Microsoft wages war on 'crapware' with new Windows 10 tool

Downloads and installs clean copy of OS; scrubs all software not bundled with 10

Microsoft has released a free tool for Windows 10 that claims to scrub PCs of the "bloatware" -- also called "crapware" -- that computer makers pack on new machines.

Refresh Windows, which must be downloaded from Microsoft's website, currently works only on preview builds of 10, those seeded to participants of the Insider program. Since Insider is a precursor to the production code, the tool should be usable by owners of systems upgraded to the Anniversary Update, version 1607, which is slated to ship next month.

At the moment, the tool can be downloaded via a link embedded in a long message on Microsoft's support forum; the message appears in Edge after clicking a new link in the Settings panel under the "Update & Security" item's "Recovery" option.

According to the forum message -- which was penned by a Microsoft employee identified only as "Jason" -- Refresh Windows downloads and installs a recent, pristine build of Windows 10 on the PC, overwriting the pre-installed version.

More importantly, all non-Microsoft applications that were bundled or already installed on Windows 10 -- the exception include the Mail email client and the Edge browser -- are eliminated during the refresh. "It will also remove most pre-installed applications such as OEM applications, support applications, and drivers," wrote Jason. The term "OEM" (original equipment manufacturers) refers to computer makers such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo.

For that reason, Refresh Windows would be best used immediately after purchasing a new Windows 10 system, and before the buyer installed any software on the machine.

Jason ticked off a slew of caveats for Refresh Windows, including some during what he referred to as the "preview period" of testing with Insider members. He implied that it would be added to the production-grade edition of Windows 10.

Users of Refresh Windows may choose to retain their personal files -- those stashed in the core folders such as "Pictures" and "Documents" -- or wipe everything from the drive. In all cases, they will have to reinstall applications, including Microsoft Office and third-party programs, and probably download and install new device drivers, either through Windows Update or from the individual websites of the PC maker, graphics card manufacturer and the like.

As of Friday, Refresh Windows worked only on Insider build 14342 or later. Microsoft issued build 14342 on May 26, but has followed with several since then, most recently on Thursday with build 14677. Assuming Microsoft follows through, the tool will work with the production code set ship in July.

Windows users have long been able to reach the same result by downloading a clean disk image of Windows, then installing that on a crapware-filled PC. But that approach has been largely used by experienced hands: Refresh Windows still requires much manual work in re-installing deleted apps, but it automates the process somewhat by taking care of the image downloading.

For that reason, it may appeal to a wider audience of Windows 10 users.

Although Refresh Windows will be applauded by customers who have complained about crapware, it's likely that Microsoft's hardware partners, who pre-load that content on their devices in a bid for additional revenue, won't see it as a friendly move. In that way, it's reminiscent of the adversarial strategy Microsoft has taken at times, such as when it introduced its own Surface line, or by promoting its "Signature" portfolio of PCs, which are billed as free of bloatware.

refresh windows

The Refresh Windows tool lets Windows 10 users install a recent, pristine copy of the operating system on their PC, eliminating all applications -- including pre-loaded 'crapware' -- but retaining the personal files already on the drive.

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Gregg Keizer

Computerworld (US)
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