Bloatware, crapware, shovelware: No matter what you call it, the junk that PC makers dump onto new PCs is nothing short of a mess. The situation was thrust into the spotlight last week when it was revealed that several Lenovo PCs were preloaded with “Superfish” adware that actively left users vulnerable to attack. The software compromised secure HTTPS web connections in a quest to inject ads on the sites you visit… and make Lenovo a few nickels.
There’s no doubt about it: Even though the root vulnerability came from Superfish, Lenovo messed up. Hard. This shouldn’t have happened, period. But Lenovo didn’t toss its users to the wolves out of malice—instead, the Superfish debacle is a natural extension of the entire bloatware epidemic.
Why do hardware vendors knowingly stuff new PCs with junk that makes your experience worse? And what can you do about it? Let’s dig in.
Dolla dolla bills y’all
Bloatware exists because we’re all cheap bastards, and rightfully so.
Money’s tight, and even the cheapest PCs are a major, multi-hundred dollar investment. But good news! Prices are plummeting in the wake of dirt-cheap Chromebooks and Microsoft’s resulting counter-attack. The NPD group says that the average selling price of Windows computers fluctuated between just $415 and $430 in October 2014—10 percent lower than prices a year earlier, and a new low watermark for PCs.
While that sounds good on paper, deep down it’s actually troubling news for the PC industry. Mainstream personal computers are a cut-throat business; prices have been racing to the bottom for years now. PC vendors make little to no money on such slim margins, which is a core part of the reason HP is splitting off its PC division (again) , Dell took itself private, and Sony and Samsung have bowed out of the PC industry to varying degrees. There’s simply no real money to be made on dirt-cheap hardware.
PC makers don’t really believe that short-lived antivirus trialware is the best security solution for you, or that adding browser toolbars will make your life easier, or that a “visual discovery tool” like Superfish truly adds to the user experience. The developers of bloatware pay hardware makers cold, hard cash to pump your PC full of this crap and get in front of your eyeballs. That extra revenue often makes all the difference for vendors between taking a bath on competitively priced PCs, or eking out a small profit. (There’s a reason pricier premium laptops often contain far less bloatware than budget PCs.)
It’s a nasty, symbiotic relationship for bloatware developers, PC makers, and everyday users. Bloatware effectively subsidizes PC prices. If it weren’t for all that crud, you’d pay more—perhaps much more—for your computer.
Beat it, bloatware
That doesn’t change the fact that bloatware sucks, however. (There’s a reason people also call it “crapware.”) Even ignoring Superfish’s security implications, the sea of junk consumes your PC’s precious hardware resources and can significantly slow down boot times, as this since-removed graphic advertising Microsoft’s Signature Edition PCs shows.
Fortunately, you can have your cake and eat it, too. There are numerous methods for eradicating or outright avoiding bloatware on your PC.
The easiest way to deal with bloatware is to sidestep it completely. Microsoft—which obviously wants to present Windows in the best possible light—offers bloatware-free “Signature Edition” versions of many popular PCs, from the $200 HP Stream 13 to the jaw-dropping Dell XPS 13 and even more expensive models. Even better, Microsoft charges little or no premium for its clean computers; the biggest price gap we found between a Signature Edition PC and its crud-filled counterpart was $30. You can check out the full lineup here.
The Signature Edition lineup focuses on notebook and all-in-ones, however. If you want a proper bloatware-free desktop with a bit more firepower, you’ll need to build your own machine and install Windows yourself. Don’t worry! It’s not as difficult as you may think.
Alternatively, boutique system builders like Digital Storm, AVA Direct, and Origin can build you a custom rig with nary a whiff of shovelware installed. Their PCs tend to be a bit pricer and focused on gaming or business-ready workstations, however.
Cleaning up the mess
All’s not lost if you buy a standard bloatware-filled PC, however. Wiping run-of-the-mill crapware off your PC is fairly straightforward, assuming it doesn’t sneak in deeper, more dangerous hooks like Superfish did. (Lenovo’s Superfish appears to be a unique situation, however—at least for preloaded bloatware. PCWorld’s guide to Superfish removal can help you kill it with fire if you’ve recently purchased a new Lenovo PC.)
Deleting bloatware in the form of Windows Store apps couldn’t be easier: Just right-click on its Tile, then select Uninstall. Boom! Done. Likewise, sifting through the list of software in the Control Panel’s “Uninstall a Program” section (Control Panel > Programs > Uninstall a program) will let you see all and eliminate all the crapware that takes the form of traditional desktop software.
If manual labor isn’t your thing, a clean installation of Windows can give you the proper like-new experience that Microsoft intended, though novice PC users probably shouldn’t muck around with reinstalling their operating system.
But wait! You don’t want to rely on Windows 8’s Refresh and Reset feature or your PC maker’s recovery images (if your PC maker even includes those). Sly system manufacturers have begun sneaking bloatware into their system images, meaning that if you reinstall Windows with the provided tools, you’ll also be reinstalling the preloaded crapware—pretty much the opposite of a fresh install, really.
To perform a truly clean install you’ll need fresh Windows installation media and the product key for your PC’s Windows license. PCWorld’s guide to reinstalling Windows like a pro can walk you through the entire process, step-by-step. You may need to download some hardware drivers again when you’re done.
Brad Chacos spends his days digging through desktop PCs and tweeting too much. He specializes in graphics cards and gaming, but covers everything from security to Windows tips and all manner of PC hardware.