When you buy a new Windows PC, you expect it to be clean and lean, starting up fast and speeding through your work as quickly as you need it to.
Ah, if that were only the case. The truth is, most Windows PCs start off slower than they should be, clogged with unnecessary preloaded software. Known as bloatware (or a number of less complimentary terms) this software comes in many different forms. Most bloatware isn't dangerous, but it can slow down your system and take up space on your hard drive.
How much does bloatware slow down your PC? It's hard to say, but there are some indications that it can have a considerable effect. Microsoft sells a line of what it calls Signature PCs, computers that are free of third-party software. According to the product page, on average, the Signature PCs start up 104% faster, shut down 35% faster and have 28 minutes more battery life than the same laptops with bloatware.
In this article I'll discuss the most common types of bloatware you'll encounter, how to uninstall it and how to buy bloatware-free PCs. (Note that this article covers only Windows computers, and not Macs or other systems.)
New PC = add-ons
Why do PC vendors put additional software on new machines in the first place? Sometimes it's simply in order to offer tools that will add functionality to their systems. But most often, it's because including third-party applications are an additional source of revenue.
Generally, on Windows machines, you encounter two kinds of preinstalled software: The applications that run on the more old-fashioned desktop interface and apps that run on the touch-oriented tablet mode. I find the latter to be less intrusive because they're visible as tiles -- so it doesn't take a lot of deep digging to find and uninstall them. Desktop applications that have been preinstalled can be a lot harder to find, especially for less techie users, who may not even realize they have unwanted software until it activates and pops up on their screen.
Within those two categories, there are a number of different types.
Trialware is software that you get to use for free for a certain amount of time, but that you have to pay for if you want to use it after that -- for, say, 30 days or six months. Among the most common kind of trialware is security software made by companies such as McAfee and Norton.
An advantage to this type of software is that it's up-front -- in fact, it has to be, because the software company wants you to use it and then, hopefully, buy it. In fact, It's not uncommon for PC makers to publicize the trialware that comes with their computers, assuming that many people will consider that a benefit. Another advantage is that this type of add-on is usually easily uninstalled.
Utilities and useful apps
Manufacturers frequently include their own software on PCs they sell. For example, Lenovo often includes its Lenovo Solution Center, a maintenance application that does things such as checking your hardware for problems, and making sure you update software.
PC vendors often also pre-install full versions of specialized third-party software. For example, Cyberlink Media Suite, a common add-on, has a set of tools for creating videos, editing photos, playing DVDs and other media, burning media and more. Cyberlink also makes the PowerDVD software that you'll sometimes find on Dell PCs. Nero, a tool for burning CDs and DVDs, is another popular one.
In some instances you can uninstall the software, and in other instances you can't. Whether you consider such add-ons to be a bonus or needless bloat depends on how likely you are to use them. Note that in many cases, these utilities duplicate functionality that's already present in the Windows OS.
Finally, there's adware, a particularly nasty form of bloatware that exists solely to pump ads to the user, either via websites or via popups that come up directly on your computer screen. Adware can do worse than irritate you and/or slow your PC down -- it can spy on you as well, or expose your system to other dangers.
Are things getting better -- or worse?
Several months ago, the Superfish ad-injection program that was preinstalled on some Lenovo laptops also opened a serious security hole in people's systems. Superfish not only delivered ads to people when they browsed the Web, it also made systems susceptible to "man-in-the-middle" attacks by hackers that could spy on communications between a computer and websites that should have been secure but that Superfish rendered vulnerable.
More recently, Lenovo was embroiled in another bloatware-related brouhaha. The BIOS firmware in some of its laptops was found to automatically download a variety of Lenovo software and services, even if a clean install of Windows was done on the machine. This caused a vulnerability security. Lenovo has since taken the tool out of the BIOS firmware of the PCs it shipped after June and has released a BIOS update that removes the software.
Analysts agree that this type of attack has been a problem -- and remains one. But they disagree about whether things are getting better or worse.
