My daughter has asked for a Windows laptop for Christmas, for schoolwork and games. I used to follow the same procedure when setting up a PC for the first time: I’d install AVG anti-virus, Zone Alarm, CCleaner, Spybot Search and Destroy etc. I’m a Mac user and haven’t set up a Windows machine for many years so I’d appreciate any advice … except “get her a Mac/Linux” from below the line! Stuart
Windows 10 already includes almost everything the average PC user needs, with three different types of software. First, there are traditional Windows programs such as WordPad. Second, there are new-style apps such as Mail and Sticky Notes. Third, there are in-browser programs that work with your log-on email address, which is your Microsoft Account.
Traditional programs are usually the most powerful but also the most dangerous. They should only be downloaded from the original source (the software company) or a trusted alternative, such as Major Geeks or Ninite.
New-style apps are downloaded and maintained from a trusted source, the Windows Store, and they run in sandboxes that prevent them from doing bad things. There are apps for Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, Netflix, Shazam, Deezer, Pinterest, Twitter, TuneIn Radio etc (but not Snapchat), plus loads of games.
Online apps are useful if you have a good internet connection. Windows 10 includes online versions of OneNote, Word, Excel and PowerPoint from Microsoft Office. The online programs often have their own apps as well, including apps for Android and Apple smartphones and tablets.
In general, it’s only worth installing things that are better than the bundled programs, but it depends on personal preferences and circumstances. For example, I used to recommend Evernote and Dropbox, and now I don’t. Today, OneNote is better than Evernote, and OneNote is widely used in schools. Dropbox is better than OneDrive, but OneDrive offers more free storage (5GB vs 2GB) and is good enough. Of course, many people already have data in Evernote and Dropbox, but for the rest of us, they’re optional.
Windows 10 security
Security has been a major concern because some earlier versions of Windows – especially XP – were very insecure. That has changed. Windows 10’s security has improved so much that the US Defense Department is moving to it as quickly as possible.
Windows 10 is safe enough to use without any extra security software, if you keep the latest default settings. These include SmartScreen filter, which checks web addresses for known malware, and a cloud-based service, which was turned on by default in the Anniversary Update edition. If Defender sees a suspicious file that it does not recognise, it refers it to the cloud service, which uses heuristics, automated file analysis and machine learning to decide whether or not to block it. This is important with things like ransomware attacks.
People who block Windows 10’s background security and telemetry communications – perhaps in a misguided attempt to protect their privacy – risk compromising their security. If so, they should install an alternative anti-virus program that makes exactly the same checks, and uses its own cloud services for exactly the same purposes.
The combination of Defender, SmartScreen and cloud-based heuristics should be OK for users who don’t have dangerous surfing habits, especially if they use secure browsers, such as Microsoft Edge or Google Chrome. My wife is in this category. I’m paranoid so I supplement Defender with MalwareBytes Anti-Malware and occasional scans with Adware Cleaner, Hitman Pro and GMER. (They’ve not found anything yet.)
There are, of course, better anti-virus products than Defender, both free and paid-for. I usually install Avast on other people’s PCs after removing a virus, but Avira, Bitdefender and Kaspersky are good alternatives. (Avast now owns AVG.) Kaspersky and Bitdefender seem to be the best paid-for AV suites.
I also install Flexera’s free Personal Software Inspector. This monitors your PC’s software and tells you which programs are insecure and need updating. In some cases, it will even update them for you.
PSI is important because most vulnerabilities are now in third-party programs such as Adobe Reader, Flash, Oracle Java and so on, not in Windows. A PC may have dozens of programs from dozens of suppliers, and even if you knew which ones needed security patches, it would be tedious to update them. PSI solves that problem nicely.
Windows 10 includes two browsers: the new Edge and the old Internet Explorer 11. Edge is a good browser: it’s secure, fast and light. However, it still has some weird omissions (can’t save pages!) and very few extensions (about 20). IE11 is best avoided, unless a website only works in IE. So, you probably need another browser....
The main alternatives are Google Chrome and Firefox. Chrome is more secure but it guzzles memory, resources and battery power, so I generally use Firefox with the Ghostery and uBlock Origin extensions. Instead of Chrome, I use Vivaldi, which is slow to load, a bit geeky – sorry, aimed at “power users” – and still being developed. Vivaldi is, like Chrome, based on the open source Chromium browser, and it runs most Chrome extensions.
