The quickest way to set up a new PC
Go straight to enjoying your laptop.
This story has been updated. It was originally published on January 22, 2020.
Opening the box of a brand-new laptop is quite an experience. You admire the clean, unscratched surface, open up the perfectly smooth hinge, and turn it on… only to realize you have to spend all day setting it up before you can really use it.
Once upon a time, I loved setting up a new computer from scratch—believe it or not, my idea of a party was (nerd alert) reinstalling my operating system. But these days, I just want to open my laptop and do my work so I can move on to other things. And that means I don’t want to spend all day getting my apps, settings, and data in place. Thankfully, I’ve got it down to a science.
Get rid of the manufacturer’s bloatware
When you think of a new PC, you probably imagine a perfectly clean desktop, free of all the junk icons you’ve stuffed in there over the years. But that’s not really how the world of Windows works. In order to lower the cost of the machine, manufacturers often include bloatware like antivirus trials, media suites, and games—not to mention the manufacturer’s own tools that can be less than useful. And this stuff can get annoying very, very quickly.
You have two options for cleanup: uninstall each item individually, or use Windows’ “Fresh Start” feature to return your PC to a clean, bloatware-free slate. The latter will require reinstalling certain drivers and manufacturer tools that you do want, so unless you stumble upon some stubborn programs you can’t uninstall, I generally think it’s faster and easier to uninstall the bloatware one-by-one.
To uninstall bloatware yourself, click the Start menu and search for “Add or remove programs”. Windows will present you with a list of all the software you currently have installed, and you can click on any app to uninstall it.
There are utilities like PC Decrapifier that will do this for you and can speed up the process—but I find doing it yourself is plenty fast. Some of the software you’ll see on the Windows list are actually drivers and companion programs for your hardware, which, among other things, allow you to use gadgets such as speakers or a fingerprint reader, if your laptop has one. If you have doubts as to whether you should keep something or not, you can always consult Should I Remove It—the platform offers a database on its website that you can search through if you aren’t sure whether a given app is garbage or not.
If you find certain bloatware is hooked so deeply into your system that you can’t remove it—or if you just want to start with a clean slate—the aforementioned Fresh Start option can help. This Windows process will remove all third-party apps, so before you do it, make note of any apps you want to keep (like, say, a Blu-Ray player app), and see if there are any license keys or license files you can back up. When you’re ready, open the Start menu and search for “Device performance & health”. Under the Fresh Start option, click Additional Info to make sure you know exactly what this entails. If you want to go ahead with the fresh start, open the Settings pane, go to Update & Security, and hit Recovery. Under the Reset this PC heading, click Get Started. From there, Microsoft suggests choosing Keep my files, sending them to local storage or the cloud, adjusting your settings, and setting Restore preinstalled apps? to No.
[Related: 10 new features to get you started with Windows 11]
Let Windows do its thing, and when it’s finished, you should have a much cleaner PC waiting for you. You’ll need to head to your manufacturer’s website (e.g. Dell.com, Lenovo.com, and so on), search for your PC’s model name, and download any drivers that didn’t come with Windows—like chipset drivers, firmware updates that fix bugs, and Intel graphics drivers. If you have an NVIDIA or AMD graphics card in your PC, you’ll want to grab that driver from NVIDIA’s or AMD’s websites, respectively.
Install all your favorite apps at once
I’ve built up quite an arsenal of apps I use to get things done—like music players, productivity tools, and utilities like 7-Zip. It would take forever to install each of them one-by-one, so I use Ninite to install a whole bunch of them in one fell swoop. Just check the boxes of the apps you want, and Ninite will download a single EXE file that installs all of them on your computer. It’s completely free, comes with zero bloatware, and is incredibly fast.
This doesn’t necessarily cover every app, though, and there are always a few extras I have to install manually—but Ninite does the bulk of the work. For many of my favorite apps, such as Lightscreen or Core Temp, I actually use portable versions—usually available as a ZIP download rather than an EXE—which don’t require installation. They just sit in my Dropbox folder and appear on every computer I own, no extra work required.
Migrate your data and sync your settings
Your job isn’t done once all your apps are installed. You also need to get those apps running like they used to, with all your settings, bookmarks, and shortcuts intact.
On your old computer, make sure you’re logged into Windows with a Microsoft Account. Then, when you log into your new PC using the same account, many of your Windows settings will sync right over. The same goes for your browser—log into Chrome using a Google account or Firefox with a Firefox account. Other cloud-based apps (like Evernote and Spotify) will sync your settings in much the same way.
For the apps that don’t have syncing built in, open their settings and see if there’s an Export option for your preferences. Put it on a flash drive or in your Dropbox, then sync it over and import it on your new PC. If your app doesn’t have an export option, you may be able to migrate your settings over by looking in C:UsersYOURNAMEAppDataRoaming, and copying the app’s AppData folder over to the same location on your new PC (where YOURNAME is your username on both PCs). This is a bit more advanced, but I’ve done it many times and it works beautifully.
Finally, to migrate the rest of your data, you’ll need an external hard drive or something similar. Windows doesn’t have a built-in option to migrate your files like macOS does, but almost all your personal files should be in your user folder under C:Users. Just drag those folders—Desktop, Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos—onto your USB drive and move them to your new PC. It’ll be like you never left.