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Being realistic I want to be able to do most things: install apps, go online, etc. but want to be safe and prevent any unnecessary problems (i.e. reinstalls!)

From what I've gathered Microsoft Security Essentials would be a good bet? Also, would you recommend UAC is left as is or to be tweaked to be an optimal gatekeeper? Anything else I need to consider? (In XP, I currently have an anti-virus app - mainly for emails.) Are there any gotchas that Microsoft have left in?

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  • Always have an antivirus and a software firewall installed.
  • Always use a password for all of your accounts. Choose one that is at least 8 characters long, and contains upper- and lowecase, numeric and punctuation characters.
  • Rename the Administrator account
  • Use your PC with normal user privileges, run installers, etc. as administrator. Jeff Atwood, one of the founders of this site, has a great article about this.
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Does Windows 7 need a firewall over and above what it provides? – Umber Ferrule Nov 3 '09 at 12:10
    
Windows 7's firewall now offers outbound protection, so it is certainly better than before but honestly I don't want to experiment with it and just use what has been keeping my computer safe for years. – Botond Balázs Nov 3 '09 at 19:35

point your user data to a different partition/drive, create a disk image of your system drive. this is your best insurance against tedious 'reinstalls'. this way you can restore your system to a clean state in no time.

anything else can be filed under the 'principle of hope'.

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  • Windows 7 is built upon the security foundations of the Windows Vista® operating system while improving auditing and the User Account Control (UAC) experience.
  • Windows 7 helps IT control what software can run in their environment with AppLocker™.
  • Windows 7 enhances the core features of BitLocker™ Drive Encryption with the introduction of BitLocker To Go™ for removable storage devices.

Take a look at page about Windows 7 Security Enhancements

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