Crapware Lives On Windows 8

Nov 02, 2012 (05:11 AM EDT)

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Fire up a shiny new Windows 8 ultrabook or an all-in-one from a major vendor offering such a product this fall, and you're likely to see something you thought would by now have been banished from the PC world: crapware. Tons of it. Performance-sapping "system protection" software, productivity applications you don't need, media organizers you'll never use.

Why, after all this time and so much negative press, do PC manufacturers still ship their best and brightest PCs with a dumpster's worth of software no one cares about, and which harms system performance and stability to boot?

"Bloatware" on Windows systems has long been one of Apple's selling points.

The biggest reason: it helps offset cost. The makers of many of those programs pay the PC manufacturers to pre-load their systems with such apps. Those trial versions of anti-virus suites or "starter" versions of Microsoft Office are there to help up-sell users to the real thing. Another apparent reason is the "out-of-box experience" theory -- the idea that a user will consider a PC to be more worth his money if it comes with certain types of software functionality available the minute he hits the power switch.

This latter argument hasn't been true for ages now for two reasons. One, most everyone with even modest PC experience has specific, preferred programs they'd rather rely on for such things. They're more likely to just load those in and pick up where they left off. Two, as more of the average user's experience moves online and into a Web browser, preloaded software becomes all the more a white elephant (or red herring, depending on which metaphor you find most fitting).

We got in touch with representatives from several major PC makers -- Dell, HP, Toshiba, Samsung, Acer, Lenovo -- and asked them for a rundown of what software is being pre-loaded into their new Windows 8 machines. The results we got fit into roughly three categories:

    1. Software provided by the OEM for the sake of system functionality (e.g., hardware drivers, vital system-management tools).
    2. Software provided by the OEM for the sake of optional added functionality specific to the system (such as Samsung's S Pen software).
    3. Software provided by third parties (trial software).

The first category is hard to argue with: few people want to snap open a spanking new PC and discover the camera or touchpad doesn't work. The second can be reasonable, like the S Pen apps, but is often more questionable, because many of those programs are badly written and add little to the user's experience. The program that looks for Sony-specific updates on my Sony VAIO notebook, for instance, hangs for minutes on end, for no particular good reason, whenever I restore the system from sleep.

The third category, trialware and junkware, is the most egregious. I can't count the number of times I had to troubleshoot someone else's system because the preloaded Roxio CD/DVD burning package's drivers were doing horrible, unpredictable things to the rest of the system, or because some buggy variety of factory-added antivirus software was creating more problems than it solved.

Here's what we got back from the PC makers in question, regarding what OEM and third-party apps are loaded into many of their most recent Windows 8 machines. In the case of Lenovo we got the software list from their product pages.

ManufacturerOEM software3rd-party
Samsung ATIV Smart PCS Pen apps (S Note, S Memo, S Cloud), Quick Starter, AllShare PlayNone
Acer S7 seriesAcer Ring, Acer Cloud, Acer Theft ShieldMicrosoft Office 2010 Trial, Microsoft Windows Live Essentials, Adobe Flash Player, Adobe Reader, newsXPresso, Cyberlink MediaEspresso, WildTangent Demo Games, Skype, McAfee Internet Security Suite trial, MyWinLocker
Toshiba U925T-S2300TOSHIBA BookPlace™, TOSHIBA Disc Creator, TOSHIBA Maintenance Utility, TOSHIBA Media Player by sMedio Truelink+, TOSHIBA PC Health Monitor, TOSHIBA Recovery Disk Creator, TOSHIBA Resolution+® Upconvert Plug-in for Media Player, TOSHIBA Service Station, TOSHIBA Sleep Utility, TOSHIBA Video Player, TOSHIBA eco Utility™Microsoft® Windows™ Essentials 2012, Microsoft® Office (60-day Trial), Norton Internet Security™ 2013 (30-day trial subscription), Norton™ Laptop Checkup, SRS Premium Sound 3D®, WildTangent® Game Console
Acer Aspire 7600UAcerCloud Docs, Acer Recovery Management, Acer Identity Card, Acer Live Update, Acer Accessory Store, Acer Initiatives, Acer Explorer, AcerCloud PortalWild Tangent®, Media, Photo, Cyberlink® MediaEspresso, AIR Gesture, McAfee® Internet Security Suite, Hotkey Utility, MyWinLocker Suite, Nero 12 Essentials, Amazon weblink, Gomaji (Taiwan only), Lovefilm® web link, MyET, Spotify™, Evernote®, Communication, Skype™, Kindle, News Xpresso, Txtr, Hulu, IVI.RU, Netflix, 7Digital, Spotify™, TuneIn, Amazon®, eBay®, Rakuten Gateway, Adera, Cut The Rope, Mahjong, Minesweeper, Pinball FX2, Shark Dash, Solitaire, Tap Tiles, Treasures of Montezuma III, Wild Tangent®, Wordament, ChaCha®, Crystal Eye, Encyclopaedia Britannica, iCookbook™, Merriam Webster, WeatherBug, StumbleUpon, Travel, Ctrip
Dell Lattitude / XPS modelsWindows 8 Getting Started Tile, My Dell & Dell Backup & Recovery, Dell Shop AppMicrosoft Office Trial (30-day), McAfee (Inspiron only), eBay (Inspiron only), Amazon Kindle, Amazon Taskbar App, eBay Desktop Icon (Inspiron only)
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 (consumer focus)Lenovo Cloud Storage by SugarSync, Lenovo Companion, Lenovo Energy Management, Lenovo Motion Control, Lenovo Support Center, Lenovo TransitionAccuweather, Amazon Kindle, Birzzle, Cyberlink YouCam, eBay, Evernote, Fishing Joy, Intelligent Touchpad, McAfee® AntiVirus Plus, Microsoft® Office 2010, OneKey® Recovery, RaRa, Skype™
Lenovo ThinkPad Twist (business focus)Lenovo Cloud StorageAccuWeather, Amazon Kindle, BlueStacks -- Android app player, Evernote, Expense Management, Fruit Ninja, Microsoft® Office (trial), Rara -- Music, Skype™

