Geek Vs Geek: How to Avoid Buying a Laptop with Malware (Thanks, Lenovo)

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Lenovo laptop

You may have heard the story by now: Lenovo has been selling laptops with Superfish adware pre-installed that, in mid-February, was found to be far more dangerous than you can possibly imagine. The software allows criminals to hijack your web session and redirect you to fake websites without your knowledge. It wasn’t what Lenovo planned, of course, but their reckless decisions have put millions of even brand-new PCs at great risk. The question is, what can ordinary people do about it?

Once a month, eHow Tech editor Dave Johnson faces off against Rick Broida, who writes about technology for CNET, Time, and Wired. Follow along as they tackle this question from opposing corners.

Picture of Dave JohnsonDave: Well, let’s get this out of the way right up front: If you own a Lenovo laptop, you might be affected by this Superfish adware and you should take immediate action, because you could be at great risk. Chris Hoffman explains what you need to do to check for — and get rid of — Superfish. Lenovo itself has also published some removal instructions as well. But there’s a bigger issue here, which is this: How do you prevent the next Superfish fiasco? How can you trust any computer you buy?

The Superfish Web page

Picture of Rick BroidaRick: This is just the latest in a long line of examples of PC makers adding junkware to their machines and consumers paying the price. Obviously this is more nefarious than the usual low-grade productivity software and utilities that have bogged down HP, Dell, Toshiba, and other systems for as long as anyone can remember, but to me it illustrates the bigger problem with the state of modern computing: We’re still dealing with the same idiocies that have plagued us for decades. Stop the madness!

Picture of Dave JohnsonDave: You’re absolutely right; PC makers bundle a ton of junk with their machines. There’s a perfectly non-evil reason for this, of course. Margins are so razor thin that they often need the money from these software partnerships just to make a profit on the computers they’re selling. But that doesn’t mean we have to tolerate this kind of behavior. If enough people spoke with their wallets, PC makers would have to respond. You could choose to only buy a Microsoft Signature Edition PC, for example, which comes without any adware, trialware, bloatware, or crapware. Nothing but Windows and that new PC smell.

Picture of Rick BroidaRick: I’m glad you brought that up because I was going to: Apparently Microsoft has the clout to sell, say, an HP laptop without all the crud, but HP itself won’t. These Signature Edition models have proven immensely popular, yet here we are with Stupidfish. (See what I did there?) It’s business as usual, but for the first time it doesn’t have to be. Previously, any Windows user fed up with this kind of nonsense had just one very expensive option: Buy a Mac. Now, you can get a lot of mainstream computing done on an Android tablet, iPad, or Chromebook, with no adware, spyware, junkware, or virus threats of any kind (except phishing). Sign me up! I suspect Superfish will be the final straw for people who simply don’t want to deal with Windows-oriented malware any longer.

The Microsoft Store Web site

Dave: I shouldn’t even dignify “get a Mac” with a response — Macs have their own problems; they’re no magic bullet. But there’s a strong case to be made that certain kinds of PC users can skip the computer entirely and live with a Chromebook, Android tablet, or iPad. They’re less of a headache to manage, have essentially zero risk of malware, and don’t slow down over time as they get gummed up with software updates and drivers. But their Achilles heel is functionality. There are a lot of things you can’t do with those computers that require a full-featured PC. If you want to play new big budget computer games, multitask with multiple monitors, or do sophisticated video and audio editing, you probably need a PC.

Rick: No argument there, but I say park the PC and don’t use it unless you need to perform one of those tasks. For everything else, grab your tablet or Chromebook. So that’s my answer to “How to avoid buying a laptop with malware”: Don’t buy a laptop. Of course, if you really need that kind of functionality full-time, you could resort to drastic measures: The first time you boot the machine, identify and uninstall (using a robust utility like Revo Uninstaller) every single non-standard program. Or, if you have the tech chops, wipe the drive and perform a fresh Windows installation. (I could also argue for “wipe the drive and install Linux,” but that’s what you should do with your old laptop, not your new one.) Those are really your only options–and that’s just sad, isn’t it?

Picture of Dave JohnsonDave: Huh. I honestly didn’t expect that. I figured you’d double down on getting a non-PC, and leave the advice about reinstalling Windows to me. But let me be clear: abandoning a PC in favor of, say, an iPad is absolutely realistic these days. My wife, a teacher, does everything she needs on an iPad — email, writing, web browsing — with the lone exception of a custom tool her school requires her to use that doesn’t work on iOS. And there are excellent photo and video tools out there for tablets these days, including Adobe Freaking Photoshop. But when I buy a new PC, I do what you suggested. I format the drive and reinstall Windows from scratch.  If you do go to the trouble to wipe you new computer, don’t reinstall from the drive’s recovery partition. That just restores all the factory-installed crapware. You need a genuine copy of Windows. As Aliens’ Corporal Hicks would say, “It’s the only way to be sure.”

Picture of Rick BroidaRick: Ah, I knew you couldn’t get through an entire Geek Vs. Geek without trotting out one lame movie quote. But you can’t seriously expect the average computer buyer to jump through those format/reinstall hoops, can you? That’s actually a major undertaking nowadays, as computer makers don’t actually provide Windows on any kind of media. So how do you even do this without using the recovery partition? Thanks, but no thanks. I’m not going to spend hours overhauling a brand new PC just to free myself from crap that shouldn’t be on it to begin with. And I suspect it’s the same for 99 percent of the population. The best option is one of the aforementioned Signature Edition models–but that still doesn’t protect you from garden-variety malware. And that leads us back to tablets and Chromebooks, which I suspect are going to have a BIG year.

Who won? We’d love to hear from you. Weigh in with your opinion in the comments, or tweet @davejoh.

What other tech topics would you like to see Dave and Rick discuss? Send your ideas to Dave via Twitter @davejoh. And if you follow Dave, he promises to come to your home and explain something techy to your dad.

Photo credits: Demand Media, Lenovo, Superfish

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