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Trial software trying PC users' patience

More and more PC real estate is up for sale to application vendors, and that can mean a slower box for consumers.

That new PC that's running slower than the old one it replaced might be weighed down with several applications destined to gather dust on the desktop.

PCs are becoming increasingly cluttered with preinstalled software--in some cases the traditional trial offers for Internet service providers like AOL and EarthLink, but also newer applications like spyware-blocking tools which, somewhat ironically, inundate users with pop-up windows advertising their services.

Complaints about the "crapware," as Geek Squad founder Robert Stephens put it, are prominent in discussion forums and blogs related to PCs. But last week's deal between Dell and Google to install Google software on new Dell PCs shows that more and more of the real estate on the PC is for sale to application vendors, as PC vendors continue to look for new sources of revenue to boost their margins.

Of course, this isn't a new problem, and there's no indication so far that Dell customers won't receive their Google software with open arms. For years, in fact, PC makers have been trying to get every extra dime they can by selling little pieces of the desktop not already controlled by Microsoft. Now the value of that real estate--which in Dell's case reaches around 37 million people a year--is soaring.

Big software and Internet companies, such as Google, are willing to pay for the privilege of appearing on those systems, said Roger Kay, an analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates. Financial terms of the Dell-Google deal were not released, but companies across the technology world are increasingly recognizing that "the PC is an advertising vehicle that's sitting in front of their customers," Kay said.

For their part, PC makers say they carefully vet the programs chosen for inclusion on their systems. Hewlett-Packard, for example, provides several different dial-up options because it doesn't want to lock its customers into any one service, a company representative said. And Dell allows some of its high-end XPS customers to decline certain preinstalled software, according to a representative. Customers who want cheap PCs will probably have to endure the barrage of trial offers and pop-ups, but it's likely PC vendors will start to offer more choice in the matter to buyers of high-end machines such as Dell's XPS line, Kay said.

"Simplicity is elegant. The less stuff you have on a system, the more likely it is to run cleanly."
--Roger Kay, analyst, Endpoint Technologies Associates

The most persistent offenders seem to be icons for trial versions of applications or services, according to several PC support experts interviewed for this article. Almost all major Windows consumer PC companies, including Dell, HP and Gateway, give new PC users the opportunity to sign up for free limited-time access to dial-up services from the likes of AOL, EarthLink, PeoplePC or Netscape. Even if the full version of the program isn't installed, the trial versions can run in the background and tie up system resources that could be flowing to actively used applications.

Another source of frustration are system management consoles that some vendors ship with their PCs. Many of these "system update" programs essentially duplicate Microsoft's Windows Update service, according to Jon Helin, director of technical services at PlumChoice Online PC Services. And third-party software installations can also trigger the automatic download of applications that are supposed to help run a peripheral like a printer, but wind up sitting unused and hogging system resources, he said. PlumChoice estimates that 90 percent of the complaints its online PC technicians receive related to a slow-running PC can be fixed by deleting unneeded programs.

Corporate PC customers insist on determining exactly what software ships on their orders, and PC vendors increasingly allow small- and medium-size businesses to do the same. But consumers are left to fend for themselves, and some savvy PC users have become fed up with the situation. Many PC enthusiasts simply wipe the hard drive clean and reinstall a clean version of Windows as soon as they receive their PCs.

Of course, that's becoming harder to do as some PC vendors no longer include a full copy of Windows XP with their systems, said Samir Bhavnani, an analyst with Current Analysis. In many cases, customers are prompted after starting up their PC for the first time to burn their own recovery discs, which will include all the unwanted applications. Some vendors, such as Dell, charge $10 for a CD copy of Windows XP for new buyers.

Individual programs can be removed by going into the Add or Remove Programs function of Windows, or by ending processes in the Task Manager window, but fragments of these programs can remain in the Windows Registry and continue to adversely impact performance. A complete reinstall fixes the problem for good, but it can lead to a search for the drivers needed to make all the necessary software and devices work properly.

The Geek Squad, which provides PC support service over the phone, online or in Best Buy stores, has had to develop individual uninstall scripts for some persistent offenders, Stephens said. This is especially true for some antivirus programs, which can still cause problems when the trial version is uninstalled and a different antivirus program is installed, he said.

Customers who purchase PCs through Best Buy can take their systems to the Geek Squad counter and, for a fee, let the technicians go through every piece of software that comes on a new PC and make recommendations as to what should stay and what needs to go, Stephens said.

Added Kay: "Simplicity is elegant. The less stuff you have on a system, the more likely it is to run cleanly." But as software dealing with everything from spyware to Internet access continues to proliferate, so do the problems such software can create.