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12 ways hardware makers screw up a perfectly good Windows PC

Making PCs is a tough business, with low profit margins and cutthroat competition. To squeeze a few extra bucks out of every PC they sell, some OEMs cut deals to preinstall trial versions of software. On top of that, some OEMs feel compelled to “add value” to their hardware by bundling software programs and utilities that duplicate functions already available in Windows. This gallery documents the frustration I found after unboxing three new consumer notebooks.
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1 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Making PCs is a tough business, with low profit margins and cutthroat competition. To squeeze a few extra bucks out of every PC they sell, some OEMs cut deals to make extra money by preinstalling trial versions of software. If they can convince you to pay for an upgrade to the full version, they make a commission. But those upsell offers (also known as crapware) are annoying, and in the worst case they can slow a PC noticeably.

On top of that, some OEMs feel compelled to “add value” to their hardware by bundling software programs and utilities that duplicate functions already available in Windows.

How bad is the problem? Two months ago, I picked up three new consumer notebooks, one each from HP, Samsung, and Sony. What I found was eye-opening. On the next 12 pages, I'll show you how those PC makers added frustration and annoyance to the experience.

See related posts:

Can Microsoft cure PC makers of the crapware habit?

On consumer PCs, crapware is still a performance-sapping nuisance

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2 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Windows has its own simple out-of-box experience for a new PC that requires accepting a license agreement, choosing a time zone, and configuring Windows update. HP adds its own separate setup routine to new consumer PCs. It's a full-screen, animated show that highlights the HP brand while asking questions that most PC makers handle with a simple dialog box.

This step tries to convince the new PC owner to activate the 60-day trial version of Norton Internet Security. And it illustrates a theme that crops up over and over again in these OEM installations. You can say yes, but no doesn't mean no. If you click No here, the wizard helpfully reminds you that "you will be reminded later." Later, as it turns out, is in a matter of milliseconds. If you click No, you immediately see an "are you sure?" dialog box.

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3 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNet

This Samsung notebook comes preloaded with a wheelbarrow full of trial software versions. This filtered list shows more than 20 separate programs, each of which will find a way to get in your face with an "offer" to let you pay to unlock the full version.

The most annoying part of this excessive software preload is the collection of games from Oberon Media. In addition to the Game Pack, there are no fewer than 10 individual games preinstalled. It takes five clicks and a minimum of 30 seconds to uninstall each one.

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4 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Every consumer computer I looked at for this story came with a trial version of a security package. McAfee and Norton are the leaders in the preloaded trialware game, but Trend Micro occasionally plays as well.

If you don't activate the software when you first turn on the PC, you'll see frequent reminders like this one, filled with warnings about the evildoers lurking just outside your office door. The only way to close this dialog box is by clicking the faint, practically invisible X in the upper right corner. And if you try that you're rewarded with more frightening dialog boxes before you eventually suppress it. But none of those prompts include an option to uninstall the software. For that, you need to make your way to Control Panel on your own.

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5 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNet

If you decide to take advantage of the free trial, woe be unto you when the trial ends. The makers of antivirus software have an army of designers, an endless supply of blood-red pixels, and copywriters skilled in the art of scaring the crap out of you.

Here are two examples I saw on a Sony notebook after the Norton trial ended. (A later dialog box included a "Stay Unprotected" option. Classic!) Notice again that there's no way to make the warnings stop. With persistence, you can hide the current warning, but there's no information on how to uninstall the expired program and replace it with something else.

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6 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNet

This Samsung notebook includes the CyberLink DVD Suite, which prompts you for your name and e-mail address every time you start up—with, naturally, two options: Register Now or Remind Me Later. The software offers basic capabilities already available in Windows (and in free Windows Live programs like Movie Maker). But you'll run into hard blocks as soon as you try to move beyond those basic capabilities.

If you try to save a video file in anything other than WMV or AVI format, or if you choose the option to burn a DVD or save a file for use with an iPod, you'll see a dialog box like this one. The constant appeals to upgrade must wear some people down. But if you don't want to pay, take my advice and ditch this nuisanceware.

