Eyes Above The Waves

Robert O'Callahan. Christian. Repatriate Kiwi. Hacker.

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Dell Fail

Separate from the laptop discussion, I just bought a new home machine. I just wanted a generic PC, high-ish end for longevity and in case I (or someone else) wants to hack on it. This machine will definitely run Linux, but I'm going to keep the Windows 7 install in a partition in case we ever need it. So I'm going through Dell's Windows 7 first-run experience, and it's not great.

The initial Microsoft setup screens are pretty good, although it all seems to take longer than it should. Then you get to a Dell screen asking you to opt into some Dell stuff, which for some unfathomable reason is rendered in the Windows 95/2000 "Classic" theme, gray box scrollbars and all. It's ugly, jarring and totally mystifying.

Soon you're offered the chance to burn system recovery DVDs. I don't understand why they ask users to obtain blank DVDs and burn them instead of just shipping those DVDs; shipping them with every system would add a few dollars to the system cost, but probably save more in support calls and give a much better user experience.

The application that burns the recovery DVDs has one crazy screen that shows you some information and asks you to click "Next". But there is no "Next" button visible. But there's a vertical scrollbar! Scrolling down, you can get to a "Next" button. Of course, the window is not resizable, and it contains lots of blank vertical space so there is no possible reason why the "Next" button should not be visible.

Microsoft's initial Windows network setup asks you whether you're on a "Home", "Work" or "Public" network, which I bet is often hard for people to answer. I wonder how Windows uses that information. But right after choosing that option, the (preinstalled) McAfee antivirus software pops up an ugly little box in which you have to choose those same options again.

Of course I still have to analyze the system for the paid-to-be-there crapware (including McAfee) and uninstall most of it.

I'm genuinely curious about what motivates system vendors like Dell to sully what could have been a better experience. It's not apathy, since they obviously paid people to develop many of these "extras". Whatever it is, it's no surprise platform vendors want to sell directly to the customer instead of working through partners like Dell.


