Tech talk: Junk your junkware

IT’S one thing for Tesco to subsidise the cost of its excellent Hudl 2 tablet by installing its own “special offer” apps on the home screen; it’s a fair trade-off.

Lenovo sold laptops like this infected with pre-installed malware
Lenovo sold laptops like this infected with pre-installed malware

It’s quite another for the makers of Windows PCs and laptops, which already carry a price premium, to load them with unwanted, unnecessary and in some cases dangerous programs, simply in the pursuit of a few extra bucks.

You wouldn’t expect to buy a washing machine pre-loaded with someone else’s dirty laundry – but that’s exactly what happens, metaphorically speaking, when you buy a computer.

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The trend for manufacturer-provided “junkware” reached epidemic and scandalous proportions last month when it was revealed that Lenovo, the world’s biggest mover of PCs, was actually selling laptops with “malware” pre-installed. More than 20 different models, sold between September and January, were infected with a program called Superfish, whose sole purpose is to insert its own adverts in your web search results. It exposes your web traffic to potential hackers.

Lenovo, which made money from distributing Superfish, has been in full damage limitation mode since it was outed, saying its teams “did not understand the significant security problem” that Superfish presented, and promising to mend its ways in future. Admissions like that makes you wonder how much these people really know about computers at all. So much for damage limitation. But the Superfish scandal is really just the tip of the iceberg. Rival manufacturers like Dell, HP, Toshiba, Samsung and Acer also load their machines with junkware – so much, in fact, that the distributor of Windows, has stepped in to try to stem the damage to its brand. Microsoft could have stamped down on the practice years ago: instead its initiative has been to launch a range of “signature” PCs in the States which it guarantees to be free of junk – so long as you pay a 99 dollar premium. That’s little short of a protection racket.

It took me around an hour recently to remove most of the garbage taking up space on a new Acer laptop. An inelegantly-named free program called PC Decrapifier keeps track of commonly-installed junk and can recommend what’s worth getting rid of. Programs don’t advertise themselves as junk; manufacturers sometimes claim them to be enhancements. But it’s a generally safe rule of thumb that apps which claim to speed up browsing will usually do the opposite. The moral is clear: next time you buy a computer, choose it on the basis of what’s not included, not what is.