The weakest link in the PC ecosystem is, without a doubt, the one right before the hardware reaches your desk.
That's the conclusion I've drawn over the past two months as I've compared three pairs of modern PCs. What made this experiment especially interesting was comparing the software installations provided by the PC manufacturers with a clean alternative called Microsoft Signature, which is available only through the Microsoft Store.
In the first part of this series, I looked at the Signature experience in detail and found that it really does make a difference. (For details, see Can Microsoft cure PC makers of the crapware habit?)
In this installment and an accompanying gallery, I provide a closer look at what each of the three PC makers provided to their customers.
See the accompanying image gallery: 12 ways hardware makers screw up a perfectly good Windows PC
All three PCs use modern Intel i5 processors, have plenty of memory and disk storage, and large, bright screens. They make an excellent first impression, but what happens when you turn on the system for the first time?
As with most Sony hardware, it's well built and very handsome, with a glossy white case, a backlit keyboard, and a gorgeous 1080p screen.
Surprisingly, the OEM desktop was almost free of icons, with only the Recycle Bin, the Office 2010 icon, and a Norton shortcut to mar the neutral Sony wallpaper. The only trialware on this system was a copy of Norton Internet Security, good for 60 days. It nagged repeatedly until I registered, and then nagged again, with increasingly dire warnings, after the trial expired.
Unfortunately, that didn't mean the system was free of extra software. Bumping the mouse pointer against the top of the screen revealed Sony's VAIO Gate software, a dock with shortcuts to third-party programs, a VAIO Control Center and a VAIO Care utility, and a slew of media programs. Given the existence of the Windows 7 taskbar, it's hard to imagine what purpose this dock is supposed to serve except to annoy.
Both systems included a Blu-ray drive with a full copy of CyberLink PowerDVD BD that played Blu-ray media flawlessly. Loading a regular DVD on the OEM configuration popped up a dialog box demanding that I choose a default program. On the Signature system, it just began playing.
In terms of of performance, both of the Sony machines were impressively fast, with the Signature machine typically booting to the desktop in just over 30 seconds, about 20% faster than the Sony configuration.
Take a look at this home screen, which sports 17 desktop icons and offers for preinstalled trialware from both Norton and McAfee. In an especially unkind cut, the Norton dialog box offers only two choices: "Get started" and "Remind me later." That's a common theme with trialware, as it turns out: "No" is rarely an option.
Even the Cyberlink-supplied DVD software was a nest of upsell offers. Opening any one of the programs triggered an upgrade offer, and several functions that appeared in the program were disabled and could only be unlocked with—ka-ching!—an upgrade.
In all, this Samsung OEM installation had 53 programs installed by default, including an especially ugly collection of 10 games from Oberon that had to be uninstalled individually. By comparison only 34 programs were installed on the Microsoft Signature image. That massive collection of crapware had an impact on performance. In side-by-side startup tests, the Signature build booted in a little over 40 seconds, while the OEM install consistently took at least 12 seconds longer.
The initial experience with this machine is annoying, thanks to a "Welcome to your new HP PC" wizard that takes up the entire screen and insists on rendering itself in slow, dramatic graphics. The four-step wizard takes nearly four minutes to go through even if you just say no to everything. That setup wizard includes extra nags to turn on the trial version of Norton Internet Security.
HP's build was laden with unwanted software, for which the company is presumably paid a bonus. The OEM load includes a collection of games from Wild Tangent, an e-book reader called Blio, and an unbelievably cheesy replacement shell called Magic Desktop. Of all three systems, this was the slowest to start up: the Signature build took 49 seconds, the OEM collection well over a minute.
The biggest surprise with this system, however, was something I discovered by accident as I was preparing the OEM unit to be returned after I had finished my review. Like its competitors, HP includes a recovery partition that you can use to restore the system software to its original settings. With most OEMs, that's a mixed blessing, because the system image also includes all the trialware and utilities that are so annoying.
HP includes that option, but it also includes a Minimized Image Recovery option that it describes as a "clean image."
Sure enough, installing that option resulted in a squeaky-clean Windows install, with no crapware and no unnecessary utilities. The full OEM image includes 50 installed programs; the clean image has a mere 25, and it doesn't force you to jump through any extra setup steps after the restore is complete.
I wish every PC maker had a similar option.