Posey's Tips & Tricks

Microsoft's Bloatware Removal Tool: It's About Time

Refresh Windows looks to battle the amount of unwanted software that is included with new PCs.

Back in the late '90s and early 2000s, Microsoft had some serious problems with their operating systems becoming infested with malware.  I realize that today Windows XP has a reputation for being the best version of Windows that Microsoft ever created. But believe me when I say that the operating system was not always perceived that way. Operating systems such as Windows XP and Windows 98 were so susceptible to malware infections that malware infestations became an epidemic. I couldn't even begin to guess how many infections I cleaned from friend's computers, only to have the computers become reinfected within a few days.

At the time, I remember writing an article in which I said that it was time for Microsoft to take back control of its own operating system. The premise of that article was that Microsoft owns the operating system code, and could easily put into place some safeguards that would render certain types of malware ineffective. Some of the malware of the time, for example, would replace system files with malicious files of the same name. I argued that Microsoft could put a stop to this by signing its files and designing the OS to check for digital signatures.

Over the years, Microsoft has made tremendous progress in protecting the integrity of its operating systems. Malware infections can, and do, still occur but the problem is nothing like what it once was. Today, however, there is a different kind of infestation that has become commonplace. It is an infestation of bloatware. And just as Microsoft needed to assert control over its own OS back in the '90s in order to reduce the prevalence of malware, it is once again time for Microsoft to step up to the plate and combat the problem of bloatware.

If you have purchased a new PC lately, then you know what I am talking about. New PCs typically ship with Windows preinstalled. These preinstalled environments also tend to come loaded with trial software, unwanted toolbars and all manner of nagware (software that nags you to purchase something or to install unwanted software).

For as long as I have been using PCs, I have been in the habit of reformatting new PCs and installing a clean copy of the Windows operating system in an effort to get rid of the garbage that is so often pre-loaded onto the PC. Even if by some miracle the PC didn't have any extra software pre-installed, I still like to format the drive and install Windows myself because doing so allows me to be in total control of the operating system's configuration.

Although I stand behind this practice, reformatting a new PC isn't without its challenges. I have occasionally had problems, for example, with the PC's Windows product key failing to work with my Windows installation media. I have also sometimes had problems with missing or incorrect device drivers.

So if reloading a brand new PC can be such an ordeal, why do it at all? Why not just manually remove the bloatware rather than reinstalling the entire operating system?

There are lots of reasons why it may be a good idea to install a fresh version of Windows, but for me, the most compelling reason is that manufacturer-installed bloatware can be so tightly integrated into the system that it may be nearly impossible to remove it all through conventional means. Furthermore, bloatware has the potential to undermine Microsoft's "secure by default" approach to building Windows. Having a secure operating system may do little good if a PC is shipped with software that contains vulnerabilities of its own.

Thankfully, Microsoft has created a long overdue tool that refreshes a PC with a clean copy of Windows 10. According to at least some sources, this tool was specifically designed to deal with the problem of preloaded junk software. For right now, the tool is available as a part of the fast ring test build of the Windows 10 Anniversary update. The tool should eventually make its way into mainstream Windows 10 deployments.

Of course this raises the question of why the tool is necessary at all. Microsoft already provides a Reset This PC option within Windows 10. The option can be found by going to Settings, and clicking on Update and Security, followed by Recovery. The problem with the Reset This PC tool, however, is that it resets the PC to its factory default. Assuming that the manufacturer has supplied its own image file, resetting the PC will actually reinstall all of the bloatware that came with the PC.

In Contrast, the Refresh Windows tool gets rid of any extra software that is installed on the PC. The tool does give you the option of keeping your data, or you can opt to erase that too. There is no word yet as to how the tool will handle device drivers.

Although I am sure that PC manufacturers are less than thrilled about creation of the Refresh Windows tool, I personally think that it is one of the best utilities that Microsoft has ever given its customers. I hope that someday I will get the chance to personally thank whoever is responsible for the tool.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 16-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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