27 Jul 2006 nutella   » (Master)

I was helping a friend install a new DVD drive recently (along with the associated software). I also tidied up some of the configuration on their WinXP box (some of which required reinstallation). I find it especially depressing about the general trend towards compulsory installation of extra software on top of even the most basic drivers. Most of the software is intended to take control over the media files and the users' browsing habits. Software writers have moved their junk from dialogue boxes to Windows services to the registry to make it increasingly more difficult to control, let alone remove. There's also a tendency to ride roughshod over existing configuration, even when this makes the setup less secure (for example many programs will switch Autoplay on for all media, even if it was previously disabled). The Roxio DVD software installation was mockingly nasty as the install shield screen had entries for a number of useless "accessories" but there was no way to disable their installation (I have heard that Nero is much better behaved). Other offenders were Acrobat (installs a toolbar in Office that reactivates itself every time you disable it within Office), QuickTime/iTunes (wants total media control), RealPlayer (ibid), ShockWave (ibid) and of course Windows itself. Mercifully they had an old copy of Win2k so I was able to take the CD Player from that so the user didn't have to be submitted to Windows Media Players compulsory "visualisations".

As these annoyances become more and more intrusive it is increasingly easy to bring up the subject of an alternative operating system. One where the configuration is generally through files you can read in a text editor. One where you can actually look at the code to make sure it will not ransack your computer and send the data back to the mothership ("you explicitly allowed this in the section of the EULA that had scrolled off the screen"). One where you can see and control and kill running processes.

Another mistake my friend had made was to order a PC from Alienware. The specifications were actually very good for the money (especially the CPU, motherboard, video card and a full copy of WinXP with latest security patches) but the system arrived in an unbootable state and with missing parts. While Alienware's phone support staff sounded very polite and knowledgable they are apparently controlled by insane people who will do anything rather than refund money (or talk directly to the customer). The telephone support people did arrange to send the missing parts and talked my friend through a reinstallation but the Alienware backup disk image (Norton Ghost) for the system was the same unbootable one on the machine as it arrived and Alienware refused to refund the money for this even though the lower level phone people were sure that this was possible. Telephoning and emailing resulted in nothing. My friend is warning everyone against buying Alienware and suggesting Falcon Northwest instead (althought they sound overpriced - I can't get through the flash animation on their website to actually check the prices). Ah, I forgot Dell bought Alienware so the quality control and customer support can only get worse... Thankfully my own homebrew box is running nicely.

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