Feb 11 2020

Computer Clean Up: What Is Bloatware, and How to Get Rid of It

Bloated software can weigh down even the newest devices, but it doesn’t have to.

Better, faster, stronger — that’s what consumers have come to expect from new technology. The next generation of computers, software and networking is often billed as something to make tasks quicker and simpler.  

So when a new laptop or smartphone is slow, it’s confusing and frustrating for customers. It’s often caused by preinstalled programs that take up memory and lead to lag, but aren’t necessarily easily deleted from the device.

This isn’t a problem only for personal electronics. As companies use more devices, and allow their employees to use their own devices, bloatware can slow down business operations and productivity. In some cases, it may even compromise the safety of an organization’s data and networks.

Not unlike purging a wardrobe, getting rid of these programs and trimming the code is important for a clean and healthy virtual life. While deleting them altogether might not always be an option, there are steps that can help eliminate some of the bloat, keeping devices and organizations humming along safely.

What Is Bloatware?

There are two different kinds of software coding that can affect your device. One is the group of applications that are loaded onto computers and smartphones before they get to the customer. Unflatteringly referred to as bloatware, this is that GPS app you can’t delete from your phone, or that game you can’t uninstall from your laptop. They take up considerable RAM on the device, hindering performance and draining battery life.

The reason this bloatware exists is simple: Manufacturers are paid by app developers to put the program on the devices. According to research from Pennsylvania State University, the money manufacturers get from app developers helps keep the costs of devices low, causing customers to buy them despite the unwanted programming. The researchers note that, as long as the market is willing to accept bloatware as a trade-off for less expensive electronics, it will continue.

Then there’s software bloat, which is when programs are loaded down with code built for tasks that a particular user doesn’t need. A study done by researchers at Stony Brook University found that most of this code was for functions that were disabled, making it particularly useless. Still, the extra code bogs down device functionality, causing other programs to run more slowly. Fatware is another term that customers use to describe these frustrations.

MORE FROM BIZTECH: Read how IT teams remain responsible for security in the cloud.

How Can Bloatware Affect My System?

The main way that bloatware affects systems is by slowing them down. The permanent applications and excess code take up space on the hard drive, interfering with everyday processes and functions. While it is tough to gauge exactly how much of an impact bloatware has, a line of PCs free of any third-party applications started up 104 percent faster, shut down 35 percent faster, and had 28 more minutes of battery life, according to its manufacturer.

Bloatware usually isn’t dangerous, merely inconvenient. But there’s renewed scrutiny amid recent personal data and privacy concerns. As Penn State researchers note, apps often run in the background of a phone or computer, collecting data such as GPS location, hardware identification numbers and phone numbers, with no clear way to know what’s being tracked — unsettling to device users.

While there may not be direct security concerns about software bloat, more code often means more fuel for hackers to weaponize. Stony Brook’s researchers point out that instruction sequences can be leveraged against users to create hacking tools, not to mention any potential security bugs that could be living in the code. Because the sequences aren’t used, it would be nearly impossible to find the bugs, making eliminating the code the best option for staying secure.

28 minutes

The amount of extra battery life that a line of bloatware-free PC's had.

Source: Microsoft

How Can I Remove Bloatware from My Computer?

There are a few methods for debloating computer systems. Regardless of which one is used, the unnecessary code has to be identified before it can be eliminated. Two of the more popular ways to do this are through a static software analysis and a dynamic software analysis. A static analysis examines code without the application running, identifying the code that isn’t being used. A dynamic analysis looks at the software while the program is executing to sort out what’s being used in necessary functions.

A third way, configuration-driven software debloating, uses the app’s configuration directives to find the code that won’t be used. With this method, the team at Stony Brook notes, it’s important to make sure that the code that disables one function of the program won’t also disable the directives that are being used. Many computer science researchers are tackling and tweaking these complex methods to make tightening up code as quick and accurate as possible.

MORE FROM BIZTECH: Read more about how to improve your system’s performance.

How Can I Remove Bloatware from My Phone or Tablet?

Removing bloatware from a mobile device can be a bit trickier. Depending on the smartphone’s or tablet’s setup, it can be impossible to remove some of the preinstalled apps. Penn State researchers found that the only way to get rid of them was to unlock the phone from its factory settings, also known as jailbreaking. Once unlocked, the apps can often be deleted. 

Just because some devices come with bloated software doesn’t mean they need to stay that way. By regularly cleaning out applications and code, organizations can keep their devices speedy and secure.

Anastasiia Yanishevska/Getty Images