When the out of box experience becomes an out of mind nightmare

Laptop makers only get one first impression, and when they preinstall junkware that ruins the first boot they have failed the customer.

My office door is like a revolving door that sees laptops and other gadgets coming and going all the time. I test more laptops than anyone I know, and I have the startup procedure for a new laptop down to a fine art. Anyone who has opened a new laptop knows how important it is to get the new toy out of the box and up and running as quickly as possible, and I have gotten quite good at that.

Normally I don't give the the startup of a new device a second thought, but yesterday I ran into the out of box experience from hell. I can't imagine what a buyer of one of these laptops without a technical background would think about the product with the first impression this experience provided.

The laptop is the HP Pavilion dm1, but the miserable first boot had nothing to do with the hardware. It was a combination of the crapware that HP preloaded on the laptop and an update process that inserted itself into the first boot. I sympathize with the difficulties colleague Stephen Chapman is having moving from Windows to OS X, but I am pretty sure his out of box experience with the MacBook Air was a lot smoother than mine with the HP.

I took the dm1 out of the box and was immediately struck with how compact and nice it looks. It isn't as thin and light as Stephen's Air, but it is a nice laptop in every way. It also has Verizon 4G LTE integrated inside, something no Air can boast. As impressed as I was with the first look at the dm1, that didn't last long. I plugged the laptop into the charger and hit the power button. The standard Windows 7 first boot process fired up and ran as expected. The laptop booted up quickly, and I mistakenly thought this was going to be a breeze.

Once the laptop was fully up and running, the crapware immediately raised its ugly head. The Norton Internet suite was preinstalled on the dm1 and it began popping up a giant window to get me to activate my free trial. I didn't want to do that and the only way to make the popup get out of my way was to hit the "Remind me again in 7 days" button. I figured that was the end of my irritation at Norton. Wrong.

Since this laptop has LTE integrated into the system, I fired up the Verizon Access Manager software to get the connectivity going. This was simple and worked as expected. In seconds I was rocking at LTE speeds on the dm1, and while I prefer a mobile hotspot method over integrated connectivity in a laptop it was pretty nice to have such bandwidth on the small dm1.

I fired up the browser to test the connectivity, and Norton raised its ugly head once again. I noticed a lag opening even simple web sites due to a popup from Norton each time informing me that the web page was safe for viewing. The default for Norton protection apparently is set to tell you a site is safe every time one is opened. This popup window had a noticeable lag to it, undermining the entire web browsing experience. I suppose I could have stopped what I was doing and gone searching for the Norton preferences to turn this obnoxious behavior off, but I never got the chance as other automatic software raised its ugly head at this point.

A black popup window opened informing me that the preinstalled HP maintenance software detected that critical updates needed to be applied to the laptop. The PC has only been running for five minutes and the user of this brand new laptop was confronted with a critical situation. There were only options to perform the maintenance immediately or to postpone the update for 20 minutes. I figured a buyer of the laptop would apply the maintenance so that's what I did.

This maintenance was indeed critical, it included various updates to HP's maintenance software, restore utilities and even a BIOS update. The AMD graphics driver was also to be updated in the list of six things that needed attention. With trepidation I hit the Start button and waited as the various items were downloaded and applied.

Due to the super speedy LTE connection the download of these items was lightning fast, but things bogged down in the application. I watched it and watched it as each item was applied. The entire maintenance application took two hours. You read that right, five minutes out of the box and this laptop required HP maintenance that took two hours to apply.

When all items were finally applied the utility insisted on a system restart, not surprising given the nature of the updates. I told it to restart the system and then watched what happened with the BIOS update. When it hit the BIOS process in the boot it fired up a DOS-based flash utility that proceeded to flash the new BIOS. I kept my fingers crossed that the flashing wouldn't get interrupted and brick the laptop, but it went fine for the 10 minutes it took.

The system then rebooted again after flashing the BIOS, and soon I was seeing the familiar Windows 7 flashing flag startup screen. And seeing it, and seeing it. It was quickly apparent that the system couldn't finish booting Windows 7. I had to do a hard power down and try again. Same results, Windows 7 would not boot. The second attempt at boot I chose the Windows 7 startup recovery option.

Kudos to Microsoft for the startup recovery. It went through its checking and restored the system to an earlier state, which meant the restore performed by the HP utility at the beginning of its 2 hour process. The system booted up finally and was running OK, but I was not sure at this point if the recovery had removed some or all of the HP maintenance updates applied.

The dm1 seems to be running fine, but I don't know for sure. I was so frustrated at the end of this now 3 hour process I shut it down and set it aside. I will return to it as I like the notebook, but I was in no condition to test it for a while.

Sadly, while this is not common with new laptops, it does happen too frequently in my experience. Vendors install junk on them that get in the way from the very first boot. Updates are a fact of life but when they are the first thing confronting a buyer of a new laptop the out of box experience cannot be good. Even without my problem booting after the maintenance a two hour system update out of the box is just terrible.

I am quick to give a company like HP props when it deserves it, but I dish out chops when it is appropriate. This out of box experience with the dm1 was not one I would wish on my worst enemy, and now I am reluctant to even fire up the laptop again to test it. My enthusiasm for a new gadget was extinguished thoroughly, and I must get it back to return to the dm1. I don't think that is what HP intended when they boxed it up for shipment.

Image credit: Flickr user stuartpilbrow

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