Windows has a lot going for it, but it's also saddled with one of computing's biggest annoyances: crapware. Here's everything you need to know about identifying, avoiding, and removing unwanted software from your system.
What Is Crapware?
In simple terms, crapware is software you don't want, but—for one reason or another—gets installed on your system against your will. This can range from legitimate programs that come pre-installed (like Netflix or a trial of McAfee Antivirus) to browser toolbars, auto-starting apps, or something that changes your default search engine.
The former category—the legitimate software that comes pre-installed—is often referred to as "bloatware" as well. Not all pre-installed apps are bad, but more often than not, you'll want to remove 90% of what came on your system. So, for the purposes of this guide, we'll be talking about both kinds of unwanted software.
Luckily, removing them isn't too hard, and you have a few choices.
Option One: Manually Remove Unwanted Apps with Revo Uninstaller
Obviously, you could just uninstall the programs you don't want with Windows' built-in uninstaller, but we don't recommend this. Lots of programs—especially those pesky pre-installed ones—often leave things lying around in the Registry and other folders after they leave. So, we recommend using a more powerful uninstaller like Revo:
Start it up and wait for it to generate a list of the programs on your computer.
Select a program you want to remove and click the "Uninstall" button.
Repeat step 3 until all the unwanted software has been removed.
Note that you shouldn't just run rampant and uninstall anything that doesn't look familiar. If you know you don't want that McAfee trial, go ahead and remove it, but if you aren't sure what something is, look it up before you go deleting it from your system. Heck, it might even be something worthwhile.
Option Two: Automatically Remove Unwanted Apps with Decrap1
Obviously removing programs one-by-one can be a bit of a hassle, so if your computer comes with a lot of bloatware, you may want a more all-in-one solution. Decrap is an awesome program that will scan your system, give you a list of installed software, and check off everything you want to remove. Then, it'll get rid of everything in one fell swoop:
Download and install Decrap. I recommend downloading the portable version and unzipping it to a folder on your desktop—that way you don't have another program to uninstall later!
Start Decrap and let it perform its initial setup. It will ask if you want to run it in automatic mode—I recommend leaving this box unchecked.
It will then scan your computer for currently installed software.
Once it gives you a list of programs, go through and check the programs you want to remove. You'll likely find these items under the "Automatically Starting Software" category and "Third Party Software" category. You'll probably want to leave "Drivers" and "Windows Related Software" unchecked.
Click Next and create a System Restore Point when asked.
Decrap will ask you if you want to automatically install everything, or do it yourself. This is up to you. If you made the correct choices in step 4, you should be fine to uninstall everything automatically and clean the registry.
Let Decrap run through the unisntallation process. When you're done, you should have a much cleaner PC! Make sure to go through your Start menu and Revo Uninstaller to make sure there aren't any stragglers you forgot.
Once again, if you don't know what something is, Google it before you remove it. It may be something important to the system, or (in some cases) a pre-installed app that's actually good!
Option Three: Go Nuclear and Reinstall Windows from Scratch
Some people prefer to skip the above options and just install Windows from scratch, without the bloatware. You'll need a Windows install disc from Microsoft—not the one that came with your computer, which likely has the bloatware on it—and a valid license key, usually located on a sticker on your computer. Note that this isn't guaranteed to work for everyone, and in some cases you may not be eligible for service if you reintsall a different copy of Windows, so be forewarned.
We have a full guide to reinstalling Windows here, so check that post out for the step-by-step. Installing Windows is easy, but you'll probably have to reinstall some drivers and other software too. It'll take longer than removing the bloatware yourself, but you'll know exactly what's on your system and start with a clean slate. It's up to you whether that's worth your time and energy.
How to Remove Toolbars and Other Bundled Crapware
The second kind of crapware is a bit more sinister than free trials of Microsoft Office. Sometimes, you download a new program, only to find that after installing it, you also have a toolbar in your browser and your default search engine has changed to Yahoo or Ask.com. Often, companies will bundle toolbars or other junk with their free programs. This allows them to offer those programs to you for free, while still making money.
Unfortunately, while that's a nice sentiment, it ends up being quite dishonest, because installers try to "trick" you into agreeing to the crapware you don't want. We'll talk about this in the next section, but first: let's remove the crap you already have.
When it's finished scanning, go through each tab (Services, Folders, Files, etc.) and check anything you want to clean. Not everything Adw finds will be crapware—if you aren't sure whether to remove something, try to determine the name of the software from Adw's list and search for it on Should I Remove It's web page.
Once you're sure you've selected everything you want to remove, click the Clean button. It'll clean the selected options, restart your computer, and provide a report detailing what was deleted.
After running AdwCleaner, I recommend doing one last pass with Revo Uninstaller to see if there's anything left over on your system. Hopefully, though, your PC should be clean as a whistle—at least from toolbars, adware, and other crap.
How to Avoid Unwanted Programs in the Future
Now that you have a clean PC, it's time to keep it that way. As I said earlier, most of these programs come on the back of something you actually wanted to download—usually from a company that's trying to make money, but offering their software for free.
Many people choose to boycott these programs entirely, and only download truly free or open-source software. That's certainly one solution, but it leaves out so many great pieces of software that—crapware aside—are worth having on your system. As long as that program gives you achoice to install the crapware or ignore it—and most do—boycotting isn't necessary.
Avoiding crapware is pretty easy once you become familiar with the tricks installers use to get you to agree to them. Here are some things to keep in mind as you download and install new programs:
Always download programs from their home page, if possible. Many download sites (like Download.com) will create their own installers with bundled crapware, even if the original download didn't have it.
Watch for checkboxes on the download page. Sometimes the option to avoid crapware may not be in the installer, but on the download page of the app itself. Adobe, for example, offers you the chance to decline installing McAfee on its download page. Other apps may offer an installer with crapware, but a portable version without it.
Don't click Next over and over without reading! If you don't pay attention to what you're installing, you're bound to install crapware. Carefully read each page of the installation wizard before you click Next.
Always choose the Custom Install option. Never choose Automatic. Custom install with almost always offer you the opportunity to decline crapware.
Read every checkbox. Sometimes they'll hide it on an otherwise unrelated page of the installer. Read every checkbox and uncheck anything that wants you to install something you didn't ask for.2
Don't Click Every "Agree". Sometimes, an installer will make the "crapware agreement" look like the original software's terms of service. Your brain wants to click "Agree" thinking it's the only way to continue with the installation—but read closely. If the "terms" are for a program other than the one you downloaded, you can safely choose "Decline" and continue the installation.
Watch Out for Multiple Offers. Just because you've avoided one piece of crapware doesn't mean you're done—there could be more bundled apps waiting for you, or multiple offers for the same toolbar in the same installer!
It seems like this is complicated and not worth the trouble, but once you get the hang of it, it's a breeze—you'll be able to outsmart any tricky installer that comes your way. FreewareGenius has a great guide to some of the tricks you'll see, with examples for each, so check that out to familiarize yourself. You can also try using Unchecky, which will automatically uncheck those boxes for you—but it's no replacement for due diligence. Good luck and safe downloading!