Pack-in utilities: helping or hindering?

I've had a particular problem cropping up lately with some of the computers on my network, and I've traced it back to a piece of software included by the original manufacturer. What are your thoughts about these "value-added" accessories? How many of them are worth keeping?

I’m sure that you’re all aware of the habit that Windows PC manufacturers have of installing a number of bundled applications with their computers. At one point this may have risen out of a genuine intent to provide users with a better experience, but lately these inclusions are the result of back-end licensing deals that the manufacturers have made to pad their ever-decreasing profit margins on hardware.

Thankfully, those of us buying computers for the enterprise don’t usually have to deal with the same cruft that’s included on the computers sold directly to consumers. We can usually opt out of the inclusion of crippleware (30-day antivirus software trials sound familiar to anyone?). This makes configuring our in-office software build easier for me when we start using a new machine model, because there’s not a whole lot of junk for me to uninstall. My experiences of late, though, are causing me to rethink my definition of “junk”.

When putting together my new Windows builds, I usually take advantage of some of the pack-ins that manufacturers include. I’ve never thought that site licensing a specific program for DVD playback or disc burning was a good use of our meager software budget; usually the applications included by the computer manufacturer do a fine job of making up for Windows’ shortcomings. There are other situations where I’ve found pack-ins useful. Anyone else remember the location management software that IBM used to include on their ThinkPads a few years ago? This utility was included when WiFi networks started to become more common and the program provided users with a one-stop interface where they could create and manage presets for the multiple network configurations that their laptops might need to use. I always thought that particular tool was an elegant solution to a problem that Microsoft wasn’t addressing in Windows 2000. So, there have been pack-ins that I’ve found helpful. Only recently though have I found one that actually hinders my users.

We’ve been buying laptops in Dell’s Latitude 800 series for awhile, and we’ve been very happy with them. That is, except for the included Dell QuickSet Utility. This tool is intended to provide a single interface for a number of Control Panel functions, such as display settings and power management. It sort of accomplishes this goal; you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to. In most cases, QuickSet only consolidates obvious options. It doesn’t really reveal new ones…except in one crucial case.

QuickSet has been set by default on all of our new laptops to power down the built-in network card when the laptop is running off of its battery. This feature sounds like it could be useful, but I’ve found it very unreliable. In particular, several times now I’ve seen QuickSet and/or Windows fail to bring the wired network interface back online when the user docked their computer at their desk. This results in my user not being able to connect to our wired network with their laptop, and prompts them to call me for help.

I’ve gone back and disabled this QuickSet feature on all the machines I have in the field, and disabled it in our software build, and if the problem ever crops up again, at least now we know how to solve it. But frankly, I’m experiencing a “once bitten, twice shy” reaction to some of these included system utilities, especially when they might do as QuickSet has done and provide a way to tweak a core system setting that most people wouldn’t otherwise touch. Network card power management is buried in the properties accessible through the Device Manager in Windows XP. It’s not a setting that should be flipped casually, the same way a user might change screen brightness.

How do you feel about pack-in software? Do you immediately scrape it all off of your machines, or are there some included apps that you find useful? Let me know in the Comments.