This is the second part of our look at pre-installed desktop junk.

Apple’s Better Behaviour?
Apple’s “Stuffed” ad features an actor in a fat suit representing an overloaded PC facing off against a slim, hip youngster claiming that Macs “only come with the stuff you need.” Sure enough, when we booted up a new 24-inch iMac, we saw only the registration/configuration wizard and a pristine desktop.

Even so, we found an icon for a 60-day trial of Apple’s .Mac online services on the Dock (the bar of icons on a Mac screen), and a Microsoft Office 2004 test-drive and a 30-day trial for Apple’s own iWork in the Applications folder.

Though the iMac does harbor marketing material, it offers less gunk than the average Vista desktop does – and the add-ons are more graciously presented.

Rating PC Junk
Because performance numbers don’t tell the whole story, we developed a junk rating that integrates the WorldBench 6 improvement with the quantity and quality of the gunk. We then tied the numbers to word scores ranging from Polite (little or no junk) to Mildly Annoying, Irritating, and Infuriating.

The most junkware-free system, scoring an impressively low 10 points, was Alienware’s Area-51 7500 desktop, which didn’t even display the Alienware name on its screen.

At the other end of the spectrum: Sony’s VAIO VGC-LS30E multimedia desktop, which came with Spider-Man 3 wallpaper and 27 nonstandard Vista Welcome Center icons hawking everything from online games to CNN to e-books. Booting up the PC for the first time simultaneously activated setup for a trial of Norton Internet Security; we also saw an ad for a trial of QuickBooks and an invitation to a Sony feedback survey.

Throw in AOL and Travelocity Sidebar gadgets, and the VGC-LS30SE ran away with the number one spot on our chart. As brazen as the appearance of its desktop was, the Sony actually had slightly less junk running in the background than the average machine does, but it still scored a whopping 162 points on the junk-rating scale.

After the Sony, all the other PCs seemed tame, though the Acer, Dell, HP and Toshiba all surpassed the Annoying mark. The amount of junkware on Gateway and on Gateway-owned eMachines PCs was tolerable, though we’re still waiting for the company’s BigFix background app to actually fix something. Other than the Alienware, only the Polywell earned a Polite mark. It was a bit cluttered, but it had no adware or trialware, and what software there was served a purpose.

After two weeks of staring at cluttered desktops, adware, trialware, and utilities, we concluded that PC vendors, under tremendous competitive pressure to keep prices down, are seeking new revenue sources (or, in the case of vendor-branded support aids, ways to cut their own costs). They sell ad space on their desktops for cash, try to distinguish themselves by providing utilities that frequently duplicate or simply manage Windows features, and have generally allowed their products to be used to sell those of others. When we asked vendors about this trend, they responded with various explanations – the favorite being that users appreciate having the additional software – but in the end most of the justifications sounded to us like poor excuses for bad behaviour.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Microsoft has done a pretty good job of making the initial boot-up of an unadulterated Vista PC pleasant. It’s the computer vendors who muck things up. With the exception of Alienware and Polywell, all the companies whose PCs we tested could take a hint from Apple and sell their extras with a modicum of dignity.

Cluttered Computers: Which PCs Have the Most Annoying Junk?
A Sony desktop and a Toshiba notebook earned the worst junk ratings, which are based on the quantity and quality of preinstalled non-Windows software and its impact on a system’s performance. Conversely, a high-end PC from Alienware and a desktop from Polywell earned the lowest junk ratings.

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Read part one here.

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