still fit comfortably on a single ordinary blank CD, using the tools (mostly free) discussed in Fast, Easy Backups For Win98 / ME / NT / 2K / XP . So, you can see that a sensible partitioning scheme lets your backups be quick, easy, and inexpensive, even with a large hard drive.

Not "Secrets," But Sense
As with so many things, you'll get out of your new PC experience only what you put in. Taking some extra time when your PC is new--or taking the time to make an older PC like new--will pay off in the months and years to come. With some periodic cleanups and minor tuneups you'll be set for the life of your system!

What steps do you take with a new PC? What have you found to be helpful in setting up a factory-fresh system? What about rehabbing an older system? Have you found any tools that are particularly noteworthy? Any bad tools that others should avoid? Join in the discussion!

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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