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How to Set Up a Windows PC for Gaming and Productivity

Setting Up a PC
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Congratulations! You've just gotten a new PC, taken it out of the box, plugged it in and powered it up for the first time. Windows 11 (or 10) probably asked you for your Microsoft login and network credentials the first time you booted up, but you're not done yet. To get the best performance and user experience, you need to take a few more actions to set up your PC. 

There are a number of default Windows settings, particularly in Windows 11, that  slow you down and limit your productivity. And, if you didn't build this PC yourself, both the OEM and Microsoft have likely thrown on some crapware for good measure. You may also be able to make some tweaks that make the computer faster or you faster. 

Follow the 15 steps below and set up your new PC like a pro.

Update Your Graphics Driver

Nvidia GeForce Experience

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If your computer has discrete graphics, one of the very first things you should do is make sure you have the very latest driver from Nvidia or AMD. A newer driver usually means better performance in the latest games and fewer bugs, even if you have one of the best graphics cards already. 

While the built-in Windows Update can search for the latest graphics card drivers, you're much better off using Nvidia and AMD's own management software. If it doesn't come preloaded on your new PC, download and install GeForce Experience for Nvidia cards or Radeon Software for AMD cards. 

These applications will automatically check for updates on a frequent basis, but if you've just booted up a new computer for the first time, you'll want to open them up and click the manual "Check for updates" button.

Bring Back Full Context Menus in Windows 11

Before and after context menus

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Microsoft's latest OS has several awful default settings and we've outlined the 11 worst Windows 11 features and how to fix them elsewhere. The most annoying feature of all is the truncated context menu you get when right clicking on anything.

In Windows 10 and prior, you could see all of your options right away, but in Windows 11, it shows you just a few choices and then makes you click the "Show more options" link to see them all. That's an unnecessary extra click that you may end up making quite a lot.

Fortunately, there's a registry hack that gives you back the full context menu. Open the registry editor and navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\SOFTWARE\CLASSES\CLSID\ then create a new registry key called {86ca1aa0-34aa-4e8b-a509-50c905bae2a2}. Then add a new registry key called InprocServer32 under that. Finally, open the (Default) key in InprocServer32 and set its value to blank. As always, with registry key changes, you'll want to restart the computer to see the changes.

 Uninstall the Crapware 

Windows 11 apps menu

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No matter what vendor you buy your PC from, it is almost certain to come loaded with free-to-play games, antivirus trialware and other software you don’t need or want. Sadly, a lot of that stuff is actually shoveled on by Microsoft itself, rather than the OEM. 

While most of the preloaded crapware is harmless and barely takes up any disk space, some of it is going to drain system resources and nag you to buy something (like a full subscription to antivirus software when you can use Windows 11’s built-in, free antivirus). 

To get rid of crapware, search for “add or remove” in Windows search, click-through to the menu and go through the list of applications. We recommend keeping anything you’re not sure about and leaving OEM utilities in place, just in case you need them.

Unhide File Extensions and Hidden Files

Windows 11 file explorer options menu

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Clearly, Microsoft thinks that file extensions are too complicated for the unwashed masses. So, by default, Windows 11 and 10 hide the ".docx" or ".jpg" or ".exe" suffixes that appear at the end of file names. This way, when you get a spreadsheet from a friend, File Explorer will show that it's a "Microsoft Excel Worksheet" whether it's an Excel 2003 .xls file or a modern-day .xlsx file. Good luck with that!

To make file extensions visible again, enter "file explorer options" in the Windows search box, select the View tab, and then uncheck "Hide Extensions for Known File Types." While you're at it, toggle "Show hidden files, folders and drives" to on and uncheck “hide protected operating system files” so you can see all your system files.

Enable Dark Mode

Windows 11 dark mode

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Many users, including yours truly, prefer dark text on a light background. By default, all of Windows 11 and 10's menus are in light mode with black text on white. However, you can enter Dark Mode by navigating to Settings->Personalization->Colors  and selecting Dark under the "choose your color" header.

We've also got a tutorial on how to Dark mode everything, not just for Windows 10's built-in menus but for everything in your OS from Microsoft Office to Gmail. 

