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Old-fashioned Windows PCs (desktop and tower systems) aren't quite so common nowadays, with many people preferring to use a laptop, tablet, or just their phone! But, if you do use one, you'll probably know that they can be quite complicated devices, with lots of programs, tools and settings. Quite a few of these settings are used for personalising and changing your working environment, setting up hardware and controlling background services. But, by tweaking some of these, you can help improve your online safety and security. There are also Optional Windows software and services, which can be selected or adjusted to help make your system safer. Windows Laptops are much the same, but are generally a bit simpler, as they lack the massive hardware viability and options of standard PCs.
So, what can and should you set, select, or change? Well, it all depends on what level of security you want, the ease of use and features that you'd like - and who you ask! It might seem odd to ask what level of security you want; 'The best' is the obvious answer, but security comes with a cost - there is always a trade-off. More security generally means less features, sometimes a poorer user experience and, quite often, lower performance. And yes, there is often a financial cost too! We could give you a long list of things to improve the security on your PC, but doing everything you can would simply not be sensible, so we will concentrate on changes that are both practical and easy, while at the same time having a limited impact on features, ease of use and performance.
The most obvious, and certainly one of the most important, security-wise, is Windows Update. This should be configured for automatic updates for most people and manually checked regularly, as even when set to automatic (it is by default anyway), it doesn't always download and install all available updates by itself, so you need to keep an eye on it and make sure you're always up to date! There are optional setting here too that you may want to set in order to get the best Update experience, depending on how and when you use your device(s), how many you have, what sort they are and even your network and internet speed. See Windows Update Configuration on our Windows Update page for more on this.
Why do you have to constantly update your Windows Operating System? Well, no OS, no matter how well designed or built, is ever error free or totally secure. There are always going to be software 'bugs' (simple coding errors) and security holes, or 'ways in' for the expert hacker, scammer, or malware. There are many terms for these vulnerabilities, which generally comprise of 'open' or 'insecure' ports (ways in and out of your device for data), or 'exploits' that hackers or malware writers can use to get into your system, or to change things on it. Some of these vulnerabilities are only discovered many years after the initial roll-out of the OS, while others are unintentionally created when changes are made to the OS by an update that is designed to add new features, or fix other bugs! For more information on this, go to our Windows Update page now.
The only way for a manufacturer to fix these vulnerabilities is by issuing updates, or 'patches'. If you don't have the latest updates, then your system may well be 'open' for others to hack into or infect with malware, which is also constantly evolving in order to exploit the latest vulnerabilities. When an OS has been deemed by the manufacturer to be 'out of support', no more updates are released and any remaining or newly found bugs are never going to get fixed. This gives the crooks all the time in the world to find a way in, so the longer you use an Operating System past it's support end date, the more vulnerable your system is! The only way to fix this, is to update to a newer, still supported, Operating System.
The first thing you should know if you're a Windows user, regardless of what device your using (PC/Laptop/Tablet), is that you should be running Windows 10 or 11 - right NOW - or 8.1 at the very least. Nothing older than 8.1 is supported any more! Support for all releases of Windows 7 finally ended on 14th January 2020 and Support for Windows 8.1 ends on 10th January 2023, so even this is on it's very last legs and should be updated to 10 or 11 NOW. Windows 10 will be supported with essential bug fixes and updates until 14th October 2025, but 'mainstream' support ended on 13th October 2020.
Windows 11 is now here and available for FREE, providing your machine is running the latest Windows 10 version and your hardware supports it - BUT and it's a big BUT, you have to have a Microsoft account in order to install and use it. This may mean that a whole new way of licensing is likely come into place sometime in the near future, or when they finally switch to a whole new operating Operating System altogether (non-Windows/NT based), but Microsoft are still keeping fairly quiet at the moment about exactly what they are planning to do and when. If you'e happy to have a Micosoft account (or already have one) and have it linked to your Windows installation (and have suitable hardware) then we would recommend updating to Windows 11 now.
For the rest of us (I'm not too keen on the whole account thing and being ‘watched’ by Microsoft the whole time), it's business as usual; keep up your regular Windows 10 Updates - manually, don't just wait for them to be rolled out automatically, as this leaves you vulnerable for longer. Microsoft updates are usually made available on Tuesday mornings, with bigger, combined 'Patches' and Fixes being released on the second Tuesday of each month. Checking for updates on the Wedneday or Thurday after this - after checking for news of any problems with the updates first - is a good idea.