At least one conclusion is easy to draw from this: the less expensive machines, like Acer, have that much more third-party software pre-added as a way to offset the cost.

Aside from its touch-centric features, Microsoft has touted Windows 8 as being faster, leaner, more efficient, and more economical with power than any previous version of Windows. All of those selling points aren't likely to mean much to the owner of a brand-new Windows 8 machine when a dozen programs she doesn't even want to use are shoehorned into the machine at the factory.

Some of the performance issues created by bloatware are partly alleviated by hardware -- mainly, the presence of SSDs rather than mechanical disk drives in most new Windows 8 systems. The speed of those drives helps offset the performance problems created when a dozen different programs attempt to access the disk at the same time after bootup. But even those improvements only go so far.

Microsoft claims to hate junkware just as much of the rest of us, which is why (so it says) it introduced the Signature line of PCs sold through its stores. Said PCs have no third-party software installed, and a panoply of vendors -- including all those listed above -- is represented in Microsoft's Signature store. Plus, in a very Genius Bar-esque move, those who have existing PCs can bring them to a Microsoft Store and pay $99 to have them tuned to meet Signature standards.

Fine, except what Microsoft isn't as vocal about is the fact that Signature PCs can still come pre-loaded with Microsoft add-ons, such as Windows Live Essentials, trial editions of Microsoft Office, or Microsoft Security Essentials. In short, it's at least as much about Microsoft leveling the playing field against third-party competition as it is about providing end users with a clean, uncluttered PC experience.

PC buyers always want to pay as low a price as they can for the best possible PC, and PC manufacturers are more than happy to oblige. But the lowering of costs via the bulk supply discounts available to PC makers only goes so far, and the crapware strategy is a deeply-entrenched way to drop the per-unit price a few bucks further.

What's doubly ironic is that the "post-PC" devices -- the smartphones and tablets we're turning to as alternatives to lumbering desktop towers and full-blown notebooks -- are becoming just as infested with crapware too. Worse, such stuff is almost always unremovable, barring rooting the phone or other extreme measures. The one exception that comes to mind: Apple -- another reason it can charge premium prices for its devices.

Apart from paying extra and buying a Signature PC or a Mac, one workaround for a junk-infested PC is to simply take the time to de-install everything that isn't wanted, and then run a system-imaging utility to make a snapshot of everything at that point. If anything goes wrong, you can restore that image, minus the stuff you don't want. Some machines even include a system-imaging or backup tool that will partly automate this process, but be warned that many such tools simply consist of a utility that restores from a hidden partition -- which still includes all the stuff you don't want.

Uninstall is an area where Windows 8 makes things better: New Windows 8 apps from the Windows Store are required to have an easy and complete uninstall. Microsoft bragged about this at the Windows 8 launch. The same isn't true of older Windows apps, which they now refer to as "desktop apps." They use their older uninstall routines.

If the crapware habit has persisted this long, even into the Windows 8 age, it's hard to see it going away anytime soon. It's too lucrative a channel for the PC makers to abandon entirely. But that doesn't mean we have to take it lying down.