Optimizing & Buying Windows 8 PCs

Basil Irwin



With regard to buying a Windows 8 PC, I've got one word of advice: Don't. If you're stuck with one, skip this section and go to "But I'm Stuck with a Windows 8 PC".

As a Windows PC professional for the last 15 years, and someone who has been a computer programmer and systems analyst for 43 years (including an B.S. degree and an M.S. degree in computer science), I strongly warn everyone to avoid Windows 8 like the plague! It makes Vista look like a work of genius! The new W8 user interface is designed exclusively for credit-card sized and tablet touch-screen devices, and for all practical purposes is completely unusable on mouse-driven conventional laptops and desktops. The Start Menu is gone and the conventional desktop is secondary to the new Metro/Modern UI, which is designed exclusively for horizontal touch-screens. Instead, the desktop is filled with a small number of giant colored blocks that all point to Microsoft stores, products, or software.

Windows 8 is a complete and total disaster, and business, government, and education have already decided that they will not be using it. Basically, the only folks that are going to end up with it are the Best Buy crowd, which are the same folks that got stuck with Vista, and for the same reason, namely, the retail stores refuse to sell anything but the latest garbage from Microsoft.

I recommend you consider buying refurbished Dell Latitude laptops or Optiplex desktops with Windows 7 64-bit Professional from the Dell Business & Education portion of their Outlet. These PCs are business-class PCs with 3-year Dell factory warranties, and can cost about 30% less than the same “new” model. I've purchased many such refurbs from Dell for my customers, and they essentially are new computers for all practical purposes.

I tend to avoid AMD processors and buy systems with at least an i5 Intel processor. You also want a multilayer DVD-RD/RW, at least 4GB RAM, at least 350GM (500GB is better) hard drive. A 7200 RPM hard drive is better than a 5400 RPM hard drive.

Right now, Dell business-class PCs are a good value and are relatively durable and reliable compared to most of the other brands, except the Panasonics. If you want a top of the line laptop, then go for one of the Panasonic Toughbooks. The Panasonic CF-53 is a particularly attractive laptop. Whatever you do, DO NOT buy an HP laptop! They are total junk. I’m starting to think the current crop of Toshiba laptops may not be much better.

Dell Refurb Latitude Laptops

Dell Refurb Optiplex Desktops

If you have already purchased a Windows 8 PC or buy one anyway after reading this and you hate it, take it back for a refund if you can!

But I'm Stuck With A Windows 8 PC

If you must keep your Windows 8 PC, there are software and settings that I can apply that will make Windows 8 look and behave like Windows 7 by automatically bypassing the abysmal Metro UI interface to go directly to the standard Desktop, restore the deliberately removed Start Menu, and restore the deliberately removed ability to play DVDs!

I also recommend a full optimization tuneup as well. When first removed from the shipping box, Windows 8 PC performance is poor, not to mention the extremely annoying vendor crapware popups that continuously impede trying to get any actual work done. Furthermore, as with all Windows systems, Windows 8 is extremely insecure out of the box because all user login Ids have full administrative privilege by default. I take care of these issues and many more when I optimize a Windows 8 PC. 

Optimizing a Windows 8 PC

Here's what I do to optimize all Windows PCs, including Windows 8:  

  1. Install all OS updates and change Windows Update to Microsoft Update, which will update all Microsoft products, not just Windows.

  2. Remove vendor crapware and other useless and/or counterproductive software. (Older systems will have more of this crapware to remove than new systems. On older systems I also check various logs to verify that there aren't problems with the hard drive or other hardware and run antivirus scans if badware invasion is suspected. On older systems I also clean out temp files and other accumulated cruft in the file system. Also for older laptops, I have a method for extracting the dust that builds up in the fan chamber without disassembling the laptop, thereby extending the lifetime of the laptop since the smallest amount of dust buildup will completely block the airflow out of the fan and cause the fan to run all the time and also cause the laptop to badly heat up, often causing the laptop to randomly shut down due to overheating.)

  3. Install and/or update and configure the following programs: Antivir (with my custom nag-screen eliminators), AntiMalwarebytes, HijackThis, Adobe Flash for IE, Adobe Flash for Firefox, 7zip, Java & Java 64-bit, Adobe Reader, Firefox, Thunderbird (optional), PictureIt10, Nero 8 (optional), VLC (without it, Windows 8 won't play DVDs!), and a free version of Office if you don't have your own CD to install. Several of these programs I can configure simply by importing configuration profiles that I carefully developed and previously exported for future use.

