Walt Mossberg

Using Even New PCs Is Ruined by a Tangle of Trial Programs, Ads

When you buy a gleaming, new personal computer, the first thing you want to do is to try out its cool new features and make it your own. You want to savor how quickly it starts up and runs, and arrange the desktop icons to suit your tastes and habits.

But as I rediscovered recently, often what you’re forced to do instead is to spend hours as a digital maintenance man wading through annoying and confusing chores.

I have set up many computers over the years, so I wasn’t shocked that the out-of-box experience was less than ideal. Still, I was struck by just how irritating it was to get going with the new Sony Vaio SZ laptop I bought about 10 days ago. It was the first new Windows machine I’d bought in a few years, because I had been waiting for Microsoft’s new Windows Vista operating system. I was amazed that the initial experience is still a big hassle.

I’m not even referring to the most time-consuming setup processes — transferring all your files and settings, reinstalling your favorite programs and learning the new features. Vista has actually made moving files and settings easier, and it isn’t different enough from Windows XP to make for a steep learning curve.

Instead, I’m talking about two main problems. One is the plethora of teaser software and advertisements for products that must be cleared and uninstalled to make way for your own stuff. The second is the confusing welter of security programs you have to master and update, even on a virgin machine.

I’m also referring to how slowly a new Windows Vista machine starts and restarts, even if you haven’t yet loaded or launched any of your own software.

I am not singling out Sony here. I would have had a similar experience if I had chosen, say, a Hewlett-Packard laptop. Most major PC makers feature the security programs and trial software and offers I encountered on my new Sony. They are not part of Vista itself.

The problem is a lack of respect for the consumer. The manufacturers don’t act as if the computer belongs to you. They act as if it is a billboard for restricted trial versions of software and ads for Web sites and services that they can sell to third-party companies who want you to buy these products.

I’m distinguishing these programs, sometimes called “craplets,” from the full-featured, built-in Sony software meant to enhance the computer, or from entire, useful programs Microsoft builds into Windows, such as music and photo organizers.

On my new Sony, there were two dozen trial programs and free offers. The desktop alone contained four icons representing come-ons for various America Online services, and two for Microsoft. The start menu and program menu had more items that I neither chose nor wanted. Napster, a music service I don’t use, was lodged at the lower right of the screen.

The worst was a desktop icon called “Watch Hit Movies Now!” This turned out to be four full-length films from Sony’s movie studios, which the company had preloaded onto my computer at the cost of more than four gigabytes of precious hard-disk space. But they aren’t a gift. If you want to play them, you have to pay Sony.

Then there was the security-software mess. I signed up for a 60-day free trial of Symantec software that Sony offered. This required multiple rounds of scary warnings, scans and updates — on the first day of using a new machine. Plus, when I tried to use a feature that stopped some unwanted programs from loading, I was forced to launch a second, somewhat redundant, security program from Microsoft.

On top of this, Sony informed me it had 21 different software updates available for my brand new laptop.

I also was shocked at how long this machine took to restart and to do a cold start after being completely shut down. Restarting took over three minutes, and a cold start took more than two minutes. That suggests the computer is loading a bunch of stuff I neither know about nor want. By contrast, a brand new Apple MacBook laptop, under the same test conditions, restarted in 34 seconds and did a cold start in 29 seconds.

I asked Sony about all this, and the company, while acknowledging it is paid to bundle the trial programs, said the programs are carefully selected and “provide benefits to many consumers,” up to 30% of whom act on the offers. Sony said the preloaded movies are “a key differentiator for our products in the marketplace, which we have found that many VAIO customers greatly appreciate.”

Sony also said the boot-up times I recorded are “not at all uncommon with Vista-loaded PCs” and are faster than on some competing computer brands. It defended the 21 updates on the grounds that Vista is so new that, in many cases, compatible software wasn’t available when the computer shipped.

Still, I wish computer makers would stop loading all these trial programs and offers on computers and that security precautions could be much less disruptive and more automatic. The first day of owning an expensive new gadget should be a pleasure, not a hassle.


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