(Note this was written 12/31/2008 and has been updated with Microsoft Security Essentials Link on 10/1/2009)
With the economy the way it is the price of the personal computer has reduced so drastically that many people are finally able to own one. I am writing this article for the first timer who just got a new computer this Christmas as a guide to places you can go to get help and point out some free utilities that will make your life easier.
First of all of course I am assuming since you are reading this that you have figured out how to get your computer hooked up to the internet. This was probably accomplished by the ATT, Time Warner, Comcast, Wowway, Directv, AOL, Geek Squad or whatever guy coming to your house, plugging in a box, running a utility on your computer, handing you a sheet of paper and Saying, Yup, you're all hooked up Maam, I gotta go call in..y'all have a nice day. You are left holding a stack of papers and trying to sort through the ugliness of it all.
If you just plugged your computer into the internet the FIRST and MOST IMPORTANT thing you want to do is Update, Update, Update. Assuming your computer is running some version of Windows be it Windows XP Windows 7 or Windows Vista you need to go out to the Microsoft Windows Update site BEFORE YOU GO ON ANY OTHER WEBSITE! To get to the windows update site open your Internet Explorer browser and click on the Tools Menu at the top and choose Windows Update from the drop down. One of two things will happen depending on what version of Windows you are running. If you are running Windows XP a new screen will popup and you may get a prompt asking to run ActiveX controls. Click OK. You may need to right click on a bar across the top of the screen and choose Allow active X control. Then you should click on the Grey Express button to start searching for updates. Once all updates are found Microsoft will give you a list of them. Click on the Install now link to install all of them. Wait until they are done installing. Click on Reboot if you are prompted to.
When the computer comes back up. Repeat the above procedure Over and Over and Over again until there are no critical updates left. DO NOT GO ON ANY OTHER WEBSITES UNTIL YOU HAVE DONE THIS! If it is Windows 7 or Windows Vista you are using, another Window will pop up with a yellow box that you need to click on to search for updates. Search for updates, allow Windows to install them, reboot if necessary, repeat, until it tells you there are no more updates. If you do not do anything else in this article to your PC this is the THE most important piece of inforamation you should take away from it.
Now your PC is updated and protected for the most part but you are still not ready to go off into the annals of the World Wild Web. If you did not have Microsoft Office and want to install that install it now. Put the disk in, follow the prompts, install it. If you are Windows XP go to http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/downloads/FX101859091033.aspx otherwise if you are Vista go back to the Microsoft Update site and keep updating until there are no more. Lather, rinse, repeat. Install any other Microsoft software repeat.
Antivirus is next. Some computers come with Antivirus preinstalled or a trial version installed.
Whatever it is unless it is Microsoft Security Essentials, Mcafee or Trend, go to your control panel from your start menu and choose programs (or add remove programs on XP) and uninstall it and then go back to Best Buy or whatever computer store you bought it from and demand a discount on one of those packages because you just paid $500 for a computer from them and the AV software they installed is for the most part crap. There are free antivirus programs out there and I have written about them, but it is worth $30 to protect your investment and your time is worth more than that. Spend a weekend(weeks maybe even) without a PC while someone cleans off a virus for you and you will know what I mean. Symantec/ Norton Antivirus is just an OK product compared to Trend or Mcafee. Just trust me on it. One of my first jobs in IT over 25 years ago was as a Virus Technician at NASA Glenn (former Lewis) Space center. I've followed these products and know what is and isn't going to be useful.
Now install the Antivirus of your choice. Go into the program and run the update feature. Keep running it until there are no more updates. Lather, rinse, repeat.
NOTE: Since I wrote this, Microsoft Onecare has been Released as a FREE product called Windows Security Essentials. I highly reccomend you install this product which can be donloaded from: http://www.microsoft.com/SECURITY_ESSENTIALS/
Further Trend makes a web browser add on to keep you safe while you are surfing at:
http://free.antivirus.com/web-protection-add-on/ which should also be installed on all of your systems.
Now your experience on the web is useless unless you have 3 utilities installed on your computer and they are now owned by Adobe. They are Acrobat Reader, Shockwave, and Flash. The 4th program you'll need is Sun's Java. You may as well do these first.
Lets start with Shockwave first. Go out to the Adobe website at http://get.adobe.com/shockwave/ Click on the Yellow button that reads "Agree and Install now" If you are running Vista you may have to click OK on a User Access Control prompt
Uncheck the box to include Norton Security scan in the popup if you get it and click on Next, you may get a yellow bar across the top of your browser that you have to right click your mouse on to allow the installation. If all goes right shockwave will finish installing and you will be done.
Next lets install Adobe Flash. A LOT of websites require Flash. Head on over to http://get.adobe.com/flashplayer/ Click to uncheck the box in front of "Free Google Toolbar" (you don't need it) and then click on the yellow Agree and install now button. You may have to click inside the box on the next screen on the Green Shield and choose Install ActiveX and then continue or Allow on the Windows Vista User Access Control prompt. Then Click Install in the next popup window. Flash should then be installed and you are done.
Adobe Acrobat Reader for PDF's at http://get.adobe.com/reader/ is installed in much the same way as the Flash Player. Be sure to click to UNCHECK the box in front of Free Google Toolbar and then click on the download button. Right click on the yellow bar across the top of your Internet Explorer browser window and choose Install Activex control from the drop down. If you have Vista as your Operating system click Continue on the User access control prompt that comes up. Next click on the Install button in the popup window. Follow the prompts to finish Adobe Reader installation. Note that there are other free versions of PDF readers like Foxit but Adobe is the industry standard.
Finally you will need Java installed. Go out to http://java.com/en/download/index.jsp
and click on the blue button that reads "Java Download" , if you are Vista, click Continue in the User access control popup you get, allow any other firewall prompts you may get. Then click on Install in the popup. The java installer will download java. Accept the license agreement by clicking on the accept button. Then click on Finish when it is done. Watch for check boxes along the way prompting to install MSN or Google Toolbar and uncheck those boxes if they come up.
Now you are ready to enjoy and surf the web. Try out your new installs over on my Stressedpuppy games Site at http://www.stressedpuppy.com/ it makes use of many of the plugins we just installed! Happy computing!
Here is an additional tip from Microsoft on what to do before you connect your computer to the internet: http://www.microsoft.com/protect/computer/advanced/xppc.mspx
And finally there are lots of other applications that you might want to install on your computer. A new website that will install needed apps (many of the above listed ones included) is called Ninite.com. Ninite lets you click on several choices to install multiple apps at once and it removes all the toolbars (yahoo, msn, google) etc prompts that most have. You can also install some Microsoft Products from this link IF you have the license for them.
Check out the site at http://www.ninite.com/