The scrolling for the "Next" button is probably intentional - the designer will have decided that people just click "Next" without properly reading anything on screen, and so the solution was to hide the button so people would pay attention.
People usually come up with the wrong answer when they ask the wrong question.
B.J. Herbison
Be careful of the on-line backup software that Dell ships ("2GB free for a year") -- it re-writes the MBR every time it loads. After I dual-booted this caused my system to become unbootable every time I loaded Windows.
(My solution: Boot Linux from a CD, fix the MBR. Boot Windows, unstall two Dell programs (I don't remember the name, the two are discussed various places on the web). Then book Linux from a CD and fix the MBR again. Much easier to disable the Dell software before dual-booting.)
I believe the LoJack software also re-writes the MBR so I didn't install that feature.
Blair McBride
Just as an aside regarding the Home/Work/Public network selection: They're basically zones for the firewall and network services. So you'll have all network services available on a home network, few (none?) on a public network, and something in between on a work network. Its an indirect way of asking "how much do you trust this network?", which would be more confusing to most users, and probably result in most people saying "I trust this network completely" every time. You get asked this every time you connect to a network Windows hasn't seen before - its mostly useful for a laptop, where you may end up using various different networks (work LAN vs cafe WiFi, etc).
Back on topic: Its not as bad as it once was, but its still pretty bad. When I got my latest Windows desktop (also a Dell), I just wiped everything and installed the OS from scratch - it was just easier than dealing with all that crap. Thankfully, all the additional stuff was on a separate DVD (which isn't always the case).
Ryan Jones
I have had much the same experience with many PC companies, which is why I now get all mine either custom built or build them myself - that way you avoid the price of the extra software, which you probably don't want or need, and you get more flexibility to make the system do what you want.
This is why I never buy computers from companies like Dell. I go to newegg and get exactly what I want/need. You never know what these big companies put on their installation DVD's, but if you do it yourself it's going to be as clean of an installation as possible.
I bought a Dell desktop in the UK recently. On first boot into their own desktop it takes approx 4 and a half mins to reach the desktop (and stop the HDD chugging).
This is due to them having installed such treats as "the Dell Dock" which is some hideous clipart lump at the top of the screen.
Suffice to say the (included) copy of Windows 7 went into the DVD drive and reformatted the lot.
First boot this time, 48 seconds. After restart, 15.
The Home - Public Networking setting is used for the Firewall.
The Windows Folder sharing is for example deactivated for public.
"Home" "Work" "Public" options are used by the firewall to reconfigure itself based on which network you're on. Public has most ports locked down while Home has file sharing enabled, etc...
The setup experience and crapware installations are why I tend to reinstall from original media when I get a new PC.
Kevin H
Interesting timing - I just bought a new home machine from Dell as well. Mine came with a Windows 7 install DVD and a Dell Recovery Partition pre-installed on the Hard Drive.
The Recovery Partition has all of the Dell "extras" in it, but the install DVD is simply Windows. I was conflicted on whether I would want any of the Dell "extras" and for a short time played around with trying to extract just Roxio out of the Dell Recovery Partition as a separate install. But in the end, the internet led me to believe the Dell Roxio adds no value to a Windows 7 system, and so I ended up blowing away the Recovery Partition entirely and doing a clean install of Windows 7 from the DVD. I had to go out to Dell's site to get all the drivers but aside from that small headache I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to escape the crapware path.
Michael Johnson
When the PC manufacturing industry runs on razor-thin margins normally, you have to expect that corners will be cut wherever they can. This includes pressing of restore discs.
Likewise, those thin margins are partly an explanation for "crapware". If a software vendor like McAfee will pay a few dollars per system shipped with their product, it will go in to try and raise the profit per unit.
Dell, as far as I have found, has possibly some of the worst build and software quality here in the US. I'm not sure about how they are outside their home country, but I don't expect it's much better.
The network type sets which firewall features and network services are available on that network (and as of Windows 7, it's per-connection).
Home - "Network discovery" is on and you can create or join a "home group".
Work - "Network discovery" is on, but no access to "home groups".
Public - "Network discovery" and "home groups" are both unavailable. Windows Firewall (if enabled) starts blocking more applications and types of traffic unless they are whitelisted by the user.
The naming seems straightforward to me, but I agree that the presentation (referring to the network type as opposed to asking "Where are you?") could be better...
Siddharth Agarwal
The Dell experience is bad, bad, bad. I know McAfee completely screwed up a friend's ability to copy files off Windows shares.
> I bet is often hard for people to answer.
That's all right. You can just click the red X and it'll be designated a public network.
> I wonder how Windows uses that information.
"Home" networks can have homegroups, which are really nice (easy file, music and printer sharing, but only as long as the computers are all Win7. "Work" networks are a little tighter, and "Public" networks have much stronger security rules.
Windows 7 uses the "home", "work" and "public" stuff for its built-in Firewall. If you choose home it'll ask about your "homegroup", the password-protected workgroup-like feature for easily sharing files on a home network. You can specify different rules for how relaxed or not to be by each type. If you join a domain the type will become "domain" for that connection (instead of those 3 options). (Each connection can have a different type, etc.) It'll (re-)prompt for Wireless connections when you join a new network and it does seem to try to encourage the right choices. (it tends to default to public for wifi, for example.)
Having McAfee immediately ask the same thing though, is pretty crappy.
My new Dell had 82 processes running on it when logged in. After I reinstalled the OS from scratch it had 42...
Robert O'Callahan
I didn't get a Windows 7 install DVD with my purchase, so no clean install for me :-(. Uninstalling most of the rubbish was pretty easy though.
It was very similar with my Toshiba Laptop that I purchased from Best Buy. No recovery disks, a nag screen from--cough, cough, gag--Norton, and a pinned link to a whole bunch of software to buy/install via Best Buy.
Michael Lefevre
"shipping [CDs] with every system would add a few dollars to the system cost, but probably save more in support calls"
Not sure about Dell, but in some cases if you need support to send you a CD, they will charge you more than enough to cover the cost of the CD, the postage and the support call.
It would still make sense overall to ship the CDs with the system, but if the consumer pays either way, then the supplier is going to go for the cheaper up-front price. Unfortunately...
This is exactly why I build my own machines and load a plain OEM copy of Windows on them, no crapware, no annoying registrations, no useless things to go through.