New home computers should come with the same warning label as many toys: Some assembly required.
A fresh-out-of-the-box Windows or Macintosh machine may be able to get you on the Web, play your MP3s and collect your photos, but it can perform those tasks better with a little extra setup. Here's what to do with a new computer running Windows Vista or Mac OS X Leopard, the current versions of each operating system.
Secure: On a Vista computer, Windows' built-in firewall defense will already be active, and you should be prompted to enable the preinstalled anti-virus software when you first boot up the PC. Do not ignore that step.
On a Mac, you'll have to turn on the firewall: Click the System Preferences shortcut at the bottom of the screen, click that preferences window's Security icon, then the Security pane's Firewall heading and finally click the checkbox next to "Set access for specific services and applications."
From there you'll need to download any available system updates. In Vista, go to the Start menu, select Control Panel, and click the Check for updates link. On a Mac, go to the Apple-icon menu and select Software Update.
A few other Internet programs will need updates of their own. On a Vista or Mac computer, go to adobe.com/flashplayer to get the latest Flash plug-in, which plays most Web videos. On a Windows PC, hit the following sites for updates to Adobe Reader, Sun Microsystems' Java and Apple's QuickTime: adobe.com/reader, java.com, apple.com/quicktime.
Simplify: Most Windows manufacturers insist on clogging their PCs with irrelevant third-party programs. These often include trial versions of expensive office programs (instead, buy the $150 Home and Student Edition of Microsoft Office 2007, download the free OpenOffice 3 at openoffice.org or use the free Google Docs Web-based software at docs.google.com); software for Internet services that most people don't use (such as AOL, EarthLink or NetZero); and browser toolbars (unless you already use and like the one that's installed). You can evict these unwanted guests from your PC by clicking the Control Panel's Uninstall a program link.
You can further declutter Windows by right-clicking unwanted shortcuts on the desktop and the Quick Launch toolbar (at the right of the Start menu) and selecting Delete. A free program with the charmingly crude name of PC Decrapifier (pcdecrapifier.com) can automate both sets of chores, but doesn't explain why it suggests removing some programs and not others; use with care.
The Dock at the bottom of a new Mac's screen can also benefit from pruning. Drag an unwanted program shortcut off the Dock, and it will vanish with a puff of smoke.
Backup: Before you load up your new computer with data, set it to back-up those files. Windows Vista's Backup and Restore Center can suffice if you stick to Microsoft's built-in programs. If you have a broadband connection, however, you can get 2 gigabytes of flexible, automatic and free online backup via Mozy (mozy.com), a subsidiary of the computer-services firm EMC.
For backups to a CD, DVD or external drive, you can choose between free but tricky applications (SyncBack Freeware, at 2brightsparks.com/downloads.html) or nonfree but somewhat simpler programs (try Acronis True Image Home 2009, $49.99 at acronis.com).
On a Mac, this job is vastly easier: Buy an external hard drive, plug it in and let Apple's Time Machine software do the rest.
Enable: Now, add a few programs to upgrade the computer's basic toolkit. The free, open-source Mozilla Firefox (mozilla.com) Web browser is faster, more secure and more capable than Internet Explorer; it's not as essential on a Mac but still represents a good backup to Apple's Safari, since a few Web sites don't quite work in that browser.
In Windows, Firefox's e-mail-only sibling Thunderbird can be a good upgrade over Vista's built-in Windows Mail for more intensive use. But if you like the look of Windows Mail, you might be happier moving to Microsoft's free Windows Live Mail (get.live.com/wlmail/overview).
For music playback in Windows, Apple's iTunes easily beats Windows Media Player; it comes with a standard install of QuickTime, but you can download it directly at apple.com/itunes. For photo editing on a PC, consider Google's Picasa (picasa.com) or, if you're used to managing photos with Windows' built-in tools, Microsoft's Windows Live Photo Gallery (gallery.live.com), both free.
Rest: At this point, the computer should be in pretty good shape. So leave it that way. Don't rush to reinstall every program you ran on the old computer, and don't go crazy trying out new ones. (You certainly shouldn't break out the original CD that came with your printer or scanner; go to the vendor's Web site to download current drivers).
This give-the-computer-a-rest strategy represents your best shot at ensuring that your new machine runs as fast a year from now as it does today. Besides, do you really want computer maintenance to become any more of a hobby?