How to Clean Crapware From a New PC

By Eric Griffith Features PCmag

A brand-new Windows computer should be pristine out of the box. After all, you haven't gummed it up yet with software, right?

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Leave that to the computer manufacturers. They'll gum it up for you with "free" software you don't want. It goes by names like crapware, bloatware, or shovelware because computer makers shovel bloated nonsense by the barrelful onto new PCs. There's a reason for that—crapware offsets the price of super-cheap PCs on retail shelves, even if it's only by pennies.

I'd never had major problems with it in the past when buying via mail order. But in retail, it's a whole other world of crap. For example, a couple years ago, my technophobic father, then age 75, got a new PC to replace his dying Windows Vista system, which he mainly used to print pictures. I couldn't really recommend spending a lot of money to get it fixed. "Just go find an off-the-shelf for under $400, it'll be fine compared to what he's got," I told my mom (aka Dad's IT person in residence).

Hardware-wise, the Acer Aspire X (Model AXC-605G-UW20) they purchased at Walmart was sufficient. The specs all qualified as an upgrade.

To get that price of $399, however, Acer sold out my parents and wasted hours of my family's lives to fix it.

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Using TeamViewer remote control software, I could see the system was a mess, and all Mom had done was install the software for Dad's beloved Kodak printer. The desktop was awash in at least 15 icons for needless, worthless crap. Opening up the Uninstall a Program control panel revealed even more in residence. Mom had already tried to uninstall the obvious things, but they seemed to persist.

With many of the uninstall routines, the dialog boxes had giant buttons that would say "Uninstall and Get PC XXXXXX" or something similar. If we just wildly clicked where the button was, the uninstall might work—but something else got installed in its place. We had to carefully look for the fine print on the dialog boxes that said "Delete Only" or similar. Tricks and traps abounded.

I turned to Slim Computer from Slimware Utilities. It keeps a database of crapware, and helps you identify it on a new Windows PC. Select all the crap and it steps you through the uninstall routine for each. It helped me dump several less obvious but still unnecessary programs.

Another option is the excellently named PC Decrapifier.

'Potentially Unwanted' PUP Crap

Perhaps those programs were on the Acer to start, or perhaps the crapware uninstall routines put them there (in all likelihood providing the crapware developers the same kind of kickback as Acer), but now the new Acer PC had actual malware infections in the guise of "potentially unwanted programs," or PUPs.

The programs don't call themselves that. The anti-malware companies, like MalwareBytes, use the term. It describes programs you probably didn't install on purpose, don't want, and probably find unusable—but they have to say "potentially" because, sure, it's possible you wanted to install a toolbar for your browser called "Search Protect" by a company named Conduit, or a search engine for your browser called Binkiland.

In reality, it's about as likely as wanting to be set on fire. Both of those "programs," among others, were on my dad's PC. They exist only to take over your browsing experience; each appears on a list of browser hijackers on Wikipedia. Others you may see and should eradicate immediately: Taplika, SwiftBrowse, BetterSurrf, CrossRider, WeDownload, OpenCandy, OptimizerPro, and DoSearches. The list can and will go on and on, as the hijackers make new threats. It's telling that searching for "Search Protect" or "Binkiland" brings up absolutely no link for people to get those programs—only to remove the damnable hijackers' files.

The hijackers did a number on my dad's PC. I couldn't get the installed browsers (IE and Firefox) to go to a Web page to download new tools to deal with these threats. I had to download the clean-up software to my workstation, then use TeamViewer to do a remote file transfer of the EXE installer to dad's desktop.

Also note that at this point we uninstalled McAfee Security Suite, which came free with the Acer as well. You may not consider antivirus software as shovelware, but it certainly is. Acer didn't put it on there to be altruistic; McAfee paid for placement. Plus, McAfee was likely to 1) slow the PC more than smaller AV products we could install later and 2) would eventually cost $79 after the trial was over. No thanks.