Change the Title Bar Colors

Select a color in Windows 11

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While you’re enabling Dark Mode (if you are), here’s something else to do. Windows 11 and 10's default title bar color is a bland white, which is not only boring, but kind of hard to look at. Fortunately, it's easy to assign an accent color to title bars, the Start Menu and the taskbar.

Navigate to Settings->Personalization->Colors and pick a color. In Windows 11, set "show accent color on title bars and windows borders" to on. In Windows 10,  check the box next to "Title bars and window borders."

Create Keyboard Shortcuts for Favorite Apps

Set a shortcut key

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Every time you roll your pointer across the screen, launch the Start menu and click an icon to launch one of your favorite apps, you're wasting a little time.  Create keyboard shortcuts for your favorite apps and you can launch them by hitting a single key combo such as CTRL + ALT + W to launch Microsoft word or CTRL + ALT + C for Chrome.

To create keyboard shortcuts, first open the command prompt (you can get there  by searching for "command") and enter "explorer shell:AppsFolder"  (without the quotes).  A window with icons for all of your installed apps opens and you should then drag the app you want onto your desktop. Right click the desktop shortcut icon and select properties. Then enter a key combo, usually one that includes ALT + CTRL + LETTER, into the "Shortcut key" box and click Ok. Repeat for all your favorite apps.

Get Rid of the Useless Lock Screen

Get rid of the lock screen

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When your computer is locked (or first boots), by default, Windows 11 and 10 show you a lock screen with the time, a wallpaper and maybe (if you allow) some notifications. If you use Windows Hello facial or fingerprint recognition, you can log in by staring at the screen or putting one of your digits on the scanner. But, if you use a password, you have to click to dismiss the lock screen before the OS will allow you to enter your credentials.

That's one extra, unnecessary click every single time you want to unlock your PC. To get rid of the annoying lock screen and save your tired fingers, open the registry editor and navigate to HKEY_LOCAL_Machine\SOFTWARE\Policies\Microsoft\Windows and create a new key called Personalization if it doesn't already exist. Within the Personalization key, create a DWORD (32-bit) value called NoLockScreen and set it to 1.

Force Windows to Close Apps at Shutdown

AutoEndTasks

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It's so annoying. You go to shutdown or restart your PC and you walk away, expecting your computer to be powered off (or rebooted) by the time you come back. You go to the fridge, grab a drink and return to find a message on your screen that says you have apps which aren't closed.

Maybe you just had a nearly-empty notepad doc or a picture in Photoshop that you didn't want to save because you already copied and pasted the data into another app (or used the Save for Web option). Now, Windows is nagging you to go back and close all your apps manually. Yes, Windows gives you a button that says "Shut down anyway," but you have to hit it and wait for the system to hopefully force close the apps. 

The best solution is to open the registry editor, navigate to \HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Control Panel\Desktop and create three strings (if they don't already exist). Create AutoEndTasks and set it to 1, create WaitToKillAppTimeOut and set it to 2000. Finally, create HungAppTimeOut and set that to 2000 also. These automatically force-close any open apps after a 2000-millisecond (2 second) delay (shorter delays could be problematic because it wouldn't give apps that are closing time to close themselves).

Switch Default Browsers

set browser default

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There's a reason why Microsoft Edge has only 4 to 6 percent of the desktop browser market. It's not a bad browser, but most people prefer the rich ecosystem of extensions and broad support that Chrome and Firefox enjoy. If Microsoft Edge opens the site every time you click a link in your email software or instant messaging app, you need to change the default browser. 

To change your default browser, first make sure you have the new browser installed. Search for "default apps" in the Windows search box and click the top result. In Windows 11, scroll down and double click on the icon for your preferred browser (ex: "Google Chrome"), then click the "Set default" button.

In Windows 10, Scroll down to "web browser," click the Edge icon and choose the browser you want to use.

Enable System Protection / Restore Points

Turn on system protection

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If something, like a bad driver, prevents Windows from booting or causes frequent blue screens of death, one likely solution is to return Windows 11 or 10 to its previous state. The best way to take a step back to a previous configuration (with the old driver or update or settings) is to do a system restore.

