I finally did it. Retired my old computer and purchased a brand new laptop.

I had been window shopping for awhile, and I was tempted by the new Dell computers, the ones that come in pretty colors. I don’t consider myself girly, but I did like the idea of a pink laptop.

In the end, convenience won out. My old desktop model needed to reboot one too many times. I wanted a new computer and I wanted it now! I didn’t want to wait two more days for shipping. So I headed for the local computer store and picked up a sleek, black laptop.

The price was right, on sale for less than $800. I was thrilled as I headed back home ready to fire it up and get to work.

Well, it’s isn’t that easy. You really can’t just take that new computer out of the box, plug it in and start to work — or play. Is there virus protection? Will your old software work on the new machine? How much does it really cost to get that bargain computer up to speed?

Computers experts agree that a new computer is really ready to plug and play as soon as you remove it from the box — which is easier if you purchase a Macintosh. But whether you choose Mac or Microsoft, there are things you need to do.

First, before you even turn your new machine on, check that your new keyboard and monitor are situated at a comfortable height and distance, says Mark Cunningham, of MJM Technologies. The new wide screen, flat monitors may need to be placed differently on your desk for ergonomic comfort.

Cunningham, who works with businesses and individuals throughout Mercer County, founded his own company in 2003.

He, along with Sam Giraffe, of Giraffe Technologies in Plainsboro, has helped hundreds of customers set up new computers. Giraffe has been fascinated with computers his entire life, he says. He received a master’s in computer science from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken and has been in business 11 years.

While both companies regularly assist people in setting up a new computer, they say it is possible to do it yourself. “If you can program your VCR or run your satellite TV you can set up your computer,” says Cunningham.

I however, do not know how to program my VCR. In fact, you could call me technically challenged. While I wanted to do some of the set up myself, I knew I was going to need help in other areas. My first problem was memory. I’d been advised to purchase a two-gigabyte machine, but my bargain computer only came with one. There was, however, a sale on memory, so I purchased additional memory.

Now it was time to call an expert — installing memory requires actually using a screwdriver and taking the back off the machine, a surgical procedure I wasn’t prepared to attempt.

Remove Trial Software. Once the memory was installed I was assured the machine would be quite fast, but to optimize it, I needed to remove unnecessary software.

“Most machines come preloaded with trialware to entice the user into purchasing a program,” Giraffe says. “A lot of it opens automatically when you turn your machine on and just slows down your machine.”

When you open the program it will state that it is a trial and ask you to go online to purchase the program. Some trialware will give you the opportunity to use it for a 30 or 60 days before you must purchase it. These programs can always be removed at a later date.

Make a Recovery Disk. Your computer will come with instructions for making a recovery disk, a backup of all your software programs so that if a problem occurs you can reinstall your software. Make your recovery disk as soon as possible, says Cunningham, to make sure that you are protected. It’s takes a little time, but this is an easy, follow-the-steps procedure.

Install AntiVirus Software. These days, most machines come with some type of trial antivirus software package. If you plan to use that particular software, open it up and register. If you plan to use different antivirus software, install it right away. These days, says Giraffe, most antivirus software comes as a package that includes spyware, a firewall, and protection from phishing. Make sure that the security package you choose includes all of these items.

Firewalls do slow a computer down, and if you have a desktop computer or a laptop that only travels between the office and home, it may be safe to remove the internal firewall and only use the firewall that is a part of your router. “But if you ever plan to take your computer to Starbucks or any other public site, you must have a software firewall installed on your computer. Don’t sacrifice security for speed,” he says.

Check Internet Connection. Once your computer is protected you can connect to the internet.

One of the simplest steps in securing your network is the way it is named. “Don’t use your family name or your address. Use a nickname, and include numbers and letters,” Cunningham says.

Your wireless router will include an instruction manual with directions for securing your network. Each router is a little different, but the steps are simple to follow.

Protect Your Data. Even a new computer can have a problem, and it is only smart to protect your data right from the start.

“Whether you are using the computer for home or business purposes you are going to have financial data and word processing documents that you don’t want to lose,” says Giraffe.

Windows Vista does have minimal backup software. Another inexpensive backup program that he recommends is Acronis True Image, which can be downloaded online.

You will need an external hard drive to store your backups on. The type and size depends on how you use your computer. “A graphic artist who needs to store large files may need 250 gigabytes of storage, but the average business or home user can probably get away with only 150 gigabytes,” Giraffe says.

Additional Software and Hardware. That bargain-price computer will only come loaded only with Windows Vista. There’s not much you can do on it without purchasing additional software, such as Microsoft Office, and an accounting program such as Quicken or Quickbooks. Your machine will have a trial version of Office, so you can purchase it at the upgrade price, rather than the full price. Office is available in several versions, with Home and Student the least expensive at $149, and Office Professional the most expensive at $499.

Windows’ new operating system also means that some of your peripherals, such as your printer or scanner, may not be compatible with the new computer.

“Vista has more stringent hardware requirement, so make sure you know what they are before you purchase anything new,” says Giraffe. It is still possible to purchase a machine with Windows XP, but neither Giraffe nor Cunningham recommends it. Microsoft is withdrawing XP from the market and it will not be available on any new machines after Jan. 1.

Setting Up Your Mac. Yes, life is simpler if you buy a Mac. Since the machines are only sold by authorized Apple distributors, they do not come with trialware. They do have virus protection and a backup program. However, you will still need to purchase an external hard drive for your back ups, says Cunningham.

Keep a Record. Once your new machine is up and running, Cunningham suggests keeping a small notepad and pencil handy to note down any problems.

“With luck, you’ll never have to use it, but if you do need to call technical support, having documentation will make it much easier to fix,” he says.

So how much does that new bargain really cost? At a minimum, you’ll need antivirus software, about $60. External hard drives begin at about $100.The least expensive Microsoft Office package is $149. You may need to upgrade your printer or scanner. If you are purchasing a laptop you may want to add a mouse and you’ll definitely need a carrying case. The bottom line: add a minimum of $300 to the purchase price of a PC, and at least $100 for a Mac.

So how did I fare in setting up my new computer? I’d give myself a C. I did call in an expert to install my new memory, show me some of the basics, and remove some trialware. I managed to install Microsoft Office and my antivirus software myself. I have learned how to use the new versions of Word and Excel, and I haven’t even been able to open Microsoft Outlook yet. I haven’t managed to connect the old printer to the new machine, so I’m using a flash drive and moving things from one computer to the other when I need to print, not the most efficient method — guess I’m going to have to call my expert again. Face it, when it comes to computers, there are no bargains.

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