One of the lessons to be learned from the Lenovo Superfish fiasco is just how dangerous the pre-installed software on a Windows machine can be. In the old days, pre-installed software was a performance issue, then it became merely an annoyance. Now, however, it's been elevated to a security risk, so its time for some Defensive Computing.
A number of Superfish articles recommended installing a clean copy of Windows rather than removing the software. Sure, that's the safest approach, but it takes a non-trivial amount of time and effort. There are a lot of ducks that need to be lined up in a row beforehand, and drivers that will be needed afterwards.
When possible, it's better to start off with a clean system out of the box, one without adware, junkware, crapware or bloatware. There are a number of ways to do so.
Although we ultimately have Microsoft to blame for the existence of bloatware (you don't see Macs or Chromebooks with pre-installed junk on them) we can also turn to them for a solution.
A recent article by Chris Hoffman at How-To Geek suggests that The Only Safe Place to Buy a Windows PC is the Microsoft Store. He's wrong about it being the only safe place, but it is a good option.
Microsoft sells Signature Edition PCs that come without pre-installed bloatware. The name, like most names from Microsoft, makes no sense. But the computers do. The Microsoft store, both online and brick and mortar, sells Signature Edition desktops, laptops, tablets and 2-in-1 hybrids. And, they are an equal opportunity retailer, offering machines from HP, Asus, Toshiba, Lenovo, Dell, MSI, Acer, Maingear and others.
There are, however, two downsides to the Microsoft store.
The first is the current Microsoft insistence on Windows 8.1. All the Signature Edition machines toe the corporate line. You can get any operating system you like, as long as its Windows 8.1. Those of us that prefer Windows 7, have to go elsewhere.
One place we can go is upscale. High end Windows machines are bloatware free.
Maingear, for example, says:
Large, multi-national computer manufacturers have commoditized the PC market by subsidizing their products with the installation of intrusive, third party software. They are paid to do this. This software bogs down your system and prevents it from running at its highest potential. It also has the tendency to make your system unstable or may conflict with software you wish to install. All MAINGEAR systems eschews these tactics ... We build purebred PCs designed for performance and reliability, not billboards and advertisments.
At Falcon Northwest, the story is the same.
No unnecessary software. No ads - Falcon PCs ship "clean". We don't ship unnecessary software and utilities you don't need. We clean up your temporary directories and you will not find advertising, online banks, or lame internet offers on a Falcon machine. Absolutely no crap!
Velocity Micro also keeps their machines free of software you don't want.
If you’ve ever bought a computer from the behemoth, mass produced competition, you know bloatware. Free trials you don’t want, software you didn’t ask for, search bars you’ll never use - all choking your system. We don’t do it ... we only install what you ask us for, and not a thing more.
Puget Custom Computers makes no mention of this on their website, but they responded by email that their computers are also clean. They said that they go so far as disabling the Bing Bar in Windows Update so that Microsoft doesn't install it.
On the flip side, Puget will add good software. For no additional charge, they will pre-install Chrome, Firefox and/or LibreOffice. If you buy a Windows 8 machine from them (they offer Windows 7 too) you can request that they tweak the system to make it look and act like Windows 7. This includes installing a favorite program of mine, Classic Shell.
These companies don't sell cheap computers, but as Superfish illustrated, there is a price to pay for less expensive machines.
Bottom line: whether you prefer Windows 7 or 8, you can purchase a new bloatware free machine.
KEEPING IT CLEAN
But, then it needs to be kept clean, which gets harder to do as more and more Windows software comes bundled with potentially unwanted programs.
Its one thing for Adobe to ask if you also want McAfee Security Scan Plus when you download their PDF Reader, but Windows users are often not asked. The price of installing one program, is often having others foisted on you.
Last month, Lowell Heddings of How-To Geek, in Here’s What Happens When You Install the Top 10 Download.com Apps, described how CNET's download.com website has gone over to the dark side.
The article, written before the Lenovo Superfish disaster, showed that one of the most popular programs, the YTD Video Downloader*, "... installs a proxy and tries to send all of your web browsing through it. That’s really bad." Indeed it is. It's called HTTPS interception and is exactly what Superfish does.
The article illustrates another reason it's so hard to keep a system clean. A very popular antivirus program let all sorts of bundled malicious software into the system.
Some comments on the article are interesting too.
One person wrote: "It's hard to believe a company with as important a corporate image as CBS (owners of CNet) allows this deceptive and dangerous nonsense to occur under their stewardship". It's a safe bet that there will be no 60 Minutes story on the security risks foisted on folks by download.com.
Another person, claiming to be from MajorGeeks, explained how things got so bad.
As the co-owner of MajorGeeks, there is good reason for this. The PC market has declined around 50% as competition from tablets and phones has come in and Windows has yet to respond with a product that can match the popularity of iOS and Android. Imagine you come to work today and your boss tells you that he has cut your pay 50% to match the 50% loss in business. What would you do? ... the answer in the internet market is wrappers, which picks up the slack.
The folks at How-To Geek don't have it in just for CNET. They recently followed that article with another: Yes, Every Freeware Download Site is Serving Crapware (Here’s the Proof).
ME AND THE MICROSOFT STORE
That other downside to using the Microsoft store comes from personal experience.
A couple weeks ago I used the online store to buy a Windows 8.1 tablet. Or, I tried to. At the last step in the process the red message shown below was displayed.
I assume this to be an error message based on its being red. Then again, based on the content, it might be Klingon.
Not knowing what to do, I clicked again on the green "Place order" button. Same result; a string of red characters.
So, I called Microsoft and spoke to someone who was able to see the red message on their end. He said it was a problem with sales tax, fixed it quickly and that was that.
Until the tablets arrived in the mail. Yes, tablets. I ordered one, Microsoft sent two, and charged me for one.
The person I spoke with on the phone sent a follow-up email a couple days later. I replied to it, explaining the error and didn't hear back. A day or two later, I replied again, again explaining the error, and again got no response. Same thing yesterday.
A few days after the tablets arrived Microsoft sent a survey about either my purchasing experience or the tech support interaction. It wasn't clear which. I rated things as low as possible and heard nothing back.
So, if you want a Windows 8 computer without bloatware, sure, go to the Microsoft store. Just do it in person and pay cash.
* This screen shot shows that the YTD Video Downloader has changed since the How-To Geek article called it out. It is no longer "installer enabled" at download.com. Instead it is downloaded from an external website. CNET says it now comes from the publisher, but when I downloaded it, it came from cloudfront.net.
Update: March 1, 2015. According to How-To Geek, Mac users also need to be on the lookout for bundled software: Mac OS X Isn’t Safe Anymore: The Crapware / Malware Epidemic Has Begun