However, by default,  System Protection, the feature which creates restore points you can return to, may be off. Turn on System Protection by typing "restore point" into the search box, clicking the top result, selecting your boot drive (usually C drive) , hitting the Configure button and then toggling "Turn on system protection" to on. We recommend setting maximum disk space usage to at least 5GB. Also you'll want to click the "Create" button to set up your first restore point.

Enable Storage Sense to Save Space

Enable Storage Sense

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Unless you have a 2TB SSD in your system, you can always use more free space. Windows 11 and 10 have an optional feature called Storage Sense, which automatically purges files you no longer need in order to free up precious gigabytes for you.

To enable Storage Sense, navigate to Settings->System->Storage. Then toggle Storage Sense to on. In Windows 11, double click Storage Sense and click the "Run Storage Sense now" button. In Windows 10, click "Configure storage sense to run it now" and click the "Clean now" button.

Adjust Your Display Scaling

Change Display scaling

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Out of the box, Windows decides how large to make the text, icons and other widgets. A lot of the time, particularly on laptops, the operating system decides to operate at 150 percent or larger scaling, which makes it easier read but lets you fit less on the screen. Other times, the default scaling is too small as was the case with me and my 4K monitor, which felt most comfortable at 175 percent scaling. 

To adjust the scaling to meet your personal preferences, navigate to Settings->System->Display and scroll down to the "Scale and layout" header. Then try different percentages until you find the one that works best for you. If you can see 100 percent scaling comfortably, that's ideal, because it provides the most screen real estate. 

Set Up Fingerprint or Facial Recognition

SIgn in Options

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Why waste time typing in a password when you can create log into Windows 11 or 10 with either a finger scan or facial recognition. If your computer has either a fingerprint reader or an IR camera, you can use the operating system's Windows Hello feature to unlock the computer, no typing required.

To set up Windows Hello, navigate to Settings->Accounts->Sign-in Options and open Facial recognition or Fingerprint recognition then click Set up. If you don't already have one, you'll be asked to create a PIN, which you can also use to log in and is faster to type than a password.

 Delete the OEM Recovery Partition to Save Space 

Delete OEM Recovery Partition

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This is a somewhat controversial recommendation so consider your options. Most laptops and pre built desktops come with a recovery partition that eats up at least 20GB of disk space. The point of these recovery partitions is to enable you to get back to a factory state if your computer becomes unbootable, perhaps even stuck on a blue screen of death. This factory state is not just a clean Windows 11, but one with all the drivers and preloaded software the computer came with. Usually, you can invoke these from some kind of emergency menu before boot. 

However, there are many other ways to restore a crashed computer without sacrificing this disk space. First of all, you can always use an existing restore point or full system backup to get back to where you were right before the crash. If you don’t have a backup and need to start from scratch, you can create a Windows 11 or 10 install USB by downloading and using Microsoft’s own installation media tool. If you have a laptop or even most OEM desktops, your original Windows key will already be recorded in your BIOS. And, if you don’t have a key, you can always get Windows 10/11 for Free or Cheap.

Note: There is also a non-OEM recovery partition that is usually 1GB or less that makes Windows' own factory reset feature function better and that’s probably worth leaving in place. 

So, if you’re a reasonably tech-savvy user, you can safely delete the OEM recovery partition and save some GB. Unfortunately, you can’t do it by just using the standard partition manager. To remove the OEM restore partition, first see if you have one by looking at the partition manager (enter “partition” in the search box and click the first option). The name of the partition should have “OEM” or the name of the OEM (ex: HP, Dell, Lenovo) in it and “Recovery.” If you only have a non-OEM recovery partition, stop here.

To delete the partition, open a command prompt as admin by typing “cmd” into the search box and right clicking the right result and selecting “Run as administrator.” Then enter “diskpart” at the command prompt. Type “select disk 0” to choose your boot drive and then “list partition” to show all your partitions and then “select partition [NUMBER]” where the number is the recovery partition’s number. Finally, type “delete partition” and it should be gone. If you get an error, try entering “gpt attributes=0x8000000000000000”  and then do it again.

Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch is Tom's Hardware's editor-in-chief. When he's not playing with the latest gadgets at work or putting on VR helmets at trade shows, you'll find him rooting his phone, taking apart his PC or coding plugins. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram developed many real-world benchmarks, including our laptop battery test.