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7 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNet

It seems like every PC maker wants to reinvent the wheel. Or, in this case, the Control Panel.

Sony calls this the VAIO Control Center. It's a hodgepodge of settings dialog boxes that mostly duplicate functions already in Windows. Here, for example, you can choose a "Thermal Control Strategy." If these options seem oddly familiar to those in the Power Options Control Panel, well, that's because they are absolutely identical. Sony isn't alone among laptop makers in offering unnecessary utilities, unfortunately. In fact, this is one of the cleaner, less intrusive ones I found.

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8 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNet

How many desktop icons is too many? Personally, I think the correct answer is "anything more than one," but someone in the business development group at Samsung obviously disagrees with me.

This startup screen could be Exhibit A in the case against crapware. There are 17 icons on the desktop, and they cover the full range of needless junk: unnecessary utilities, trialware, a user guide, and a feedback form. Hey, I've got some feedback right here...

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9 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNet

The signature feature of Windows 7 is its redesigned taskbar, which allows you to pin programs and files so you can have quick access to them any time you want.

So, naturally, someone at Sony decided that the perfect complement to the taskbar on the bottom of the screen is a separate dock/toolbar at the top of the screen. It's installed and enabled by default, ready to appear as soon as you accidentally bump the mouse pointer against the top of the screen. And some of the icons are actually folders that spawn secondary toolbars!

On the plus side, none of those icons are on the desktop...

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10 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNet

This screenshot documents what I saw shortly after I opened Internet Explorer on a freshly set up HP notebook. It's just so full of fail that it's hard to know where to begin.

There's the HP-branded Bing toolbar, with a search box and a Facebook icon. And then, right below it, there's another toolbar, from Ask.com, with its own search box and its own Facebook button. The Favorites bar has HP and Amazon shortcuts, both of which are duplicated in other toolbars. And the home page is an HP store just filled with offers to sell me software.

Is it any wonder that Internet Explorer just threw up its hands and decided to stop working?

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11 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Every laptop I looked at has its own updater program. In a perfect world, it would concentrate on things like device drivers and BIOS updates. This is, alas, not a perfect world.

Sony's updater, shown here, makes a bold promise when you first use it: "VAIO Update helps to keep your VAIO tuned for optimum performance." But the four updates shown here are just for the unnecessary stuff included with the PCs. For some strange reason, you have to click the New Software button to learn that there's an updated graphics driver and a second update for the included Blu-ray playback software. If you update manually, each updater launches a separate installer that requires you to select your language from an alphabetical list, and doesn't remember your previous choice or take any hints from your system settings.

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12 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Windows includes a Recovery option in Control Panel. In addition to the Windows Backup and Restore options, it allows OEMs to give customers the ability to restore their original Windows installation. If you've made it this far, you are probably not surprised that Sony doesn't use this option.

Instead, it buries the Recover options in yet another Control Panel alternative called VAIO Care. If you choose the Recover Computer option, you can wipe out your existing installation and use the recovery partition to put your system back exactly the way it was when you first unwrapped the PC, complete with trialware. What's noteworthy about Sony's implementation of this option is how clunky and slow it is. A clean installation of Windows takes about 20 minutes, as does a restore from a saved system image. Sony's approach takes well over two hours, and there's no way to skip the unwanted software.

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13 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Here's one for the record books. HP actually offers a clean installation option, but most people are unlikely to find it. Indeed, I stumbled across it only when I was wiping data and preparing my crop of review machines to be returned.

On this HP notebook, if you go to the Advanced Recovery Methods page in Control Panel, you're given an option to "Return your computer to factory condition." After a restart, you're presented with these three options. The Minimize Image Recovery option does exactly what it sounds like. You get a clean Windows installation, with the proper drivers and required HP utilities. But trialware and other unwanted software are completely missing. On a default installation, the Programs option in Control Panel includes 50 entries. Using this option, the same list is stripped down to a mere 25 entries.

It's an option every OEM should offer. And it's one that HP should publicize.

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