For now though, if you're still running Windows 7 or anything older, RIGHT NOW is the time to look into updating and, despite Microsoft's stated one-year free upgrade offer when Windows 10 first came out, it's not impossible to update from Windows 7 to Windows 10 for free even now. It's not guaranteed to work though, so if you do want to try this, make sure you back up all of your data (do this anyway for ANY major update/upgrade!) and record your current Windows 7 license code first, to be entered back in when you update to Windows 10. In most cases this should work, but be prepared to buy a new license if you have to. Find out how to find and record your Microsoft License/Product Code Here
Even if you do need to pay for a new license, it IS still definitely worth it, as running on Windows 7 (or older, shudder!), is EXTREMELY risky and could lose you a LOT more money than the cost of any license fee! Running an out of date OS is REALLY risky if you ever use the internet (and you clearly do, as you're using it right now!). Remember all the NHS computers being infected with the WannaCry Ransomeware? That was simply because they were running an out-of-support OS (Windows XP), it was not targeted at NHS computers, it was just that theirs we vulnerable and got hit! To see if you are safe, you can find out exactly when support for your version of Windows ends here, on Microsoft's support site. Seriously, do NOT continue to run an out-of-support Operating System, it just isn't worth the risk.
We are not of course suggesting that you update to Windows 10 illegally, but it is extremely important that you don't run an out-of-support OS, so if you're still running Windows 7, or an older Windows version, you should update to Windows 10 now, regardless of whether you can do it for free or not! BUT, before changing anything, back up ALL of your data (email, personal files, photos, favourites/bookmarks, etc., or anything that cannot be re-created, or would take a lot of work to do so). For full information on this, go to our Backup page now. Then, create a System Restore point, so that you can (hopefully) revert to this if your new set up doesn't work and your machine fails to boot up or run Windows at all (this general rule applies to updating or reinstalling any OS), or if it has some other major problem. So, why the need to backup your files if you have just created a system restore point?
Well, this may or may not come as a surprise to you, but Windows (or any operating system for that matter) is not perfect, or infallible. Just because you've created a system restore point, does NOT mean that you are guaranteed to be able to restore your machine to your old settings and regain access to you files! You should be able to, but unfortunately, System Restore doesn't always work, for one reason or another. Also, it only stores your System settings, NOT your personal files, installed Programs or their settings. If, when you're updating or reinstalling, Windows crashes and causes a system or file error that causes a system disk or partition error, you could lose access to all of your personal files, so backup any (preferably all) important personal data before doing so! Where all of your personal files are kept is another thing to take into account. Windows by default stores all of your files in C:/Users/*UserID* (substitute your login ID for *UserID*), but it is safer to separate this off; see Windows System if you're interested in how to do this.
Windows 7 (or 10): Click on Control Panel from the Start Menu (under 'Windows System'), or from File Explorer (if it's not already visible, click on 'View', 'Options box', select the 'View' tab and select the 'Show all folders' box at the bottom of the list. Control Panel will now be listed near the bottom of your list of drives and folders in the left section of the window). Once open, select 'View by' at the top right and select 'Large Icons' and then click on 'System'. In the left column, click on 'System Protection'. Wait a few seconds while Windows checks your current configuration Click on your Windows drive or partition (usually 'C') in the main box section to select it and then on the 'Configure' button below. Then select 'Turn on system protection' if it is not already selected and check or adjust the Disk Space usage to 10%, or whatever you feel is appropriate, given the free space you have available and how much you'd like to give over to System Restore files and click OK. The higher percentage you select, the more System Restore files you will have available to choose from if you need to do a Restore at some point, but clearly you don't want to give over too much of your disk space to this, as it will restrict the space available for programs and your own data!
Once you've set up System Restore, it's time to create a Restore Point, or file. Click on the 'Create' button, below the Configure button and a new, small dialogue window will appear. Enter a name for your System Restore file that you will easily recognise as yours if you need to use it, preferably with the current date embedded in it (though Windows will show the date it was created anyway) and a description of the current status of your system, such as '20200801_MySysRestore_PreChanges'. Click 'Create', then wait for Windows to create your restore file, which may take some time, depending on the size of this file and the speed of your system.
