Sony is finally taking on its crapware problem. For the past two months, I’ve been using an astonishingly light and agile Sony VAIO notebook and loving every minute of it. The best part of all was that this machine was absolutely, completely, unequivocally crapware-free, which meant I was able to be productive within a few minutes of unboxing.
That’s a huge switch for Sony, which has taken a beating as “the poster child for negative experiences” with new PCs running Windows Vista. And it was a happy surprise for me. When I wrote about my hands-on experiences with two older VAIO notebooks earlier this year, I called it a “truly miserable experience.” It took a crapware-cleansing clean install to fix a 2007-vintage Sony notebook, and I spent hours replacing outdated drivers and removing unwanted software from a 2008 model (if you haven’t read that installment, see Fixing Windows Vista, one machine at a time).
In a March interview, Sony Vice President Mike Abary assured me that Sony was “listening and taking action.” The first phase, he said, was a new program called Fresh Start, in which Sony promised to remove all trialware and unnecessary software for customers who chose the Fresh Start option as part of a custom-configured VAIO. Sony announced initially that it would charge $49.99 for the privilege of ordering a crapware-free PC and then quickly reversed its decision.
In early May, I ordered an ultraportable notebook from Sony’s website, configuring it to order and choosing the Fresh Start option (no extra charge).
The notebook arrived a few days later, and I’ve been using it since then for a variety of real-world tasks. The bottom line? Sony's Fresh Start delivers exactly what it promises: a crapware-free PC. It runs Windows Vista remarkably well, and the hardware has been a sheer delight to use. In today’s post, I’ll show you why this VAIO is different from its predecessors and explain how Sony plans to widen its selection of crapware-free models.
The system I reviewed is a VAIO VGN-TZ2000, configured to order from Sony’s website. The configuration I specified included an ultra-low-voltage 1.33GHz Intel Core 2 Duo U7700 processor, 2GB of RAM, an integrated Wireless-N adapter with Bluetooth and a broadband (WWAN) adapter with GPS, integrated DVD drive and webcam, a fingerprint reader, a large-capacity battery, and Windows Vista Business Edition with Service Pack 1. (The Fresh Start option is available only with Vista Business and not with Vista Home Premium.) Total cost including tax and shipping was $2,375.
How was the out of box experience?
Exceptional. The most striking feature of this machine is how thin and light it is, about the dimensions of a sheet of paper, roughly an inch thick, and under 3 pounds even with the large-capacity battery. When I turned it on, I went through a very simple setup process that included prompts to set up the wireless network. After installing a few Windows updates, I was able to get to work with the computer. The whole process, including the unboxing, took roughly 20 minutes. Besides the Windows Recycle Bin, the only icon on the desktop was one offering a free one-month trial of Sprint broadband services for the included WWAN adapter.
Really? No crapware?
Really. None. whatsoever. The system includes a handful of Sony-branded utilities for managing wireless connections and updating Sony drivers, a webcam control utility, a Sony utility for importing and editing digital pictures, Adobe Reader and Sun Java software, and third-party DVD playback and CD/DVD burning programs (WinDVD and Roxio Easy Media Creator). The system did not include any security or antivirus software. None of the included programs were trialware, and there were no stray icons or pop-ups at any time. Sony also included a Windows Sidebar gadget to control the various wireless functions.
How was performance?
I was initially skeptical that a 1.33GHz CPU could handle Windows Vista. After two months of use in a variety of circumstances, I can attest that this system’s performance is stellar. The system easily handled every business application I threw at it, including Office 2007. The only noticeable flaw was jerky playback of a DVD using the included WinDVD software; using Windows Media Player, the same DVD played back perfectly. The integrated Mobile Intel graphics adapter (945GM) is the obvious weak link, as evidenced by its rating in the Windows Experience Index (below). But it did a fine job of rendering the Aero interface on the system’s 11-inch 1366x768 screen. I wouldn’t expect it to handle demanding graphics editing tasks or game play, but as a business system it was snappy and impressively fast.
Any driver-related issues?
The unit I reviewed came with a mostly up-to-date set of drivers. I experienced one and only one blue-screen error, which turned out to be the fault of the integrated fingerprint driver and was fixed with an updated driver. The Sony Update utility also identified an updated video driver which I was able to download and install without issue. In two months of use, the only application failures I’ve seen were caused by a single piece of beta software.
Battery life? Power management?
Fully charged, the battery meter consistently reported a useful life of just under 8 hours, and I was able to consistently work for a full day without recharging. Sleep, resume, and hibernate features work perfectly, with the system coming back from sleep mode in less than two seconds and reconnecting to the wireless network in a few seconds.
How was the system recovery process?
During my testing, I used the Recovery partition to restore the original factory configuration. This image was indistinguishable from the one I started with. The recovery process was very fast (well under an hour), and no additional programs were installed.
What about XP?
This system included a set of Windows XP disks in the box. During my testing, I used those disks to replace the Vista Business installation with XP Professional. Ironically, that image included a boatload of trialware (including Norton Internet Security). It took more than an hour to uninstall the unwanted software. Using XP, system performance and battery life were roughly the same as they were was under Vista. The most noticeable difference was boot time, which was approximately 20 seconds faster under XP than under Vista.
As I discovered when I ordered this system, Fresh Start is currently a limited offering available only on configure-to-order (CTO) models in the TZ line. By the end of summer, the program is set to expand to several additional lines, all based on Windows Vista Business. Eventually, Abary told me, the option will be available on all CTO systems. So far, it’s been a hit, with more than 40% of customers exercising the Fresh Start option.
If you purchase a Sony notebook at retail, Fresh Start isn’t an option. Retail customers who want to avoid trialware will have two options:
- Systems sold in a Sony Style retail store will be offered with a similar image optimization option called Backstage. If a retail customer chooses this option, they get to select from a menu of software options (including full versions of security software and Microsoft Office instead of trialware). According to Abary, the entire process of optimizing the software to the customer’s specifications takes about an hour.
- Systems sold through non-Sony retail outlets will continue to ship with trialware, but Sony promises to streamline the setup process dramatically with a new VAIO Startup Assistant that reduces the boot-up experience to five steps. one of which is a consolidation of all trialware offers. If you say no, you won’t be asked again.
So, has Sony completely eliminated its crapware problem? No, unfortunately. The Fresh Start program is just that: a start. Unfortunately, the business model for OEM PCs still offers too many financial incentives to computer makers to include trial software offers as a way of subsidizing lower prices. What Sony has done so far, however, is a step in the right direction, offering an easy way for customers who want to avoid crapware to do so and to minimize the performance impact even on retail systems.
I’ll continue to keep an eye on Sony and other OEM manufacturers to see how they perform in this regard.
For previous posts on my experiences with Sony hardware, see: