A brand-new Windows computer should be pristine out of the box. After all, you haven't gummed it up yet with software, right?
Leave that to the computer manufacturers. They'll gum it up for you with "free" software you don't want. It goes by names like crapware, bloatware, or shovelware because computer makers shovel bloated digital crap by the barrelful onto new PCs. There's a reason for that—crapware offsets the price of super-cheap PCs on retail shelves, even if it's only by pennies.
I'd never had major problems with crapware when buying PCs via mail order. But in retail, it's a whole other world of crap. For example, a few years ago, my technophobic father, then age 75, got a new PC to replace his dying Windows Vista system, which he mainly used to print pictures. I couldn't really recommend spending a lot of money to get it fixed. "Just go find an off-the-shelf PC for under $400, it'll be fine compared to what he's got," I told my mom (aka Dad's IT person in residence).
Hardware-wise, that Acer Aspire X (Model AXC-605G-UW20) they purchased at Walmart was sufficient. The specs all qualified as an upgrade.
To get that price of $399, however, Acer sold out my parents and wasted hours of my family's lives.
Using TeamViewer remote control software, I saw the system was a mess, yet all Mom had done was install the software for Dad's beloved (yet dying) Kodak printer. The desktop was awash in at least 15 icons for needless, worthless crap. Opening up the Uninstall a Program control panel revealed even more. Mom tried to uninstall the obvious things, but they persisted.
With many of the uninstall routines, the dialog boxes had giant buttons that would say "Uninstall and Get PC XXXXXX" or something similar. If we just wildly clicked where the button was, the uninstall might work—but something else got installed in its place. We had to carefully look for the fine print on the dialog boxes that read "Delete Only" or similar. Tricks and traps abounded.
Back then, I turned to Slim Computer from Slimware Utilities. It has since been discontinued, but at the time it kept a database of crapware and helped identify it on a new Windows PC. With it gone, another option is Should I Remove It? (The excellently named PC Decrapifier is another favorite, but as I write this the original site for downloading it appears to be totally offline, which is a shame. You can find it on some other sites, but read on for why that's not always a good idea.)
These utilities point out some bloatware, but may not automate removal. You may still have to go through the regular uninstall process, which may be filled with tricks and traps to keep your new PC full of crap. So you may still be on your own to an extent, but there are ways around it.
'Potentially Unwanted' Crap
Dad's new Acer PC also had actual malware in the guise of "potentially unwanted programs," or PUPs.
The programs don't call themselves that; it's a term used by anti-malware companies, like MalwareBytes. It describes programs you probably didn't install on purpose, don't want, and probably find unusable. But they have to say "potentially" because, sure, it's possible you wanted to install a toolbar for your browser called "Search Protect" from a company named Conduit, or a search engine for your browser called Binkiland.
In reality, it's about as likely as wanting to be set on fire. Both of those "programs," among others, were on my dad's PC. They existed only to take over his browsing experience; each appears on a list of browser hijackers on Wikipedia. Check the list and delete any you see. The list can and will go on and on, as hijackers make new threats. It's telling that searching for "Search Protect" or "Binkiland" brings up absolutely no link for people to get those programs, only to remove the hijackers' files.
The hijackers did a number on my dad's PC. I couldn't get the installed browsers (IE and Firefox) to go to a web page to download new tools to deal with these threats. I had to download the clean-up software to my workstation, then use TeamViewer to do a remote file transfer of the EXE installer to dad's desktop.
Also note that at this point, we uninstalled McAfee Security Suite, which came free with the Acer as well. You may not consider antivirus software as shovelware, but it certainly can be. Acer didn't put it on there to be altruistic; McAfee paid for placement. Plus, McAfee was likely to slow the PC more than other AV products we could install later and would eventually cost $79 after the trial was over. No thanks.
Here's a rundown of the tools we used to clean the hijacking PUPs:
The free version of MalwareBytes comes with a trial of the Premium version, so it's worth running on every fresh installation of Windows. Plus, the scans take a lot less time on a new Windows install. After 14 days, you lose things like real-time protection and anti-ransomware features, but it's worth running up front. Remember after that two weeks, get some real-time anti-malware protection.
