Preloaded Software: Bundles Of Trouble?

Software loaded on new computers includes a high proportion of junk

The ads scream, "$1,500 worth of free software!" As a wary shopper, you might wonder how manufacturers can afford to throw $1,500 worth of programs into a $2,000 system. And computer buyers are discovering that the software isn't worth anywhere near that much. My mail suggests bundled software has become a very sore point with new computer buyers.

The programs that come bundled with new computers can be valuable. The software provided with new Macs, for example, is consistently good. But all too often on Windows machines, what you get is a collection of outdated programs or limited "special editions" that are come-ons for you to pay for upgraded versions. These assortments are known in the trade as "shovelware" for the selectivity with which they are chosen. One PC I looked at recently came with software of widely varying quality filling a third of its 1.6 gigabyte hard drive.

SLOW TO ADJUST. The advent of Windows 95 is a contributing factor. Since August, virtually every new computer shipped to stores has come with the new Microsoft operating system loaded. But manufacturers have been slow to adjust their software packages.

For example, when you boot up a new Toshiba 100CS laptop, it launches programs that allow easy adjustment of the display and that tracks the remaining battery life. Both programs just clutter your screen while duplicating built-in Windows 95 functions.

IBM ThinkPads come loaded with ScreenCam 2.0 from IBM's Lotus Development unit. ScreenCam is a useful program that records your actions in Windows, then lets you replay how you opened and worked with a spreadsheet, for example. ScreenCam is great for training purposes and presentations. However, version 2.0 simply doesn't work under Windows 95.

Voice-mail software built into Compaq Presarios is a more serious problem. The program turns the Presario into a sophisticated answering machine. But it was designed to work with Windows 3.1. It must be turned off before Windows 95 communications programs, including the built-in Microsoft Network and Internet access, can use the modem. Sean Burke, director of Presario marketing, says "we're trying to do a few things that will make the system a little more intelligent."

CUTTING BACK. Things are getting better. Compaq conducted a market study and found "that a vast majority of people didn't put a high value on the software that was bundled," says Burke. As a result, the company, long a trendsetter, plans to cut back drastically on the amount of software it loads into its computers. Compaq is also ditching Presario Gallery and other user "front ends," the screens that computer makers developed to make machines easier to run. The interfaces were developed for Windows 3.1 but have become superfluous and confusing under Windows 95. Watch for other manufacturers to follow Compaq's lead.

It's hard to generalize about what bundled software is truly worthwhile because tastes and needs vary so much. Reference works, such as an encyclopedia and dictionary, are very handy. Most people also find Intuit's Quicken or Microsoft Money useful. Basic multifunction programs that include word processors and spreadsheets--such as version 4 of Microsoft Works or Claris Works--are good value.

But watch out for anything with "Lite" or "SE" in the name. These are usually stripped-down versions of well-known programs, such as games that include only the easiest levels. Fortunately, you can uninstall any program that came on a CD-ROM and simply reinstall it later if and when you change your mind. As for the rest of it, deal with junk software the same way you handle junk mail. Just toss it into that handy on-screen Recycle Bin.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.