The difference between this and going to court is that changing your name obligates, but does not require, others to recognize the name change. If you go to court and get the official document, no one can question your change of name, even if it's something like Optimus Prime.
Also, certain documents (like your passport) require a court document if you want it completely changed -- a passport will allow you to put an AKA on it, but your old name would be there too. Others, like driver's licenses or credit cards, depend on the issuer.
Nolo produces a guide for changing your name, and produces a specific guide for California. Well worth the cost if you're thinking about changing your name.
I remember that you have to get a background check, finger prints, and you also have to go to court, to see if the judge will allow it.
You do have to go to court. You don't need to get a background check or fingerprints, at least not in every state. You don't in California. At least you didn't.
The court appearance is a formality. Unless you're changing your name to something bizarre, the judge pretty much automatically approves it, though you do need to be there. The judge may ask you why you want to change your name, which should already be on the form. Attempted fraud or deception is usually the only reason name changes get rejected.
Once thats done you also have to pay for a listing fee in a newspaper. Saying that your John Doe and is now known as Jane Doe or something like that.
There's a standardized spiel that you have to put in the classified section of a newspaper for 4 weeks. If you have a community newspaper, this can be quick, painless, and cheap.
It also cost about $250 total for all the paperworks. About a six months process.
It does take about six months, less if you are ambitious, but certain things like the month of publication and the court date are out of your hands. Cost varies by state. You have to pay to file the forms, and you also need to pay for copies of the final decree with the government stamp on them -- after your name change, there are certain things that require offical copies (not photocopies) of the decree, such as a new/renewed passport and certain financial dealings. Other places will accept photocopies or will return the official documents, but you can't count on it. I've gone through about 5 of these.
Credit card companies, businesses, heck -- even the IRS are easy in comparison. It's a phone call or less. But there are a lot of things that need changing. For example: credit cards, driver's license, social security card, bank accounts, legal documents, college/high school transcripts, medical identification cards, vehicle registrations, insurance, etc.
It's not something to undertake for the heck of it, or if you're unsure you'll like it five years from now. But, all things considered, it's not terribly hard or time consuming, either.