Zap the Crap on a New Windows 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."

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.

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.

Is there any way to avoid the clutter? For medium and large businesses, yes. Hardware makers often give bulk buyers more flexible setup options than they do consumers. You may be able to get a bare-bones operating system setup or even select your own preinstalled set of software. Small system makers may also offer bare-bones Windows setups to both consumers and businesses.

However, if you purchase these you should be sure that you are getting a legal Windows license for the system. The system builder should provide a certificate of authenticity at the very least, and preferably an original Windows DVD that you can use to reinstall or repair the operating system. You can verify that your Microsoft software is not pirated by going to the Genuine Microsoft Software site.

Taking out the trash

Nearly every name-brand consumer or small-business PC will have the same software mess that I've seen on my Acer. So, the first thing to do with any new PC isn't to start using it, but to clean it up.

Step 1: Back up.

Before starting, plan for a way to recover in case you delete important files. If you've literally just taken the system out of the box and haven't yet moved over your own files, you can just restore from the recovery CD or DVD that the manufacturer provides -- assuming that they provided one. Some vendors don't offer a disc but provide a reinstall image on a hidden partition on the drive.

If you've been using the PC for a while, backing up your own documents and data is a necessity. An external USB hard drive is a great option.

Step 2: Run PC Decrapifier.

After the backup, you're ready to start hacking through the clutter. One quick way to remove the junk is to use a utility called PC Decrapifier, which can automatically uninstall programs that it knows to be supplied by many hardware vendors -- even those that don't provide uninstallers. It's free for personal use or US$20 for IT personnel who plan to use it on multiple computers.

When you run PC Decrapifier, you'll be presented with a list of items it can delete or change for you. Although it was originally written to clean up the junk installed by Dell on its computers (and still works best with Dell machines), it can be useful on other brands as well. The screenshot below shows what it found on my Acer.

Step 3: Uninstall programs manually.

Even after using PC Decrapifier, you will probably find that there are other programs that you would like to eliminate. To uninstall programs manually, go to Control Panel, then to Add or Remove Programs (for XP) or Programs and Features (for Vista). You may need to switch to Classic View to see these options listed.

All of the vendor's preinstalled programs will be shown here. Keep an eye open for any entry with a name that includes words like "registration," "tour," "offer" or "trial." Also be suspicious of any entry with "toolbar" in its name; these are often browser toolbars that redirect your searches to sites that you haven't chosen. All of these are good candidates for removal.

On the other hand, do not remove entries that are listed as drivers; they are often required so that the associated hardware will work properly.

A few examples of software that can be deleted on my system include Acer Registration, Acer ScreenSaver and Acer Tour. Most of the other Acer software is optional as well, but you might want to keep Acer Arcade Deluxe if any of the games there interest you. I don't plan to use Symantec's Norton security software, so that can be uninstalled. Finally, I prefer the simplicity of Google's home page and don't like toolbars in my browsers, so the Yahoo Toolbar can be uninstalled as well.

To uninstall a program in XP, select it, click the Remove button, and click Yes. On Vista, right click the program and choose Uninstall.

Step 4: Boot into Safe Mode to uninstall any remaining programs.

It's not uncommon for programs that are OEM installed to either not have an Add/Remove Programs option or to have one that doesn't work. Your next step is boot into Safe Mode (hold down the F8 key as Windows begins to start) and try to uninstall the program in Add or Remove Programs (for XP) or Programs and Features (for Vista).

Unfortunately, some applications block their own uninstallation from Windows Safe Mode. To get around this problem, try installing a utility called SafeMSI, which lets you uninstall software from Safe Mode. Once it's installed, reboot to Safe Mode and try again.

Step 5: As a last resort for software that remains "stuck," turn to Google.

Despite your best efforts, certain pieces of software may resist being removed through normal channels. In most cases, a Google search on its name will turn up some custom instructions for removing it. There are also various third-party products for removing unwanted software, but cleanup for these tenacious programs is likely to be very app-specific and you'll likely have more luck with specialized instructions you find via Google.

Step 6: When you're done removing software, do a driver check.

While you're doing cleanup, it's also a good idea to check for new drivers. The most recent official drivers for a system are usually available at the vendor's site. Often you'll find that the drivers installed on the system are not the most recent versions available. This is especially true with PCs sold in retail stores, where the computer may have been on the shelf for several weeks or even months.

When the vendor doesn't have a working driver, another source is the Windows Update site. The Automatic Updates feature of Windows does not update drivers, so you must do this manually by going to windowsupdate.microsoft.com.

Step 7: Defragment and clean the disk.

Once all the undesirable software is removed and the drivers updated, you can defragment the drive (Start > Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Disk Defragmenter). Deleting and creating files creates significant disk fragmentation, and a fragmented drive degrades performance. You will also want to run Disk Cleanup (Start > Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Disk Cleanup) as well, because some setup or uninstall programs leave junk files behind.

Defragmenting the drive on a weekly basis will keep performance from degrading. Vista does this automatically through a scheduled task, but you'll need to do this yourself on XP.

Finally, the system is clean and ready to install the software that you really want. You may be surprised how much better the system behaves once you remove the junk that was put there by the system manufacturer.

Tip: Use SafeMSI to clean up Vista software conflicts

When you've installed Windows Vista as an upgrade to your existing Windows XP environment, you might find that many background programs for supporting minor hardware-oriented functions (such as DVD label creation) don't work under Vista or conflict with Vista in some way. It's quite common to see a bunch of error messages inside Windows after it boots on Vista-upgraded machines.

The way to turn off these errors is to eliminate software, but oftentimes it just won't uninstall. And Vista seems less permissive than XP about letting you uninstall things in Safe Mode, which is when SafeMSI can come in very handy.

Tip: Down the road, don't fall into the renewal trap

If you decide to purchase or subscribe to any of the applications or services preinstalled on your new system, remember that these companies expect you to stay with them when the time comes to renew. When a dialog pops up telling the user that his subscription has expired, most users will simply enter their credit card without doing any competitive shopping. Microsoft, Symantec and McAfee have even started to automatically bill users when their renewals are due.

As a result, companies generally offer the least favorable deals to renewing customers. Better prices are available through retail purchases or through competitive upgrades to different products. Even if you want to stay with Symantec, for example, you may be financially better off uninstalling it and purchasing a local copy from a retail store that includes a rebate.

Dave Methvin is chief technology officer of PC Pitstop, a free site that automatically diagnoses and fixes common PC problems.

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