Ken Westin, a security analyst with the security firm Tripwire, is firmly in the "getting-better" camp. "Superfish brought a lot of publicity to the issue and gave bloatware a bad name, especially in the enterprise," he says. "Companies don't want to open themselves to security holes and they're leery of buying computers with bloatware. Because of that, vendors will be forced to cut back on what they preinstall on machines."
However, he adds a caveat: "If you buy a Windows PC from a mass-market retailer like Office Depot, you're still going to find bloatware on it, because ordinary consumers still aren't that tuned into the issue. But specialty retailers that cater to the more sophisticated buyer, like Frys.com, are less likely to sell as many PCs with bloatware."
Jack Gold of the J. Gold Associates analyst firm sees the bloatware problem getting worse, not better, for economic reasons.
"The fundamental problem is that Windows PCs are a very low-margin business, especially on the low end, and vendors will do whatever they can to increase revenue," he says. "Software makers pay them to put bloatware on PCs. No one will tell you how much money is involved, but I estimate it might be as high as $20 a machine. If you sell a $300 computer, that $20 per machine is a lot of additional revenue. So I see no end in sight to bloatware."
He agrees with Westin that computers sold at mass-market retailers will likely have more bloatware on them than those sold at specialty retailers.
As for what PC manufacturers have to say about the issue, the answer is not much. I reached out to HP, Dell, Lenovo and Acer, and none of them would talk to me about it. However, on February 28, 2015, Lenovo published a press release published a press release that said, "Our standard image will only include the operating system and related software, software required to make hardware work well (for example, when we include unique hardware in our devices, like a 3D camera), security software and Lenovo applications."
So what to do about bloatware on your PC?
In some cases you can remove it simply by uninstalling it. A good strategy when you get a new system is to check it for software before you install any applications of your own and uninstall any programs you know you won't want. (If you're not sure whether you want it or not -- even after doing a bit of research -- then simply note its existence so that you can go back and remove it later if you want to.)
On the other hand, there are preinstalled programs that most users can't do anything about. For example, Samsung was, for a while, selling its systems with preinstalled software called SW Update that was designed to handle updates for Windows, drivers and associated software. However, a small program inside SW Update called Disable_Windowsupdate.exe blocked Windows Update from working properly -- and could not be removed. On June 26, 2015, Samsung changed the software to allow Windows Update to work correctly.
If you've got bloatware on your system that can't be easily uninstalled -- or if you suspect there is bloatware on your system that isn't immediately obvious -- there are a number of tools that might be able to remove it for you. The following are the ones I've found to be most useful.
(Note: If you're trying to scan your system for bloatware -- rather than simply trying to eliminate a specific program -- it's a good idea to use more than one of these applications, because any individual one may not find every single piece of bloatware.)
This free application is designed to find common bloatware installed on systems. It runs as a single executable file, so you can run it from a USB drive if you'd like.
The software first takes several minutes to analyze your system. After that, it categorizes what it finds into three categories: Recommended, Questionable and Everything Else. Recommended lists software that it recommends you uninstall; Questionable lists software you might want to uninstall; Everything Else lists software about which it has little or no information.
Each lists the name of the file, the type (Application or Startup) and the percentage of PC Decrapifier users who end up uninstalling it. So in essence, The PC Decrapifier relies on the wisdom of its users to determine what is bloatware and what isn't. You then check the box next to each application you want to uninstall and the application does the rest.
Unfortunately, the program doesn't really provide you enough information to decide on your own whether to uninstall a piece of software. For example, when I ran it on my four-year-old Dell PC, it recommended uninstalling startup software it only identified as ehTray.exe and NvCplDaemon. Clicking the small question mark next to each launched a new browser instance, but with no useful information. I had to do a Web search to identify and decide about any pieces of software I didn't immediately recognize.
The upshot? PC Decrapifier is a useful tool, but be prepared to do a bit of research on your own if you want to be safe.