To restore to this point (assuming your system still works and allows you to get to these setting again, simply go through the above stages again, but this time click on the 'System Restore' button near the top of the System Protection window, click on 'Next' and simply select the Restore file that you have just created (or one of your earlier restore points, or a Windows created point if you prefer; whichever point you wish to go back to, depending on when your system was last working correctly). Windows will only keep these system restore files for a limited time though, as Windows and some programs automatically create new ones when you make certain changes and on reboots and, to do this, deletes earlier restore points to make space, hence why a higher percentage of space gives you more restore points available to select. So, before you make any changes, check that you have at least one valid restore point available to select, or create a new one!
If you try to boot Windows and find that it won't start at all, you clearly can't restore using the above procedure. To attempt a restore in this scenario, you will need a Windows install disk, or a prepared bootable USB install stick. Insert the disk or stick and boot up from this (usually, you need to press 'F12' or another function key at initial boot-up, to select your boot drive; see your manual or initial start screen to find out which key you need to press), then select 'Repair', 'Advanced' and 'System Restore' (see our Operating Systems page for more details.
The easiest way to do this is simply to copy all of your files from where they are stored on your Hard Drive (or SSD) onto an External Drive, Flash Drive, SD card, or to the 'cloud'. Most people's personal files will be stored (by default) under C: (or whatever drive letter your Windows installation is on) /Users/'YourUserID' (replace with your actual User ID). Alternatively, you can use one of the many backup programs available, such as:
There are many, many more available. For more help with this if you need it, please see our Backup Page
So, how do I upgrade to Windows 10 you might ask? And, where exactly IS my Windows 7 license code? The first thing to remember, is that you can only easily (and hopefully freely) update from and to the same exact edition, such as 'Home' to 'Home', or 'Professional' to 'Professional' and version (32 bit, or 64 bit). To update from Home to Professional, or any version to a different one, you will almost certainly need to reinstall from scratch and need a new license number!
First, check and record your Windows License Code. Your license code is shown near the bottom of your 'System' screen (Control Panel/System), or what looks like one anyway. Don't just copy what you see though, as the actual code shown is likley to be a false code (depending on your current OS version) and your real one hidden. You can quite easily find your real key by using one the many software packages that will check and read it for you, such as:
To do the actual upgrade, you will need either a Windows 10 disk (DVD), or a bootable USB Flash drive. A flash drive is easy enough to create, as long as you have a drive of at least 8GB. 16Gb is better, as it's more future-proof and they are cheap enough nowadays. Firstly, go to Microsoft's Media Creation Tool page and download the version you need. You will also find useful information on how to create an installation flash drive, or DVD on this page. Once you have your installation media, plug or put it into your PC/Laptop and boot it up!
There are many common tools and settings in the OS itself though and these will depend mostly on the version of Windows that you are running, so try to familiarise yourself with the nuances of your system and it's various controls and setting and the specifics of your device. If you are going to change anything in the general settings though, change one thing at a time, always make a note of what you have changed, what it was originally and how you changed it and, just as importantly, where you found it and changed it! Taking photos or screen grabs is a good idea for this, making sure you save them where you can find them in future and naming them so that you will undrstand what they are when you do!
This is more important than it might seem, as often you will need to reboot your machine before any change you have made will have an effect and even then, you may not immediately notice if it has actually changed anything and it is all too easy to forget what you have changed, what it was set to previously, where exactly it was and how you changed it. So, take it slowly, only change one thing at a time and look up on your favourite search engine what that control/setting actually does, or is supposed to do before you change it, if you don't already know. As one setting may affect another one, keep a running list of all the things you've changed and what effect, if any, this had, so that you can always work you way back if need be.
So, let's start with an easy one. We'll assume you are using Windows 10 and that you have never changed the update settings. Windows 10 not only has the old-style Control Panel, which you can now find as described above, but also a 'Settings' Panel, which you can get to direct from the Start Menu. Things are actually much easier in earlier versions, as Control Panel is the only place for all the main settings.
Other things you can change include:
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