Why is setting up a new PC still so painful?

(Follow-up to this post: “How Dell and others can fix the ‘crapware’ problem — honorably“).

This weekend was one of those weekends where good friends with computer problems came a-callin’ in full force. Despite acting as support for many friends for many years now, I still approach the requests with a high level of sympathy for the requestors because setting up and maintaining a PC is still so hard. (Up front: I won’t go to deep into the whole Mac vs. PC thing. . . let’s just accept for a moment that people who are not passionate about computers simply don’t understand why it makes a lot of sense to spend more than $850 for a new Dell with a free printer and a bunch of other accesories.)

This past week and over the weekend, I’ve been helping my friends across the street from me set up their new Dell PC and though it booted up out-of-the-box, it has been ridiculously tedious and frustrating to clean all the trialware and marketing crud off the thing. (Of course, this isn’t news to anyone who has bought a PC recently, but I haven’t bought a new PC in years since I’ve either been using a Mac or a work PC). After tangling with the PC for a few hours, it felt less like a useful tool and more like a child screaming for unneeded candy in the grocery store, except this time the PC was screaming for various online services, anti-virus software suites, printer supplies (hey, the printer is NEW, why do I need toner?!), and online banking services. Click here to sign-up for AOL! Click here to sign up for Earthlink! When I setup their printer, I got the same marketing message in three different contexts at the same time: an icon was placed on the desktop that said “click here for Dell printer supplies,” the small LCD screen on the printer itself displayed the URL for Dell printer supplies (which I won’t dignify with a link here, nofollow or otherwise), and the first test page printed had the same URL for printer supplies. At that point, I expected a Dell representative to kick their front door down and scream the URL in my ear for good measure.

When my kind friends initially called me with questions about all the junk they were seeing, my immediate plan was to go over there and wipe their system clean and only install what they needed. That’s what I’ve always done in the past and it’s a really easy thing to do when a computer is brand new. When I arrived at their house I discovered that Dell didn’t send along a base Windows XP install CD with the machine, though there was a slip of paper in the box with instructions on how to request a restore CD from Dell. Ugh! Why not include this CD in the first place? It’s licensed software that a customer has already bought! (Of course, Dell is not known for good support, so perhaps my expectations are too high in the first place.)

So, Dell is making it literally impossible to do a clean install of Windows XP, then all the junk on the machine makes it more likely that you will have support problems — problems that you will have immense trouble getting solved due to well-documented crappy support (idea: someone should teach the lonely old Maytag repairman how to fix Dell PCs and then he wouldn’t be so lonely).

Of course, I could have told my Quicken-using neighbors to buy a Mac instead, but then they would have had to downgrade to a half-assed version of Quicken, the app they use the most. Sometimes you just can’t win with computers.

I think this explains why a few years ago I saw a discarded computer sitting on the sidewalk near my house with this message scrawled on it in angry black magic marker:

Fuck computers!

We gotta do something about this state of affairs.

Update: Scott Rosenberg just wrote to note that I mis-linked to “half-assed version of Quicken” (accidentally used the previous link to the Maytag repairman. Oops!) I was indeed intending to link to Scott’s recent post on that subject. Thanks, Scott!

Another update: I said in my initial post that Dell did not distribute the system disk, but I just ran through a Dell config for a low-end Dimension B110, and you can choose a Windows XP system disk for $10 extra. I think they should take the confusion out of it, add $10 to the price, and ship that disk with the machine. It’s not just Dell that plays games with the system disks, as David Berlind notes in his response to my post:

This is apparently the new MO of system makers. For example, an Acer Ferrari that I recently purchased for Vista testing didn’t come with a system disk either. Instead, it has a backup recovery disk which restores the system to the exact same state the system was in when I unboxed it.

11 thoughts on “Why is setting up a new PC still so painful?

  1. eh. No, we don’t

    Seriously, this isn’t something you or I can do except to lead by example, unless we want to have much simpler social lives (ie, no friends other than Mac users). I have to believe the market will sort this out eventually, more effectively than I can.

    Wait, maybe some big tech company with a great brand and high trust value should roll out a simplified OS/app suite so people don’t have to care about all the minutiae anymore . . . </snark>

    I get calls from people for support and you do what you can, but most people who know me are not going to be surprised if I suggest that they are suffering from a self-inflicted wound. Not that I like to quote myself, but my brief experience at working with Windows a couple of years ago was summed as “like using your hand as a hammer: painful, bloody and ultimately ineffective.”

    (you’ve seen this, right?)

    I’m not sure I see things changing a lot for the majority who shop on price instead of value.

  2. My wife just bought a ThinkPad (first Wintel machine in this house … ever) and after a week it’s finally calmed down to the point where it’s usable.

    Since I so rarely use Wintel machines it’s pretty surprising what people are willing to put up with. It’s all the bundling that seems to be the problem. Wipe the sucker clean and reinstall and you should be fine.. but why should the average Joe have to worry about that if all they want is a decent computer that WORKS?

  3. You say that you “don’t understand why it makes a lot of sense to spend more than $850 for a new Dell.”

    Then, in the very next sentence, you say “it has been ridiculously tedious and frustrating to clean all the trialware and marketing crud off the thing.”

