Congratulations! You got a new computer!
Of course you want to jump right in and start using it right now, but if you can hold on a bit, there are a few tasks to do first. The steps you take now can save you lots of time and grief later. (Meaning when all heck breaks loose and the machine dies, the software crashes, or you get a massive malware infection.)
Every day, people lose data, precious memories, and valuable time because they didn’t take a few simple steps to prepare.
And by far the best time to prepare is at the very beginning.
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1. Disconnect that new computer from the internet
I know you’ve already connected; you just couldn’t help yourself, I’m sure.
I’m the same way.
You may need to stay online to complete the initial setup of your computer using your Microsoft account, but until we’ve made sure of a couple of items, let’s pull off the highway for a moment if you can.1
2. Make a system image backup
Using Macrium Reflect, EaseUS Todo (the free edition of either will do), or a similar tool, take a complete image backup — sometimes called a full system backup — of your entire machine. Make sure your backup tool supports what’s called a “bare metal” restore: the ability to restore to a machine that has a completely empty hard drive — it’ll be on the program’s list of features.
This step is particularly important if your machine didn’t come with installation media, since it serves as one alternative.
Even if you did get installation media, a backup image taken now can be more convenient should you need to reset the computer to the state it was in on the day you got it.
The reasoning here is simple: this backup is an image of your machine as you got it. It’s a true reset to factory settings. Should you ever need to start over and reformat/reinstall the machine, this image backup can be restored instead. It will return it to the exact condition it’s in right now in a single step. You don’t even need to know how to do that today — the important thing is that you create the image backup and save it, now.
3. Make a System Recovery drive
A recovery drive is a USB flash drive created by Windows from which you boot your computer in order to perform a number of Windows recovery tasks, including reinstalling Windows from scratch. That last item means it can serve as a replacement for your installation media if you didn’t get it.
How to Create a Windows 10 Recovery Drive walks through the process. Once again, this is something you want to do shortly after getting your new machine, because it’ll reflect the version of Windows as it was installed on your machine on the day it arrived.
Another option is to download Windows 10 Setup media and save it (or download it at some future date when you need it). The issue here is that this image will be generic, and may not include everything that the recovery drive made with your own machine would.
4. Set up regular backups
While you’ve got your backup software out, take the time to schedule regular automated backups.
Exactly what that looks like depends on your needs and how you use your computer, but in general, backing up your machine daily to an external hard drive is good practice.
If you’re not sure what to do, I have backup recommendations.
5. Check the firewall and connect to the internet
With your backup ready in case anything goes wrong, it’s almost time to connect. First, you want to double check to make sure a firewall is enabled.
In most cases, if you’re connecting through a router, you’re done. That router acts as a perfectly adequate firewall and protects you from random things attacking your machine the moment you connect to the internet.
If you don’t have a router (which is very rare these days), simply make sure Windows Firewall is enabled. It should be already, but it’s well worth checking.
Once you’ve confirmed a firewall of some sort, connect.
6. Install security software
Windows 10 comes with security software pre-installed and enabled: Windows Defender. If you leave that enabled, you’re done here as well.
On the other hand, occasionally you’ll find other solutions pre-installed by your manufacturer, or you might want to avoid Windows Defender for some reason.
Either make sure the pre-installed software is configured and properly enabled, or download the alternative you choose and set it up instead. Make sure to uninstall the security tools you’re replacing (except for Windows Defender, which will simply step aside when something else replaces it).
My recommendation, however, is that Windows Defender is just fine. With it enabled from the start, you really don’t need to do anything else.
7. Update, update, update
Take the time now to update Windows, in particular, and all other applications and software installed on your machine.
Make sure automatic updates for Windows are enabled. If “Microsoft Update” is offered, enable it to receive updates to all Microsoft applications installed on your machine, as well as the operating system. Check for updates repeatedly until there are no more updates available.2
Keeping your software updated keeps your machine safe from malware that exploits bugs in the software on your machine, known as “unpatched vulnerabilities“. Updates are regularly issued to fix those bugs.
8. Back up again
Once your machine is completely up to date, take another image backup.
While the image backup taken in step 3 is perhaps the most important, it’s this backup that’ll be the most convenient. Why? Because if you ever need to use it, you’ll have already performed steps 4, 5, and 6, and will have a head start on step 7. You won’t have to update nearly as much as if you started with the machine returned to factory settings.
There’s an argument that you don’t need both, but I prefer caution. This is the backup you’re most likely to use, while the backup from step 3 is an additional safety net.
Of course there’s always more, but this is a good start towards basic protection. These steps will help protect your investment, your data, your time, and your peace of mind.
1: I’m close to calling this step optional, because of that Microsoft account setup requirement. I get that it’s difficult to know when to then disconnect. The important thing is that the system image backup step happen as soon as possible.
2: Since this is a “clean” machine, before installing any of your applications or running it for any extended period of time, this is the point at which even problematic updates are most likely to succeed.