How to zap the crap on a new Windows PC

The first thing to do with any new Windows PC isn't to start using it, but to clean all the junk off it. Here are seven easy steps to a clutter-free PC.

When you take a brand-new Windows PC out of the box, it's shiny and scratch-free, but on the PC's hard disk, it's a different story entirely. Most major hardware makers clutter their systems with preinstalled applications, browser toolbars, search settings and utilities -- not to mention self-launching advertisements enticing you to try out even more software.

In essence, they have sold your PC to the highest bidder long before you take it out of the box. Instead of having Windows defaults or your own preferences, the system is set up to maximize the profits of the computer maker and its business partners at the expense of your convenience.

All this extra unwanted software takes its toll on system performance and reliability. Each time the system starts, many of the applications run in the background. While running, they may access the Internet to find updates or change the behavior of standard Windows functions. These freeloaders also take up system resources such as processor, memory and disk space, resulting in longer start-up and shutdown times.

Many of them clutter the desktop, system tray and browser with icons, buttons, yellow balloon dialogs and other visible reminders in the hope that you will click on them and use their services. Apple even pokes fun of this phenomenon in one of its "I'm a PC; I'm a Mac" commercials, called "Stuffed" (requires QuickTime plug-in).

Out of the box, my brand-new Acer notebook had a system tray brimming with icons, including two volume controls.
Out of the box, my brand-new Acer notebook had a system tray brimming with icons, including two volume controls.

Uninvited applications and utilities often target product or service categories where competition is fierce. Take music, for example. Nearly every new computer comes with preinstalled software designed to grab your business for music downloads. It may be Napster, MusicMatch, RealPlayer or Microsoft's own Windows Media Player. The preinstalled software usually takes over all sound-related file extensions, such as .MP3 or .WAV, and launches an in-your-face barrage of advertising any time you want to play something as simple as a sound effect.

Uninstalling isn't always as simple as it should be, either -- many preinstalled processes don't offer a standard uninstall routine.

Internet Explorer 7 is loaded down with preinstalled toolbars.
On my new notebook, Internet Explorer 7 is loaded down with preinstalled toolbars. )

Microsoft is certainly aware of this problem, but to some extent the solution is out of its hands. The computer maker, not Microsoft, is responsible for the extra software installed on the system and for making sure the final combination works correctly before it's sent to the customer.

When Windows XP was released in 2001, Microsoft attempted two changes to address this problem. The first was to prompt the user with a message offering to clean up unused desktop icons a few weeks after the system is installed. The second was a prompt offering to hide the tray icons that the user has not clicked on recently. But both changes merely mask the clutter; neither removes the underlying mess.

For all its changes in other areas, Windows Vista hasn't improved things much when it comes to dealing with the junk installed by hardware makers. I just purchased a new Acer notebook with Vista Home Premium installed, and it suffers from the same old plague of icons, advertisements and start-up utilities.

And several of the third-party applications consistently misbehave in ways that make me think that they are not yet Vista-compatible. For example, the PC came with Symantec's Norton Internet Security, which would often pop up error dialogs when the system resumed from sleep. The Windows error logs indicated that several Symantec software components were causing trouble.

Vista's error logs showing Symantec software impacting system performance.
Vista's error logs showing preinstalled Symantec software impacting system performance. (.)
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