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Aside from an IBM ThinkPad running Windows XP, that accompanies me on road-trips, and a rack of LaCie Ethernet Disks running Windows XP Embedded, I have completely eradicated Windows PCs from my day-to-day operations. However, as a self-proclaimed geek, I am the first port of call for family and friends when virus-infested, spyware-tainted PCs need servicing and, because I'm a cheapskate, I turn to freeware and the Open Source movement for the necessary software...
“all hail the Microsoft marketing gurus”
Wherever possible, I ensure that the PC is running Windows XP. Obviously the "Professional" variant is preferred but "Home" is okay for the average domestic user.
The first task here is to check the integrity of the Windows system files. This is easily performed by selecting "Run" from the "Start" menu and entering the following command:
NOTE: You'll need to have your Windows XP and any relevant Service Pack CDs available in order to restore any compromised files.
Then I download and install every available upgrade from the Microsoft Update service, a process that usually involves multiple reboots and repeated visits before it is complete. I also make sure that Automatic Updates (available in the Control Panel) is set to download and install future updates without user intervention and that the Windows Firewall is turned on. With the basics taken care of, it's then necessary to remove the assorted detritus that Windows magically accumulates during the course of its day-to-day operations.
I recommend the excellent ClamWin anti-virus program for virus removal and prevention. ClamWin has most of the features you'd expect from a commercial anti-virus solution - scheduled scans, automatic application and signature updates, Microsoft Outlook plug-in, virus quarantine and email notifications. Unfortunately ClamWin does not yet offer an on-access real-time scanner but, according to the FAQ, "this feature is being worked on, and should be available in a later version." A daily scheduled scan should keep you out of trouble until that feature is available. It's also worth noting that ClamWin does have an on-demand scanner integrated within Windows Explorer.
Spyware is the next parasitic group to be eradicated and, for this task, you can't go wrong with Microsoft's own, free anti-spyware application - imaginatively called "Microsoft Windows AntiSpyware" (all hail the Microsoft marketing gurus).
It's a sad fact that even today, despite years of development, Windows does an extremely poor job of self-maintenance. Over time the Windows file-system and infamous Registry becomes cluttered with the remnants of programs long-since uninstalled. Unfortunately, Windows applications scatter their files all over the hard-disk, making manual removal difficult and tedious. Registry maintenance intimidates even experienced "power users", so poor Joe Average stands no chance.
Fortunately there are several applications that can take care of both the file-system and the Registry. ToniArts' "EasyCleaner" is an excellent example of the genre and free to boot. This little application does a terrific job of cleaning up after the hooligan that is Microsoft Windows. Included amongst it's impressive range of maintenance tools is the all-important Registry cleaner, a duplicate file locator and startup manager. It is also able to locate unnecessary files (backups, temporary files, etc.) and invalid shortcuts. All in all, EasyCleaner is an essential tool if you want to keep your Windows PC running lean and clean.
Where applicable, I also delete any unused User Accounts (Control Panel > User Accounts) and their associated files. This is an often-missed step and it's a shame because a lot of hard-disk real-estate can be unnecessarily tied up here.
Finally, I run the Disk Defragmenter (Start > All Programs > Accessories > System Tools) to optimise the physical structure of the hard-disk (for a sometimes noticeable performance boost).
Once all the corrective surgery has been completed I make a special point of returning PCs pre-loaded with a collection of free software that caters for the average user's every need. I list all the applications I choose from here but this is a selective process - obviously there's no point installing the GIMP if the user already has the latest version of Photoshop installed.
Firefox and/or Opera: Microsoft's Internet Explorer is a severely tainted product, open to malicious exploitation and sporting a non-standards-compliant rendering engine and, whilst necessary for Microsoft Update and a handful of poorly-developed websites (online banking services take note), it is rendered almost entirely useless in comparison with its alternatives. I always delete the blue "e" from the desktop and make Firefox or Opera the default web-browser. I've found that average users really don't care which web-browser they use - they just want an icon on their desktop named "Web" or "Internet".
Thunderbird: Again Microsoft's products fail in the hostile world of the always-on, Internet-connected PC. I wouldn't recommend anyone use Microsoft's Outlook (or, perish the thought, Outlook Express) with their many security flaws when decent alternatives such as Thunderbird exist. Rename the Thunderbird icon to "Email" and the user won't be any the wiser (try it - it's an interesting experiment).
Java: Once upon a time Java was supplied as standard with Microsoft Windows operating systems, then Microsoft had a little playground dispute with Sun and decided that it wasn't going to play fair any more (what a surprise). This is a real shame because Java is incredibly useful. It also a prerequisite for some desktop applications and a fair few websites.
OpenOffice: Apart from the aforementioned Outlook, I've got no major gripes with Microsoft's Office other than its cost. The good news is that there's no need to splash out on Office when the free OpenOffice is just a download away. Remember, we're targeting the average domestic user here - OpenOffice is all the office suite they'll ever need.
the GIMP: Okay, a powerful image editor might never be used but, in the absence of Photoshop or a comparable application, I always install the GIMP simply because I wouldn't wish image editing in Microsoft's "Paint" on my enemies, never mind my family and friends. Furthermore, as increasing numbers of average people adopt the digital media lifestyle, photo post-processing will become increasingly common. A decent image editor is no longer a luxury, it's a necessity.
Picasa: Because we have to organise the images we've touched up with the GIMP.
iTunes: Oh come on, do I have to justify this application?
I complete the configuration with the latest versions of Adobe's "Acrobat Reader" and the "Real Alternative" codec. Real Alternative allows you to view RealMedia files without having to install Real's own, bloated software.
Hey presto! We're left with one clean, secure multi-purpose computer, suitable for most domestic tasks and, operating system aside, we haven't spent a single penny on software. That'll do nicely!
The photograph of the computer workstation was taken by "drummerboy" and sourced via morgueFile.