Microsoft Signature Edition PCs - no junkware

When you’re shopping for a new computer, especially a laptop, take a look at the Microsoft store for Signature Edition PCs. The selection is interesting, the prices are comparable to what you might pay elsewhere, and the opportunity to get a clean PC is worth considering.

A new computer is more likable when there is no crapware installed on it – the junk programs chosen by the manufacturers to make a few extra dollars by preinstalling unnecessary utilities, useless apps, terrible games, and advertising-laden trials of unwanted programs. At worst – and it is frequently at worst – the crapware slows down your new computer, causes it to start slowly, and makes your first couple of hours miserable as you deal with a blizzard of popups and license agreements.  When you pay me to set up a new computer, much of my time is spent removing the crap.

When you have a poor experience with Windows, you blame Microsoft, but it’s actually the PC manufacturers who are responsible for this part of the bad experience. By itself, Windows 7 and 8 start like lightning, return from sleep instantly, and perform well on almost any combination of hardware. When your new computer starts slowly, freezes on web pages, and does not wake up instantly, the chances are that Windows is being prevented from doing its job by other programs.

It’s possible to imagine a world where Microsoft reins in the worst instincts of the manufacturers and refuses to license Windows unless computers are shipped clean, but it’s unlikely to happen. Although the world has changed dramatically since the days when Microsoft was under intense antitrust scrutiny, the company still acts timidly in some ways and does not do enough to guarantee a good experience for us.

Not all new computers are loaded down with unnecessary crud. Lenovo’s Thinkpad laptops have a few useful Lenovo utilities and a minimum of third-party add-ons. Desktop computers and laptops from Dell’s small business division are shipped with almost no extra crud, to Dell’s credit. The balance tips sharply if you buy less expensive Lenovo laptops or computers from Dell’s home division, which are likely to arrive loaded down with extra fluff, and almost anything from the other manufacturers is likely to be a mess.

Recently Lenovo was in the news after one of its junk third-party programs, Superfish, opened up a gaping security hole that could easily be exploited by bad guys. Since then, security researchers have discovered that the flawed method used to inject the ads – a self-signing security certificate that overrides a secure site’s real certificate – is used by many other programs, ironically including some security programs. That specific problem will now be addressed and fixed, but the real problem is that Lenovo, like other manufacturers, was willing to pre-install a program whose only function was to place ads on web pages that you were viewing on your new computer. Journalists have been pressing Lenovo execs to explain what in the world they were thinking when they approved Superfish; I picture the execs covering their faces with their coats and trying to avoid the press as they sprint for their cars after shamefacedly mumbling something about trying to “enhance the experience for users.” Right.

Superfish has been so embarrassing, in fact, that Lenovo followed up with a promise to start shipping less crapware on all of its computers. That will be swell if it’s true, and it might have an effect for the better on the entire industry, but the manufacturers are deeply addicted to “enhancing” their new computers and might not be able to stop. There are pessimistic reports that the adware will get worse this year, launching self-playing videos and god knows what else.

Several years ago Microsoft announced the “Signature Edition” program that it hoped would convince manufacturers to release clean computers without the need to force a confrontation. Signature Edition PCs are shipped with Windows – and nothing else. The drivers are installed that match the specific hardware but Signature Edition PCs don’t have any unnecessary programs at all. It is exactly the same experience that you would get if you took a new computer and immediately reformatted the hard drive and installed Windows from scratch (which is not a bad idea, by the way, if you have the technical skills to do it). Windows works like a dream. Nothing crashes. Systems sleep and wake up reliably and quickly. The Windows 8 Start screen is uncluttered and you’re less likely to have unfamiliar programs popping up when you click on a file for the first time. Windows Defender provides security and antivirus protection.

Microsoft advertised the Signature Edition concept and gave manufacturers incentives to ship clean computers that would earn the Signature Edition designation.

The response was – nothing. Dead air. Manufacturers expressed no interest whatsoever. Consumers didn’t notice or didn’t care. The program went nowhere.

You can still buy Signature Edition computers, and Superfish demonstrates why you should consider it. Microsoft’s own Surface Pro 3 laptop/tablet hybrids are Signature Edition PCs, of course, but now Microsoft is selling third-party computers in its online store – some of the same laptops you might consider buying from HP or Dell or Lenovo, at similar prices, but without the load of crapware that would be included if you bought them from other sources. There are a couple of hardware configurations of the tremendous new Dell XPS 13 starting at $899, or the equally strong Samsung ATIV Book 9 starting at $1,099. On the other hand, you can get HP’s surprising Stream 11 laptop for under two hundred dollars, including a year’s subscription to Office 365 Personal. Better yet, get the bigger screen on the HP Stream 13 laptop for $229, including Office 365 Personal and a $25 Windows Store gift card. There are laptops from Asus, Acer, HP, Toshiba, and more, all shipped as Signature Edition PCs with Windows and nothing else.

The Signature Edition designation is certainly not the only consideration when you’re choosing your next computer but a stop by the Microsoft store is not a bad idea when you’re shopping. You might find a good deal and all too often, the Signature Edition experience is worth paying a little extra for, if the alternative is a trip into crapware hell.

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