If you're one of the lucky ones getting a new computer under your tree this year, your work won't be done when you open the box.
The first task, if you have a Windows PC, will be installing the right antivirus software. Really. Before you do anything else.
I know. You think your PC came with antivirus protection. It may have, but it likely is a trial version. I would uninstall it and install Microsoft Security Essentials, which is available for a free download on the Microsoft Web site. It is a good product for a great price.
Your next step? Uninstall all of the applications you don't want. I was hired to set up a new Dell the other day, and it took me 30 minutes to remove all of the stuff on the hard drive the customer didn't want, including a pesky "free" trial version of Quickbooks.
So this may take a good long time using the Add/Remove Programs portion of the Windows Control Panel. Don't remove anything you actually may want in the future; after all, your hard drive is likely huge.
Next, run Windows update (update.microsoft.com) and install all of the current Windows patches and set your PC up to receive automatic updates. This also could take a while and require several reboots.
If your PC came with a trial version of Microsoft Office, your next decision is whether to fork over the dough for a full version. If you have a student in the house, you can qualify for a cheaper academic version. But if you can't make yourself pony up the dough, you can consider OpenOffice, a powerful office suite for free (www.openoffice.org).
Next, download Firefox (www.getfirefox.com), which is a much better browser for both Windows and Apple computers.
Now that we have software covered, see if your Windows desktop computer has a digital output that is better than the standard VGA (15-pin) output. If so, look for the corresponding input on your monitor and buy the right cable. You will be rewarded with a great picture and it is likely that your monitor did not come with the good one. (Yes, they are cheap at the monitor company.)
If you plan to plug your computer into the wall for power (a great idea, by the way), then buy a surge strip — not a power strip — to plug into the wall first. Spend about $20 now and you won't have to hire me later to replace your power supply and motherboard after a power spike from the utility company. Another option is a battery backup unit, which you can get for $50 and up from Sam's or Costco. Either way, make sure you plug your computer into a surge protector. All of them come with a warranty that will replace your computer if it falls to a surge.
Finally, if you have kids, get parental-control software and turn it on.
There are some free ones — like K9 — that do a good job of filtering out Internet porn and notifying parents of what kids are doing online, and some good modestly priced ones, too.
James Derk is owner of CyberDads, a computer-repair firm, and a tech columnist for Scripps Howard News Service. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.