There are lots of Chromium-based browsers, including Opera.
There are a few free programs that I install on most PCs because they’re generally useful. These are: Unchecky, Search Everything, Paint.net, PIXresizer, FreeFileSync, and the K-Lite codec pack. Windows 10’s much improved Task Manager (WinKey-X, T) means there’s less need for Process Explorer. To those, I might add CCleaner, Revo Uninstaller or SlimCleaner, but I usually don’t.
Unchecky is a simple program that unchecks tick-boxes. When you download a free Windows program, the supplier will often try to foist some unwanted software on you, such as Google Chrome. It’s how they make money. Unchecky unchecks all the boxes in case you miss them.
Search Everything is a fast way to find and open files if you can’t quite remember their names or where you put them. It doesn’t search inside files, so it doesn’t spend a lot of time and resources on indexing.
Paint.net is a replacement for Microsoft Paint, and it’s good for editing photos and images. It can, of course, resize images too, but Bluefive’s PIXresizer is super-efficient at reducing file sizes. It also does batch conversions so you can process whole folders of photos before uploading them to Facebook, or whatever.
FreeFileSync is a fast way to synchronise two sets of files: one on your PC and the other on an external hard drive or other target. It doesn’t replace full backups, but it’s a really useful way to keep uncompressed, instantly accessible copies of important photos and documents.
The K-Lite codec pack is a bundle of decoders that will play most of the video and audio files you can find on the net. The standard version includes a lightweight media player – Media Player Classic Home Cinema (MPC-HC) – that looks like an old Microsoft product but isn’t. The main alternative is VLC, which also runs on MacOS and Linux.
CCleaner, Revo Uninstaller and SlimCleaner all include clean-up routines and utilities to uninstall programs and manage hard drives. Such programs were popular with Windows XP users, but they’re not as useful with Windows 10, unless you need to recover some disk space in a hurry. If so, they’ll delete old logs, cookies, temporary internet files and so on. Just make sure you have backups, that you know all your log-on IDs and passwords, and that you’ve saved your browser tabs with, for example, Session Manager.
Of the three, I’d pick Revo Uninstaller, but they all need to be used with care.
There’s a long and honourable tradition of messing about with Windows, and some versions have needed it. But the days of Windows 95 and XP have long gone. Windows 10 generally works perfectly well if left to do its thing, and the less tinkering, the better. If it goes badly wrong, you can simply re-set it.
Have you got another question for Jack? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com
This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our journalism is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative. By clicking on an affiliate link, you accept that third-party cookies will be set. More information.
Features of Comodo Antivirus
- Default Deny Protection™
Makes sure that only known PC-safe applications execute
- Prevention-based security
Stops viruses and malware before they access your computerâ€¦so it isn't too late to stop them.
- Auto Sandbox Technology™
The sandbox is a virtual operating environment for untrusted programs – ensuring viruses and other malicious software are completely isolated from the rest of your computer
- Secure Shopping
Total security for online shopping and banking. Features browser isolation, keylogger prevention, copy-paste protection, screen capture blocking and SSL certificate inspection.
- Full strength, top notch virus detection and elimination
Our download offers Free Antivirus protection that exceeds the protection offered by expensive security suites
- Quarantine system to isolate suspicious files
Possible viruses are kept executing to ensure that nothing 'sneaky' gets through
- Personalized protection
Set virus scans to run on a schedule, when it's convenient for you
- Spyware Scanning
Spyware Scanner detects and cleans malware infections in PC registry and disks.
- Cloud based Antivirus
Cloud based antivirus scanning detects malicious file even if a user does not have up-to-date virus definitions.
- Cloud based Behavior Analysis
Cloud based behavior analysis system detects zero-day malware INSTANTLY.
- Cloud based Whitelisting
Cloud based whitelisting of trusted publisher easily identifies a safe file and vendor
- Game Mode
Suppresses operations that could interfere with a user's gaming experience such as alerts, virus database updates or scheduled scans.
- Application Control
Provides users with the ability to lockdown their PC so only known good applications can run.
- One-click scanning
Make sure your PC is clean with one simple button click
- Easy and user-friendly interface
Simply install and forget, while Antivirus continues to protect
- Real-time access to updated virus definitions
Get the most current protection possible against new viral strains