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A guide to bloatware removal

It has probably happened to you. You get your new desktop or laptop delivered, fire it up (after staring at the logo-laden quick setup poster), and find yourself confronted with a screen full of programs that you didn't install. Welcome to the phenomenon known as bloatware.

We define bloatware as programs preinstalled on your system above and beyond the OS that "bulk up" and occupy space on the system's hard drive. It's also known as trialware, crapware, shovelware, and adware. This is the stuff that PC makers preinstall, ostensibly for your convenience.

Why art thou, bloatware?

So, why is there bloatware at all? For the same reason that stickers from Intel, AMD, and Nvidia get prominent placement on your PC's case: Brand awareness and money.

Companies offer their products so that people get to try them and hopefully decide to continue using them. For example, a firm like Symantec will offer a trial version of its Internet security suite, and hope that you like it and can be persuaded to stump up for a full subscription (renewed yearly, of course). The PC manufacturers like them because these companies pay for occupying the space on your drive, just like when a cosmetics giant rents space in a major department store.

Bloatware can be found all over your system. There are the icons on your desktop when you first start up the system. You'll also find them in folders and programs in the start menu. Even your web browser is not immune, with shortcuts, buttons, and extra toolbars potentially having been added.

Aside from having to wade through the icons on your desktop and in the start menu, the programs themselves take up space. It may only take up a few gigabytes per application, but this is still space you've paid for. Think about it: Would you allow a two-cubic-foot display case for a soft drink company to take up closet space in your new house without you asking for it?

Preinstalled apps may also cause problems with programs you actually want to install in the future. This is why enterprise-class business systems and high-end gaming systems come with very little bloatware. Let's say your PC comes with Brand N antivirus, but you like Brand M better. Even if you remove Brand N, there may be bits of the program left over that might interfere with and crash Brand M. This is rare, but it can still happen, since programs tend to leave bits of themselves (script files, shared files) even after they’ve been uninstalled.

Recognising bloatware

To the untrained eye, it may not be obvious what bloatware is, and many of these programs are actually useful if you're already subscribed. Do you already use Skype? If you do, it's useful; if not, it's bloatware. The same goes with other subscription packages like Netflix – they're totally useful if you’ve already paid for a subscription, but otherwise they are a sales pitch.

Another factor is its availability: 90 per cent or more of these packages are already available online as a free trial, most of the time with the same trial period as the preinstalled bloatware. Essentially, ask yourself two questions: Can you easily download the program from the Internet, and does the program become useless after a free trial period? Then it's bloatware.

Now, we're not going to call most utility and media programs bloatware unless they self-destruct and stop working after a trial period. Examples of programs you'd want to leave alone are the ones included in Apple's iLife suite, since these programs (iTunes, iPhoto, GarageBand) are all fully functional and provide utility to their users. HP's TouchSmart Magic Canvas is another. Magic Canvas is the main touchscreen interface and helps you learn how to get used to multi-touch on a huge screen. PowerDVD or WinDVD will be useful as long as you have an optical drive in your PC. Any program that helps you out in a jam is useful: Lenovo's Rescue and Recovery program can help you back up and recover your PC even after a malware attack renders it incapable of starting Windows.

How to remove bloatware

The simplest method to ensure bloatware doesn't bother you is to find out if there is an option to order the system without any bloatware. Smaller manufacturers, particularly ones that build systems to order, will let you dictate what you want on your new PC. Want a copy of Steam preinstalled? Smaller manufacturers (sometimes called boutique vendors or boutique system builders) may do that for you. If you're stuck buying a system from a big box store, then you're likely to be saddled with bloatware.

In that case, you’ll need to remove the bloatware manually. Don't be afraid to uninstall programs, as most trialware can be reinstalled by downloading the installer from a website, and you can always bookmark websites.

To remove most bloatware, go into the Control Panel, and then Programs, and select Uninstall a Program. You’ll then be greeted with a list of all the applications installed on your PC, in date order.

Look through and locate your pieces of bloatware, select them, and click Uninstall. The program will either ask you to confirm the uninstall process, or just go ahead and uninstall itself. This may or may not leave other dependent programs or shared files on the hard drive. For example, removing some utilities may not uninstall every single preference or system file associated with the product, or it might possibly leave an empty folder in your start menu.

For particularly entrenched programs, like antivirus and firewalls, we recommend that you seek out the "complete uninstall" procedure on the developer's website. For example, Symantec has a handy Norton Removal Tool on its website to remove its products, and McAfee has a similar download on its site. Repeat as needed for other programs. This process may take a few minutes or a few hours, depending on how much bloatware is on your system.

Bloatware that is essentially a shortcut to a website (double-click on the icon and it opens up an advertisement in Internet Explorer) don't need to be uninstalled. You'll usually find these shortcuts as menu items in the Start menu or as icons on the desktop. They can be deleted by dragging them to the recycle bin.

Alternatively, if you’d rather not do things manually, you could always try a program such as PC Decrapifier, which will do the job for you.

PC manufacturers can do better

While I understand that product placement can be important to make a particular PC model (SKU) more attractive to a retail buyer, there are things that PC manufacturers can do to lessen bloatware's impact.

Firstly, companies could let the end user choose what products he wants to preinstall. Secondly, vendors could group the programs together in the start menu or in Windows 8's Metro (new-style) interface. A folder marked "E-readers" would give you an idea of what these four or five programs do, since new users may not be familiar with them.

Thirdly, if the program or service is available online, PC makers could simply add a link to a product page. Then the user can decide for herself if she wants the program. The download page can list the benefits of the program and if there are any fees associated with it. The link could be a shortcut in the Start menu, a bookmark in Internet Explorer (or Chrome or Firefox), or on the browser's home page. That way the user can be assured of finding the latest version of the program or service, with updates.