How to Build a Powerful Data-Crunching Computer, Part 3: Installing Windows and Setting It Up

Windows 7 installation

So all of the pieces are put together, and the computer boots to the BIOS screen. Yay!! But now you want to actually be able to DO something with the computer? Well, you’ll need an operating system.

This tutorial is about installing and setting up a Windows 7 machine, although you could install either Linux or an Apple OS instead.

The first step is acquiring a copy of Windows. I purchased Windows 7 Home on sale at Best Buy, and then because I can I upgraded to Windows 7 Ultimate with a highly discounted update available to students at my university. Both of these came on CDs with a Product Key somewhere on the CD case. DO NOT LOSE YOUR PRODUCT KEY!! This is probably the most common way to get an OS at the moment, but I know they are also available as downloads. If you download your operating system, you’ll need to put it on a USB drive on another computer and then plug that drive into your new computer.

1. Boot from the OS disk 

In my case, the disk was the CD. All I had to do was in the BIOS screen have the CD/DVD drive be the first boot priority, insert the disk, and restart the computer. Then I followed the directions provided to me by the Windows installation. These include entering your product key.

Installing Windows will include several reboots. This is normal and totally fine. When it’s done installing it will reboot to a more typical desktop.

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Windows Installation

If you’re doing an installation followed by an update like I did, then do the update immediately. My update wouldn’t install as just an update, so I had to install it like a full Windows 7 operating system, going through the whole Windows installation process again. I’d installed my drivers and all of that already when I did the update, and I had to re-install all of those again.

2. Install your drivers

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Many of your computer components came with CDs. These contain the drivers that allow your hardware to work properly. Insert the disks one by one and install the drivers. I’d start with either the graphics card (that will allow you to change the resolution and make the screen nice) or the motherboard (because that’s a really important one), but the order doesn’t really matter. You’ll need to restart your computer after installing the drivers again.

Also, many motherboards and graphics cards come with monitoring software. I downloaded mine and they give me really nice reports on the fan speed, CPU, and GPU temperatures. As a scientist, I like having all of those stats and datapoints, but they’re not necessary so only install them if you like.

3. Install Anti-Virus Software

Once your drivers are installed, you can start installing other programs you normally use. First, though, I would recommend installing an Anti-Virus software. There’s a decent Microsoft Defender one that’s free, but I got McAfee for free from my university so that’s what I went with.

4. Install your programs

Everyone has a list of programs they normally use (e.g. Google Chrome, iTunes, Dropbox, Microsoft Office, etc.). Install these. I also suggest installing Java, Flash, and Microsoft Silverlight while you’re donwloading everything else, since you’ll likely need them later and it can be a pain to have to download programs just to access a website.

5. Update Windows

Use Windows Update to check for updates. Yes, you just installed Windows, but your installation likely doesn’t have the latest updates. Mine had close to 200 updates to install. This is important to do!

6. Format any secondary hard drives

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I installed two 4TB hard drives, and only the one running Windows showed up. I had to initialize the second one. To do this, in the Start Menu type “diskmgmt.msc” and right-click on the option that pops up and choose “Run as Administrator”. This opens up a dialogue box that shows you a list of your drives at the top and a diagram of storage space at the bottom. Your secondary drive should show up, and mine had a black bar and read “Unallocated”. Right click on that and choose “New Simple Volume”. If your drive is more than 2TB, you need to format it as GPT. Otherwise, choose MBR. Other than that, the default settings should be fine. When you’re done, the bar should be blue and it should say that it’s “Active”.

7. Set up Remote Desktop (optional)

I like being able to connect to my computer from work or my tablet, so set up Remote Desktop Connection. You can only connect to your computer if it’s running Windows Premium or Ultimate, however, so keep that in mind. Microsoft has a good step-by-step tutorial to demonstrate how to set up Remote Desktop Connection.

8. For a Linux environment, use Virtual Box!

Virtual Box is a free program and you can run a ‘virtual’ second operating system from it. It’s mostly straightforward to use and there is decent documentation online. Once it’s installed with Ubuntu, make sure you install Guestbox Additions, which allows you to have a shared folder with your windows environment as well as allows you to resize the VirtualBox window.

Now you should be ready to go! Don’t forget to back up your computer frequently and schedule those Anti-Virus scans. Happy computing!