The 10 most annoying tactics of technology companies

The everyday practices of hardware, software, and Web firms can drive their customers bonkers. Here's how to fight back.

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Crapware on new PCs

Major offenders: Gateway, HP, Sony

The problem: PC vendor logic must work something like this: "Mammoth hard drives are the norm, so there's ample room for stuffing new systems with trialware, adware, junkware, and other 'ware nobody asked for and hardly anybody ever wants." Note to computer vendors: Your logic stinks. Let users install the software they want, okay?

Loading a new PC with trialware made a certain amount of sense in the prebroadband days, when downloading an antivirus utility or game demo took longer than 30 seconds. Now there's simply no excuse for it.

Some vendors are getting the word. Dell, once one of the worst offenders, now gives customers more control over software preloads. But Sony, whose products received the worst "junk" rating of the 11 vendors in last year's "Junkbusters!" story, in March began charging customers an extra $50 to remove excess apps from new laptops. (Sure, Sony, how about we wash your car for you, too?)

Following a public outcry, the company wisely reversed course, offering its Fresh Start "software optimization" feature (read: crapware remover) for free. Regrettably, the offer is currently limited to the VAIO TZ notebook line, though Sony says it will expand the offering this summer.

And, like its competitors, Sony doesn't seem ready to admit that junkware is, in fact, junk. "We bundle industry-leading applications to offer an all-encompassing value proposition to our end users," a company spokesperson says. In other words, garbage is in the eye of the beholder.

Yes, some preloads, such as disc-authoring software and security suites, are worthwhile. But wouldn't it be nice if vendors let you decide?

The fix: Before you attempt to manually uninstall unwanted programs, try the aptly named PC Decrapifier. This freeware utility, born of one user's frustration with a junkified Dell notebook, quickly scans for and optionally uninstalls many common trialware applications. Our "Junkbusters!" feature has additional PC-cleanup instructions. Other than that, let your wallet do the talking: Don't buy PCs from vendors that go crazy with the crap--and tell them why you're shopping elsewhere.

Exclusivity deals for cell phones

Major offenders: Apple, AT&T

The problem: When Apple unveiled the iPhone, geek hearts everywhere sang in joyous anticipation--only to be crushed by the news that AT&T would be the device's sole carrier for the foreseeable future. Not only did the handset limit users to AT&T's poky EDGE network, but Apple's decision also left Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon customers with noPhone.

Perhaps that wasn't so surprising. Apple exclusivity has existed for years in the form of the iTunes store, which sells songs, TV shows, movies, and the like for playback only on Apple-branded hardware.

When we asked Apple reps why the company elected to stick with a single carrier when it could easily land more customers by supporting others, they referred us via e-mail to a year-old press release touting AT&T's (then Cingular's) advanced network, jointly developed visual voice mail, yada yada yada. We received no reply, either, to our query on when Apple would allow iPhone buyers to use other carriers (without "jailbreaking" their phones).

The fix: Rewrite the rules--unlock your iPhone so that it will work with other GSM/GPRS/EDGE carriers. Adam Pash, coauthor of How to Do Everything with Your iPhone, recommends ZiPhone, an open-source utility that makes simple work of unlocking the handset. Once you've removed the AT&T shackles, you can pop in a SIM card from any GSM carrier. Of course, you could also thumb your nose at Apple and buy a phone from another manufacturer. Have you seen the latest BlackBerry units? Most of them are available from multiple carriers.

Unrecoverable music

Major offenders: Amazon, iTunes

The problem: Your hard drive just went to the great storage heap in the sky, taking your entire music collection along with it. Reripping songs from your CDs is easy enough, but what about the music you purchased and downloaded from online stores such as AmazonMP3 and iTunes? You paid for those songs, so surely you can just redownload them when necessary, right? Wrong--neither store permits return trips to the well.

Admittedly, you wouldn't expect a brick-and-mortar seller to replace your CDs if your house burned down. But CDs are tangible goods that cost money to manufacture, ship, and store. Music downloads are mere bits and bytes that require only bandwidth, and there's plenty of that to go around. Why shouldn't you be able to download your songs a second time--or a thirty-second time--after you've paid for them?

When we asked, AmazonMP3 spokesperson Heather Huntoon said only that "we recommend customers create a backup copy of their music." She also noted that because all of Amazon's music is sold in MP3 format, you don't have to reauthorize a computer when restoring your tunes. In contrast, iTunes makes you jump through some authorization hoops to restore even those purchases you've backed up.

And speaking of iTunes, Apple utterly ignored all our inquiries on this subject. We've heard anecdotal evidence that the company's customer-service reps will sometimes replace lost purchases, but that isn't the same thing as a store policy that tells customers, "Don't worry, we've got your back."

The fix: As Amazon's Huntoon says, back up your music. You can store up to 25GB worth of stuff online for free at MediaMax or 50GB at ADrive, though you should be prepared to invest considerable time uploading everything. And consider shopping elsewhere: Napster and Rhapsody have no problem letting you redownload music you've purchased. Both services also offer a subscription option that allows unlimited downloads from their substantial libraries--another worthwhile insurance policy against lost music collections.

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