  4.  Disable unnecessary background services, tasks and programs. This is where the biggest win occurs with respect to system performance improvements. I've developed software tools that mostly automate disabling these unnecessary background services and tasks, and I use Autoruns to disable startup programs. Close to 40 useless background services, tasks and programs are thereby kept from running continuously in the background of Windows 8 and uselessly consuming memory and CPU resources.

  5. Using a non-Administrative account (login Id) for day-to-day work is the ONLY way to reliably protect ANY Windows operating system from malware! There's not a single antivirus program on the face of the planet that is 100% reliable! Therefore, I install one account with Administrative permissions and one or more accounts with standard permissions. The Admin account is subsequently used by the user only to install, remove, and update hardware and software, and the standard account(s) are used for day to day work because badware can not invade the system from a standard account. (However, badware can still invade the standard account itself, and though removal is extremely easy in such a case, I've developed software tools that block additional hooks that the great majority of badware use to invade standard accounts, thereby making invasion of a standard account even less likely.)

  6. Apply two software tools that I developed that programatically alter dozens of system-wide and user-only system parameters that significantly improve PC performance and usability. Among other things, the user-only tool optimizes the configuration of IE9/IE10.

  7. Using software tools I've developed, I programatically install an optimized power-management profile (one optimized for desktops and one optimized for laptops), and programatically install a task that makes a daily restore point, since the Windows 8 task that is supposed to do that does not work.

  8. With a single click, I optionally install a pre-developed Theme that alters all the parameters of the Windows GUI interface that improves the readability of the system.

  9. Check the vendor support website and download and install any urgently recommended driver and/or BIOS updates.

  10. Change BIOS settings to make Function keys work properly, eliminate annoying screen brightness changes for laptops, set proper boot device order, and if necessary, change RAID to AHCI mode for non-RAID hard drives (earlier having activated the proper AHCI drivers in the OS.)

  11. Optionally make a set of recovery DVDs or bootable recovery image USB drive.

  12. Optionally, download and install any necessary printer drivers.

  13.  Optionally, if the user has an existing PC, I'll reinstall all programs needed on the new PC, either from the user's original CDs or I'll download the latest versions of free programs such as Skype, iTunes, GoogleEarth, etc. Also, as long the original hard drive is still good (even if the old PC won't boot), I'll copy the user's data and settings to the new PC, integrating the old data properly into the correct folders and integrating all settings and special files into their respective programs, such as Outlook, Quickbooks and Quicken.

  14. Optimize network adapter settings, including deactivating idle-off "power-saving" features that can be really annoying.

  15. Optionally, establish a free logmein account and install logmein software to provide future remote access support.

All of the above work takes 3 to 5 hours, depending upon the extent of data copying and custom program installation required.

Buying a New Windows PC

OK, so now that you know what should be done to optimize your new Windows PC, which is the best PC for you to buy right now, anyway?

As to recommendations of what brand of PC to buy, I basically recommend Dell PCs for most people. Do note however that the Dell Latitude business-class laptops are built better than the Dell consumer models and can be purchased as refurbs from the Dell Outlet for not too much more than new BestBuy Dell consumer laptops. The Dell refurbs are new for all practical purposes and Dell's factory warranty on all of their business-class computers is three years as opposed to one year for their consumer models.

But if you want to buy something less expensive and get it quicker (like right now), then BestBuy does carry some good Dell laptops at decent prices. BestBuy also carries some good, inexpensive Dell desktops as well. However, if you want Windows 7, you may have to order your PC online. BTW, don't buy a service plan, extended warranty or anything else except for the PC itself from BestBuy. Throw away any free antivirus software they insist on giving you, and don't let the Geek Squad EVER touch your computer!

I highly recommend that you do NOT buy an HP laptop. Statistically, they are extremely unreliable and I personally see a large number of prematurely dead and dying HP laptops come into my shop which are not cost-effective to repair and therefore must be replaced.

Finally, if you can afford it, the new Panasonic CF-53 semi-ruggedized laptop is a great PC and should last for many years given the way it is built. The CF-53 is a great choice for anyone who transports their laptop a great deal in less than ideal conditions. Like the Latitude, the Panasonic Toughbooks all have a builtin three year factory warrant.

As far as PC specifications in general, start with at least the Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit operating system. Windows 7 Professional 64-bit is even better, and under no circumstance settle for the Starter, Home Basic, or 32-bit editions.  However, the Professional edition is usually only available on business-class PCs.

