April 18, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
PC makers walk fine line with 'crapware'
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Ultimately, consumers are going to have to decide whether it is worth paying more to get their new computers clutter-free. The addition of trial software and other offers, along with falling component prices, is what has made PCs so cheap.
"One of the reasons is, they are being basically subsidized with billboards," Bhavnani said. "It would be like driving around in a car that you save 10 percent on, but with a big Google sticker on it."
There was some thought that the debut of Microsoft's Vista might have shaken things up a bit. On the one hand, there were concerns that PC makers wouldn't have time to test all their programs and that they might ship software that didn't even work with the new operating system.
Others thought that with Vista adding more features, such as DVD burning and desktop search, there might be less of a need for add-ons. In the end, though, most computer makers are shipping about as much extra software as they did with XP.
Gateway said it is shipping roughly the same amount of preloaded software on its Vista machines as it did with the prior operating system.
HP, meanwhile said it took the opportunity of Vista's debut to rethink its software bundles and pare things down a bit. "The exact answer varies country by country, but most customers will find we are shipping fewer software titles with our Vista PCs," an HP representative said.
Dell said it has started letting customers have more say about which programs are loaded onto its systems. It says that in many cases, consumers are choosing the free programs, including trial software.
"I think that speaks volumes for the fact that, despite a large discussion around 'bloatware' and that all this stuff is garbage...there are a fair number of people out there that see value and want this on their system," said Jeremy Friedlander, the senior manager for the software that goes on new Dell PCs.
For retail customers, there is less ability to change what's in the box, but shopping around can help. A recent stroll through a CompUSA in San Francisco showed just how widely the systems varied. At one end of the extreme were notebooks from Acer that didn't have much more than a Yahoo toolbar, two disc-burning utilities and Norton security software from Symantec.
On the other hand, Sony crammed several of its laptops with an array of software, including dozens of software trials, special offers and links to Internet services. The desktop is filled with several icons for AOL, as part of Sony's broad agreement with that company. Sony also loads four full-length movies onto the hard drives of many models, but it charges users who want to watch any of the flicks.
Even its tiny 4.5-inch UX series handheld Windows machine is packed full of trial software.
Much of the software just isn't useful, NPD's Baker said, noting that high-end laptops are still being sold with trials for dial-up Internet access, something very unlikely to be needed, or for services no longer really needed by today's PC user.
"The way it's designed right now is guaranteed to make it crapware," he said.
One of the biggest offenses, Bhavnani said, is when companies load multiple, competing products. In particular, dueling security programs can be hard for the average user to sort out.
"That's where it gets really confusing," Bhavnani said. "You have no idea which one is which and what to do."
CNET News.com's Tom Krazit contributed to this report.
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