Steven Gould's Cleanup
This donationware does the trick for Windows XP on up.
This Windows cleanup tool can not only scrap away temp files and other detritus, it can also uninstall apps built into Windows. I'm not talking shovelware crap, but actual apps that Microsoft created to work with Windows. Consider them OS-sanctioned crapware. Click on Tools, then uninstall, and you'll get a list of possibilities to delete. (This suggestion might be controversial: CCleaner got hit with data-collecting malware in 2017, but seems to have now cleaned up its act.)
I ran each tool multiple times, MalwareBytes in particular. It kept finding instances of the PUPs, so we turned to the internet (which we could finally surf again) to find instructions for manually deleting the individual PUP files. Which we did, with glee. After cleanups were run...well, the system wasn't totally bug-free. But it was certainly better than it had been hours before.
Don't Do What We Did
Let me make it clear: I do NOT recommend going through the steps above.
If we bought that computer today, it would come with Windows 10. And Windows 10 is your friend.
Start with a full reset of the OS using the Windows 10 Refresh Tool. It's the first thing anyone buying a new PC at retail should do after they take it out of the box. It sets the PC back to a pristine state-without crapware (except for the Microsoft-supplied stuff you may not want, like the Edge browser).
Better yet, vote against crapware with your wallet. Buy a PC from a maker that either guarantees a clean Windows install, or at least offers it as an option. Microsoft, naturally, has a clean version of Windows on its Surface devices—again, that's clean as defined by Microsoft. But it's a lot easier to get rid of Windows add-on software than other crapware.
Custom-build manufacturers that promise you a crapware-free installation of Windows include Maingear, Falcon Northwest, and Velocity Micro. Another option: go with a local reseller. Or, buy a Mac or a Chromebook and avoid Windows altogether. If you want to save money, install Linux on your old PC. (That wasn't really an option for my dad.)
If you're wedded to using an older version of Windows, the only sure-fire way to get the same result is re-install Windows completely, with a totally fresh, clean configuration. That's not possible with most retail PCs that had Window 7, 8, or 8.1. Whether the operating system installer is an image on a partition of the hard drive or came on a DVD disc, it's going to most likely install Windows with all the crapware, fresh as an outhouse, as well.
There's the option to download ISO files of Windows 7 and 8.1 and even 10 at the Microsoft Software Recovery site. You'll need to verify a 25-character product key from a retail version of Windows to download and fully activate the operating system. Keys from computer makers—called OEMs, or original equipment manufacturers—won't work.
Why Is This Happening?
You might be wondering, why exactly are big-name PC makers and software developers allowing all this crapware with extra "internet wrapper" PUPs to happen? Money, of course. As PC sales dwindle so do software purchases, and manufacturers scramble to make up for any losses.
For proof, look to this article by How-To Geek. They examined programs from every single major download site, including CNET's Downloads.com, Tucows, FileHippo, Softpedia, Snapfiles, and more. Every single one had crapware bundled right into the software. Some of those sites have multiple download "buttons" (actually ads) on every page, to obfuscate and confuse users into downloading the wrong thing.
Always download software from the original developer's site—if you can find it. Unfortunately, even Google search results tend to default to download sites like those listed above.
Pundit Ed Bott years ago called for a PC "Truth in Labeling Act" to force the PC manufacturers to tell users what's pre-installed. It's an excellent idea that will never happen. It would be nice if the download sites, some of which claim they don't allow any type of malware, would do the same.
- How to Avoid Phishing Scams
- What to Do When You've Been Hacked
- 12 Simple Things You Can Do to Be More Secure Online
- How to Check Your Security Software, Settings, and Status
- More in Back-to-School Tech
- More in Antivirus
- Bitdefender Antivirus for Mac
- Bitdefender Antivirus Plus
- K7 Antivirus Premium
- IObit Malware Fighter Pro