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Lenovo, Windows 7, and the Death of Crapware

One of the bigger tech industry trends of the past decade has been the rise of crapware bundles on new PCs. Crapware is an easy target: No one wants it, most of it is about as good as the name suggests, and all it really does is nothing more than slow the boot times of what would otherwise be decent computers. But crapware is on PCs for a reason: It helps subsidize the cost of new PCs, keeping prices low.

With all the bad publicity around crapware of late, PC makers have tried new tactics. Some, like Dell, will sell you PCs without any crapware at all, and advertise these machines almost as a public service. Alarmingly, others actually charge extra for crapware-free PCs, pushing the cost of not providing this junk directly to the consumer.

And then there's ThinkPad maker Lenovo. Yes, Lenovo bundles a number of utilities and applications on its PCs, many of which certainly deserve the crapware moniker. But looking at the bigger picture, I think the most interesting thing this company does around its bundled wares is provide services that expand on core Windows capabilities or, increasingly, simply provide new capabilities that are not present in Windows at all. Lenovo's additions, by and large, actually increase the value of their PCs to users. This is not usually the case with PC makers, in my experience.

Now, there are other things to discuss around Lenovo's newest portable computers, and perhaps we'll get to them at a later date. For example, the company is innovating around multi-touch in ways that I think users will find exciting (yes, on business-class machines). And of course, today's ThinkPads retain ages-old advantages around quality of construction and their excellent keyboards. But after testing two Windows 7-era ThinkPads for a few weeks now--a ThinkPad 400s and X200 Tablet--what I'm most impressed with is how Lenovo is extending the capabilities of Microsoft's operating systems. These are features that will enhance the PC experience for any user.

Windows 7-based Lenovo ThinkPads
The ThinkPad X200 Tablet offers a convertible tablet design with multi-touch functionality.

Windows 7-based Lenovo ThinkPads
The ThinkPad T400s also provides multi-touch functionality, but in a traditional notebook.

For Windows 7 specifically, Lenovo has performed some low-level tweaks on its latest ThinkPad machines to ensure that Microsoft's latest OS boots and resumes as quickly as possible. For example, the BIOS hides some hardware devices from Windows 7 so that they don't need to be detected when the system boots up, speeding boot time. And on the software end, further boot time speed increases were realized by delaying the startup of unnecessary application loaders and updaters.

More obviously to the end user, Lenovo also provides a suite of ThinkVantage-branded utilities and services with its ThinkPads. The company replaces the built-in networking and battery life widgets, for example, which I'm normally not a huge fan of. But Lenovo's utilities go well beyond the capabilities of the built-in tools. The battery life utility is connected to Lenovo's excellent Power Manager tool, which provides far more granular--and on the fly--control over the system's power management capabilities. In fact, thanks to integration with hardware that is unique to ThinkPads, these machines provide much more accurate battery life estimates than much of the competition and can be configured to "stretch" battery life to accommodate certain needs, like the remaining time on a flight.

Windows 7-based Lenovo ThinkPads
Lenovo builds tools into its ThinkPads that integrate with Windows 7 and offer advantages over built-in OS functionality. Notice the taskbar integration as well.

There are other useful tools, like a password manager for auto-login of both web sites and applications. And if you have an optional fingerprint reader, you can integrate the password manager with that, as you can with the main Windows logon. And Lenovo was among the first to provide "airbag" protection for onboard hard drives, essentially an active shock protection feature that helps prevent hard drive disasters in the event of a shock to the system, such as being dropped off a table.

Windows 7-based Lenovo ThinkPads
Both the T400s and X200 feature an integrated fingerprint reader.

Lenovo isn't perfect, of course. There was a trial version of Microsoft Office on both of the ThinkPads I tested recently, and some largely superfluous Roxio software. But most of Lenovo's bundled apps and utilities were quite welcome, even though some appear to require Java, a self-updating mess of a technology I'd rather exorcise from all of my machines.

And Lenovo isn't necessarily alone in providing the right computing environment to its users; this is just the company with which I'm most familiar. In the weeks and months ahead, I hope to evaluate how the competition is doing in reducing crapware, especially on their Windows 7-based PCs. With Windows 7, Microsoft has done a wonderful job of minimizing the system footprint, speeding performance, and simplifying. It's nice to see a PC maker not screwing that up for a change.

An edited version of this article appears in the September 29, 2009 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul

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