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Why ‘debloating’ Windows is not a good idea (and what to do instead)

Originally posted on zdnet.

Windows enthusiasts love to share strategies for getting rid of unwanted software and making your PC run faster while using fewer system resources. But random scripts and custom install images can cause more problems than they’re worth.

If you spend any time on message boards for Windows enthusiasts, sooner or later you will run across recommendations for Windows “debloater” utilities. These magical tools promise to get rid of unwanted software and make your PC run faster while using fewer system resources. Like every offer that sounds too good to be true, there’s a catch.

What is debloating?

People have been complaining about “bloat” in Microsoft’s flagship OS for as long as I can remember. So-called “debloating utilities” used to be called performance optimizers, and they were mostly snake oil. These days, utilities that promise to streamline your Windows 11 experience tend to be scripts (usually free) or customized installation images that remove apps, disable services, clean out the Windows registry, and change default settings, all in the name of greater performance.

What can go wrong?

A decade or two ago, before solid state drives were standard and when system memory was expensive, this sort of fine-tuning could result in measurable improvements. On modern PCs with sufficient system resources, you will see marginal benefit at best from this sort of indiscriminate brush-clearing, and you run a significant risk of causing additional problems that will cost you far more troubleshooting time than you’ll save in an entire year. I went through the issues reported by users on one popular GitHub-hosted script and found a staggering range of complaints, ranging from “breaks sleep mode on my laptop” and “all my desktop icons turned black” to “most things on my pc are now broken.”

Then, of course, there’s the risk that one of these scripts will add malicious software, as one popular script was discovered to be doing earlier this year.

Using a “debloated” installer created by some random guy with a YouTube channel is just not a good idea. As an alternative, you can use a utility like NTLite, which allows you to create custom installation images and (if you pay for a license) modify a currently installed Windows installation to remove features, apps, and services. It’s an extremely powerful tool, capable of rendering an otherwise functional PC completely useless if you disable the wrong feature. It’s appropriate for full-time administrators and hobbyists who aren’t afraid to break things. If you’re just trying to make your PC easier to use, it’s overkill.

If you have older hardware that can’t be upgraded, you might benefit from reducing the impact of apps and services that run in the background. But you don’t need one of these all-purpose scripts to accomplish that.

So, what should you do instead?

Here’s a quick checklist of ways to safely tune your system.

  • Unwanted apps on the Start menu? In Windows 11, most of the apps included with a default install are just shortcuts that take up almost no disk space. On Windows 10, some games include installation files that use fairly modest amounts of disk space. If you see an app you don’t want, you can make it disappear in short order. Right-click the app icon and click Unpin From Start. Boom! Gone.
  • Unwanted icons on the taskbar? Right-click any empty space on the taskbar. In Windows 10, use the taskbar menu to remove toolbars, buttons, and other clutter. In Windows 11, click Taskbar Settings and use the four checkboxes at the top of that Settings page to hide the Widgets icon (which appears at the far left of the taskbar) and the three other default icons: Search, Task View, and Chat. As for any other icons, including the three default icons — File Explorer, Microsoft Edge, and Microsoft Store — just right-click and choose the Unpin From Taskbar option.
  • Worried about disk space? Many (but not all) of the apps that are preinstalled with Windows 11 can be uninstalled. If you know you’re never going to play the Windows 11 version of Solitaire or use the Movies & TV app to buy or rent videos from the Microsoft Store, you can right-click the app icon and choose Uninstall. The disk space you save is minimal, but every byte counts, right? Some built-in apps don’t support the Uninstall option. You can’t uninstall Cortana, for example, nor can you safely remove the Microsoft Store app or the Microsoft Edge browser. Although you can use Google to find PowerShell commands that will get rid of apps that don’t include the Uninstall option, going to those lengths isn’t worth it. Just hide their shortcuts and move on.
  • Worried about unwanted tracking? You can reduce the amount of diagnostic data Windows collects by going to Settings > Privacy & Security > Diagnostic Data. Make sure the Send Optional Diagnostic Data switch is set to Off.
  • Excessive memory and CPU usage? On a clean install, Windows is pretty reasonable about resource usage, in our experience. You’ll occasionally see a burst of activity as the operating system indexes files for its built-in search capability or when it scans for malware using the built-in Microsoft Defender program. If you install a third-party antivirus app, Microsoft Defender disables itself. I don’t recommend turning off this protection just to save a few CPU cycles.
  • Unwanted startup apps? Open Task Manager and check the Startup Apps tab to see if any third-party programs are running automatically. If you don’t use OneDrive or Edge, you can disable both of those entries and save some resources.

With those tweaks out of the way, the best strategy for avoiding “bloat” is to be extremely careful about installing any third-party software. Legacy programs that add their own services and auto-starting add-ons are the worst offenders in this regard. But treating every third-party program as a potential source of performance problems is probably a wise strategy in the long run.

Source: zdnet

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