Junkbusters! (part one)

You spend hard-earned money when you buy a new PC; why, then, should the vendor treat it like a billboard to sell you more stuff? Or, even more annoyingly, siphon off computing power to add punch and persistence to those marketing messages?

Unfortunately, most systems these days ship with a desktop littered with links, trialware, adware, and other software that you may find worthless. Adding insult to injury, major electronics retailers such as Best Buy and are cashing in on this trend by offering to remove the junk (a service they call PC optimization or setup) – for a price.

Some of the software can be useful, but much of it deserves the derogatory terms many people employ: junkware, shovelware, and plain old crap. And there tends to be a lot of it on new computers. For example, our examination and tests on 15 new desktop and laptop PCs turned up, on average, seven to eight nonstandard desktop icons; four to five non-Windows applets in the system tray; five or so Welcome Center icons that Windows didn’t create; and additional lurkers in the Start menu and Windows Registry.

Getting rid of all this junk has a real benefit: Performance scores (as measured by our WorldBench 6 Beta 2 test suite) can improve by as much as eight percent, which is pretty impressive considering the speed of baseline performance on a current . Read on for details, including advice on how to minimize the gunk when you shop.

A Persistent Problem
Junkware isn’t new, but it has become so pervasive that many buyers of new PCs have started to complain. Jason York, a Detroit-area electrical engineer, didn’t stop there: He created the PC Decrapifier a handy little program that automates the uninstall process for many trial- and adware titles and also cleans out various startup entries. York got the idea for the Decrapifier after helping a friend set up a new Dell laptop a couple of years ago. “I was appalled at how much effort was involved just to get the PC into a usable state out of the box,” York recalls. Most computer technicians and recent PC buyers have similar tales.

“I bought a Dell PC for my wife and was horrified at the amount of time she wasted killing never-say-die Craplets,” says supercomputer specialist Lee Higbie of Fairbanks, Alaska. He adds, “I’ve heard that Dell now allows a no-trialware installation…without that option, I wouldn’t consider Dell again.”

We discovered that Dell does indeed allow PC purchasers to opt out of a lot of third-party extras when we recently bought a couple of Inspiron 530 desktops online. The computers arrived with far fewer non-Windows extras on them than the Dell-supplied Inspiron 531 we initially. To achieve that relative state of cleanliness, however, we had to carefully uncheck a lot of boxes as we went through Dell’s lengthy customization wizard. Because we made no special effort to order gunk-free systems from the other vendors, we decided to keep the Inspiron 531 on our chart.

It’s worth noting that some preloaded programs are quite convenient. Many people use Acrobat Reader, or the Roxio or Nero CD/DVD-burning software that comes with some systems. But most such extras are not so worthwhile.

Crapware Compendium
By far the most irritating junk is adware – eBay ads, online games, music services, and anything else that sends you to a Web site where you may purchase stuff or sign up for a service.

Then there’s trialware, or preloaded software that functions only for a set period, generally 30 to 90 days. McAfee Antivirus, Microsoft Office 2007, and Norton Internet Security are among the more common trialware titles. Trialware can tide you over until you set up the products you intend to use, but it can also become very annoying, especially if it keeps nagging you to convert to a paid version each time you log on.

Logoware such as Google Desktop and Picasa may be free and fully functional, but it’s still designed to push advertising at you, or at least raise brand awareness.

Some computer vendors throw in their own utilities and software, typically to address perceived deficiencies in Windows or to attempt to intervene before you call tech support. Dell’s Customization Wizard (which basically walks you through the setup procedure for certain Windows features and third-party applications) and Acer’s toolbar may be useful to some folks, but annoying to others.

Hidden Gunk
Not all non-Windows gunk is visible. Background services and startup apps lengthen boot times and steal CPU cycles while you’re working; consider disabling those you don’t use.

One particularly sneaky form of subsurface junk is what you might call help-the-hog-over-the-fence-ware. Applications such as Adobe Reader, iTunes, and QuickTime Player are so bloated that they preload portions of themselves when Windows first starts so they won’t seem so sluggish when you actually run them. But this action wastes precious time when you don’t use these applications.

It All Bogs Down
For this story, we looked at an assortment of laptops and desktops from Acer, Alienware, Dell, eMachines, Fujitsu, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Polywell, Sony, and Toshiba.

Unfortunately, our tests showed that gunk can impose a performance penalty. The primary culprits: hidden services and “helpful” tools, which can be part of trialware installations or not-so-helpful utilities from PC vendors.

As shipped, nearly all of the 15 PCs we tested had more than 80 processes – tasks from the OS or from applications – running. After we disabled all of the nonessential junk on each test machine, the number of processes dropped to the mid-thirties. Each process uses memory and system resources, and even if not actively performing a task, requires periodic attention from the operating system.

To measure shovelware’s impact on performance, we ran WorldBench 6 Beta 2 on each system, first with the shipping software intact (sans antivirus software, because it often interferes with WorldBench; this is the way we test for our ranked reviews charts), and then again after using the Windows System Configuration Utility (msconfig.exe) to disable all startup items and non-Microsoft services.

The most dramatic changes we saw: The HP Pavilion notebook’s WorldBench 6 Beta 2 score rose by 8.2 percent (we generally find that gains of 5 percent or more translate to a perceptible difference for normal business tasks), and the Acer Aspire notebook’s score improved by 6.5 percent. Notebooks from Lenovo and Toshiba exhibited the lowest gains.

Desktop models showed far more consistent improvement, averaging a gain of 4 percent overall. In addition, our subjective impressions were that boot-up and program launch times improved noticeably, especially on slower systems.

Comment [email protected]

Read part two tomorrow, where we look at Apple’s junkware record and more

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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