    No offense, but do you see the disconnect here? Crapware is how Dell can afford to sell you that machine for $850. If you don’t like it, you can

    1. Return the computer to Dell and find some second-tier supplier that will sell you a $1000 machine for $1000 and not load it up with crapware to drive the price down to $850.

    2. Format the drive, buy and install a retail copy of Windows, and spend a week tracking down drivers for all the proprietary crap Dell stuffed onto their motherboard.

    3. Format the drive, install Linux, and spend several months finding and adjusting to free alternatives to all the applications you use. Also, discover that you’ve spent your entire life compiling data in proprietary formats that you can no longer access.

    (FWIW, I’m currently doing step #3, but I don’t necessarily recommend it to everyone.)

  4. Mark, no offense intended either, but you’re blowing right past some key aspects of my story to make your points. I understand those points, but they don’t fit the context of my story very well.

    It wasn’t me who doesn’t “understand why it makes a lot of sense to spend more than $850 for a new Dell.” It was my neighbors, who I put in the general category of “people who are not passionate about computers” (and there are many of them in the world). I don’t have a Dell. If I did, I would probably set it up as a dual-boot machine, or even beter install VMWare and run Windows as a virtual machine within Linux — but I think I would have to be crazy to advise my neighbors to do that (ever try explaining a “virtual machine” to average people? Not easy!)

    As for installing Linux, I’ve been running Linux for years at home and at work, but installing Linux for my neighbors would be an unmitigated disaster. What would they do about the Quicken problem I raised in my post? There might be an open source alternative out there somewhere, but I doubt it has all the connections to banks, etc. that make that product useful for average people. It would be ill-advised for me to tell them just to roll with it. I agree with you that #3 shouldn’t be recommended for everyone. I would go so far to say that I would only recommend it for people who are already familiar with Linux in other contexts (work, school, etc.)

  5. I had a similar experneice recently, with a Mac upgrade on one of the early “fruit” iMacs. (You can skip the gory details and jump to the bottom for my point.)

    My wife’s best friend wanted to upgrade from OS 9, so I did the usual things: check for processor and RAM requirements first, then make all of the upgrades before installation.

    We had to go buy more RAM, which was relatively easy, but it prevented me from really doing anything on Day 1.

    Day 2 consisted of putting the RAM in (5 minutes), then backing up data to my external HD, just in case. I finally quit the backup when it apparently hung on photos and movies.
    Now, I thought, I was all set–pop the disc in and let it run for an hour. Nope. I had to upgrade the OS and root around on Apple’s site for a firmware upgrade. What made matters worse was that I was downloading everything over dialup (at least now they’re on DSL). I finally installed OS X 10.3 late on Day 2.

    Day 3 consisted of getting DSL up and running, then upgrading 10.3 all the way up to 10.3.9. Then we spent kwality time with customer support at Earthlink and BellSouth, getting Mail.app to work with their systems.

    The point of my story? I haven’t seen one damn OS, new or upgrade, that isn’t a bitch to deal with in some for or fashion. Even if this computer I was working on was a spiffy new iMac, I’d still have to deal with customer support at two ISPs, which took far too long.

  6. The PC Doctor

  7. I don’t know. I never have a problem. I pull it out of the box. Plug it in the wall and it works. I have only Dells. Over time, as the trial ware gets annoying, I do the Add Remove/Programs and move on.

  8. buy and install a retail copy of Windows

    No, you don’t have to buy it–Dell WILL send you the CDs; all you have to do is ask. I did as soon as I set up my daughter’s new Dell and got the CDs in about 3 days.

    Even so, I didn’t bother reformatting and doing the clean install. I just uninstalled the stupid trialware. Annoying? Yes. But it’s true, it does cut costs. It’s just more annoying when you’re not the one enjoying the cost savings but doing all the work.

  9. How Dell and others can fix the “crapware” problem — honorably -- Chad Dickerson’s blog

  10. Chad, I understand that you’re a geek and your neighbors are not. I’m just pointing out that the crapware is a subsidy, and I’m not entirely sure that your idea (in your followup post) of offering a cash incentive to take the crap would be very successful.

    First of all, more choices are not always good. Certainly Dell could handle the choice of “crapware or no crapware” if you ordered a computer direct from their website, but in retail, having two choices means stocking the shelves with both and inevitably running out of one or the other.

    Second, and more important, it would force suppliers to be honest about exactly how much money they’re making in crapware kickbacks, which are currently a completely opaque source of profit, not listed in the sticker price and not included in buying decisions. Offering an alternative makes this hidden profit transparent, moving it out of the shadows and onto the sticker price, and I don’t see how this could possibly end well for Dell. I think customers would perceive the higher priced crap-free alternative as a punishment, instead of perceiving the current crap-filled one as a “discount”. It could also lead to a pricing war if people expressed a clear preference for the crap-free alternative.

  11. Crapware? That’s brilliant.

    I’ve had the same experience “breaking in” new Dell’s. It takes about three days to get it the way you want it. I’m flummoxed too, why they don’t seem to automatically ship disk copies for everything that’s installed in it. I suppose it cuts down on people installing their software on other computers, but it’s a pain.

    On the other hand they are creating new employment…for people who can figure out how to get the thing running. 🙂

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