Here's a rundown of the tools we used to clean the hijacking PUPs:

  • MalwareBytes 3.0: The free version comes with a trial of the Premium version, so it's worth running on every fresh installation of Windows. Plus, the scans take a lot less time on a new Windows install. After 14 days, you lose things like real-time protection and anti-ransomware features, but it's worth running up front. Remember after that two weeks, get some real-time anti-malware protection.
  • Steven Gould's Cleanup!: Donationware that does the trick for Windows XP on up.
  • CCleaner: Piriform's excellent Windows clean-up tool will do something unique: it'll uninstall apps that are built into Windows. I'm not talking shovelware crap, but actual apps that Microsoft created to work with Windows—so consider it OS-sanctioned crapware. Click on Tools, then uninstall, and you'll get a list of possibilities to delete.

We ran all the tools multiple times, MalwareBytes in particular. It kept finding instances of the PUPs, so we turned to the Internet (which we could finally surf again) to find instructions for manually deleting the PUP files. Which we did, with glee. After cleanups were run...well, the system wasn't totally bug-free. But it was certainly better than it had been hours before.

Don't Do What We Did

Let me make it clear: I do NOT recommend going through this.

If we bought that computer today with Windows 10 on it, we'd start with a full reset of the OS using the Windows 10 Refresh Tool. It's the first thing anyone buying a new PC at retail should do after they take it out of the box. It sets the PC back to a pristine state—without crapware (except for the Microsoft supplied crapware, like the Edge browser). If you actually want a piece of that shovelware, you're going to have to get it separately, but that's not difficult.

Better yet, vote against crapware with your wallet. Buy a PC from a maker that either guarantees a clean Windows install, or at least offers it as an option. Microsoft, naturally, also has a clean version of Windows on its Surface tablets and Surface Book laptop—again, clean as defined by what Microsoft thinks is best. If you go to one of the few Microsoft Stores, they sell "Signature Edition PCs" from makers like HP, Razer, Sony, Toshiba, Dell, MSI, Asus, Acer, and Lenovo. Custom-build manufacturers that promise you a crapware-free installation of Windows include Maingear, Falcon Northwest, and Velocity Micro. Another option: go with a local reseller. Or, buy a Mac or a Chromebook.

If you want to save money, install Linux on your old PC. That wasn't really an option for my father.

If you're wedded to using an older version of Windows, the only sure-fire way to get the same result is re-install Windows completely, with a totally fresh, clean configuration. That's not possible with most retail PCs that had Window 7, 8, or 8.1. Whether the operating system installer is an image on a partition of the hard drive or a DVD disc, it's going to most likely install Windows with all the crapware, fresh as an outhouse, as well. If you can't keep a retail copy of Windows 7 or 8 around for reinstalls, it makes the update to Windows 10 seem even more advantageous. You can even do the refresh and not lose your data files on well-used PCs.

You can always download ISO files of Windows 7 and 8 and even 10 at the Microsoft Software Recovery site. But you need a 25-character product key from a retail version of Windows to fully activate the operating system. Keys from computer makers—called OEMs, or original equipment manufacturers—won't work.

Why Is This Happening?

You might be wondering, why exactly are big-name PC makers and software developers allowing all this crapware with extra "Internet wrappers" PUPs to happen? Money, of course. As PC sales dwindle, so do software purchases, and everyone is scrambling to make up for any losses.

For proof, look to this article by How-To Geek, which examines programs from every single major download site, including CNET's Downloads.com, Tucows, FileHippo, Softpedia, Snapfiles, and more. Every single one had crapware bundled right into their programs. That's not even taking into account that some of those sites have multiple download "buttons" (actually ads) on every page, just to obfuscate and confuse users into downloading the wrong thing.

Always download software from the original site (if you can find it). Unfortunately, even Google search results tend to default to download sites like those listed above.

Pundit Ed Bott has called for a PC "Truth in Labeling Act" to force the PC manufacturers to tell users what's pre-installed. It's an excellent idea that probably won't happen. It would be nice if the download sites, some of whom claim they don't allow any type of malware, would do the same.

This article originally appeared on PCMag.com.