For home users, I recommend an Intel i3 or i5 processor and I'm not a big fan of the AMD chipset. You also want 3-4 GB of RAM. Laptops should have a minimum hard drive size of 320 GB, with 500 GB being preferable. Desktops should have a minimum hard drive size of 500 GB, with 750GM being preferable. At this point, I'm not sold on 1 TB or larger hard drives as I'm not yet convinced of their long-term reliability, especially the laptop drives. Also, 7200 RPM drives are preferred over 5400 rpm drives as the 7200 RPM drives will provide much better system performance. However, be forewarned that sometimes 7200 RPM drives will produce a noticeable hum or vibration in some laptops.  

All PCs should come with integrated HDMI digital video and sound output so you can hook them up to modern flat screen monitors and TVs. Also, I'm not a fan of dedicated graphics processors in laptops: such processors draw too much power, generate too much potentially damaging heat and are not needed unless you are a serious gamer, which by the way, if you are a serious gamer you should be looking at a desktop anyway. So I prefer integrated graphics rather than dedicated graphics in laptops.

All PCs should have a multi-layer DVD reader/writer.

Screen size and weight selection on laptops depends upon primary usage. If you aren't going to be transporting your laptop a lot, then weight isn't a big issue, and you might as well get a 15" screen. For travel laptops, you want the weight under 6 pounds and probably a 14" screen. BTW, I always thought the so-called tiny netbooks were a gimmick: expensive, underperforming, tiny screen, tiny keyboard, and extremely poor build-quality.

Also, eschew other gimmicks on laptops such as touch screens, fingerprint readers, bluetooth, builtin WWAN, TPM, etc. These are just more useless things to go wrong.  And speaking of gimmicks, avoid the so-called all-in-one PCs like the plague.  They have all of the disadvantages of a laptop in terms of repair-expense and proprietary parts issues and none of a laptop's portability advantages.

On laptops, Intel wireless chips are preferable to anything else, especially proprietary chips like the Dell wireless chips. The Synaptics touchpad is preferable to the Alps touchpads, but you should be using a laser mouse anyway, preferably a wired mouse which is less troublesome than wireless mouses. BTW, avoid everything made by Logitech: their software will eat your PC.

Laptops should have at least four USB 2.0 ports and desktops even more.


Finally, if you're interested in tuneup issues for older systems, check out my Windows PC Tuneup,  Why Is My Computer Slow? and An Epidemic of Malware: Removal and Prevention articles.

Please don't hesitate to call or email me for a free consultation regarding system performance improvements, tuneups, optimizations, or any other PC issue for that matter. You'll be pleasantly surprised at how fast and annoyance-free I can make your system. 

My fee is $40.00/hr for home users and $45.00 for businesses. Most tuneups on older systems take 4-5 hours, though if you have a system that is heavily infected with malicious software or other very difficult issues, it may take additional time to clean the system. I have 15 years experience with PCs, and 40 years total computer experience, including bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science. Please see my web site for additional information.

Alternatively, be extremely wary of the big box stores "PC repair" departments. Since they often have minimal knowledge, they are unable to remove most modern viruses, and thus claim that the system must have the OS freshly reinstalled, though this is completely untrue. They'll often charge an outrageous price for a retail copy of the OS for reinstallation, even though free OEM install disks are available from companies like Dell. They'll also wipe out your data by not copying it before wiping the hard drive, and they won't tell you that before hand. And finally, they won't reinstall the factory drivers after reinstalling the OS, leaving you with a crippled computer. And, believe me, this is a best-case scenario. The worst case I heard of was a client who had a big box store lose her laptop! They talked her into accepting a used computer in lieu of the one they lost!

Also, note that there are a lot of wannabe PC "geeks" posting right now on Craigslist who are advertising inexpensive rates; people who think that they know how to repair PCs because they use one and have tinkered a bit. Look for someone who at least has enough professional commitment to have their own Internet domain name, web site and business email address, as opposed to someone using a free email address and who has no web site. Also, look for someone with long-standing business clients and business references.

Cheap rates and/or corporate big box stores may seem like a good idea, but remember that you usually get what you pay for! I'm the guy who people bring their computers to after someone else has messed them up, so why not skip that step and bring them to me first! You'll save money in the long run and save a lot of headaches as well. My work is guaranteed and I provide remote access to your computer after I work on it should any questions or issues arise afterwards.

                                            Basil Irwin