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Review: HTC One X Reveals Refined ‘Bloatware’ Strategies

Fri, 05/25/2012 - 6:21am
Andrew Berg

Also called "crapware" or "bloatware,” pre-installed software on Android phones can come across as tacky advertising, cluttering up the home screen on a shiny new gadget. Some of those apps and widgets are laughable, some are helpful and some are just plain perplexing.

To some extent, these are otherwise unwanted additions to the clean slate you ordered when you shelled out the money for your new handset and agreed to a two-year contract. Myriad arguments have been made for and against pre-installed applications. Some say they’re not only unwanted, but they also present security risks. Others say they’re a good way to help developers get their work out in front of consumers, while consumers get the benefits by the discovery of new apps and services.

That said, I recently decided to take a good hard look at the contents at the dashboard of the HTC One X from AT&T. I have to admit that it wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the devices I’d seen a few years ago when all the bellyaching around bloatware began. Some of what I found was genuinely useful. Others were wishful thinking on the part of the carrier, and still others were downright tacky.

The YP App: Pre-installed replete with a home screen widget, the Yellow Pages app, which allows users to search for a variety of different things in the local area, is a good attempt at keeping alive AT&T's struggling directory business. While some might find the app useful, I found its placement front and center on one of the One X's seven home screens rather annoying, if redundant. Still, you can't blame AT&T for trying given the ridiculous number of third-party local search apps vying for a piece of the pie. The one thing that was kind of nice about the YP widget is that it features searchable local gas prices, as well as the same kinds of local deals you might find in that brick of yellow pages that is so rudely dropped on your door step every so often. (Keep for Some, Trash for Others.)

AT&T Live TV: This dummy widget, which takes users to Google Play to download the actual app, is for U-Verse customers only. As a U-Verse customer myself, I've never used Live TV on my phone, but then I'm rarely in a situation where I need to watch “The Morning Show” on my mobile. I guess for those who have long commutes on public transport, this might be just the ticket. For those who don't, or those who aren't U-Verse customers, it's kind of an eyesore. (Keep and Download for Some U-Verse Customers, Trash for Everyone Else.)

Facebook, Twitter and G+: These three social networks are about as ubiquitous as the Yellow Pages used to be back in the days of A-Z, page-by-page phone directories. Every OEM and carrier has realized the demand for instant access to Facebook and Twitter (the verdict's still out on Google+). Signing into Facebook has to be second only to signing into one's Google account on the list of things Android users do after taking their phone out of the box. (Facebook and Twitter are definite Keeps for Most, while Google+ might be a Trash for Some.)

AT&T Navigator: In this always-on, Google-mapped world, I will never again pay a subscription fee for turn-by-turn navigation. In my opinion, $9.99 is "highway robbery" given the number of free options on the market. (Trash It.)

myAT&T: AT&T has done a great job with its account management app. myAT&T allows users to pay and view bills, track usage and add features. If you're using the One X (or any AT&T smartphone for that matter), this is a good use of real estate. (Keep It.)

AT&T Code Scanner: I like that AT&T is getting this one front and center on its Android devices. Scanning QR codes is a practice that has gone mainstream and putting this one on the home screen is one way of facilitating adoption and educating consumers about a useful technology. The app is also simple and easy to use. Just point the camera at any type of barcode and that's it. The camera snaps the photo and points the browser in the right direction. It's considerate of AT&T that the home screen widget actually directs you to Google Play, where users can learn more about the scanner and then download if they think it's something they can use. (Download and Keep It – unless you know of another scanner app that you prefer).

Top HD Games: This is one of those widgets that gives Android a bad name. Basically a portal to Gameloft's own app store, it might be argued that this is one solution to the app discovery problem. Guessing Gameloft – Uno, Modern Combat – paid a hefty sum to have its widget planted on one of the One X's otherwise beautiful home screens. In my view, this one's akin to a ticky-tacky billboard cluttering up the scenery on your brand new phone. (Trash It on principle alone.)

HTC Watch: While I don't think this portal to HTC's media store needs to take up a whole screen, it does signal progress for the Android ecosystem. Android has long struggled to present users with a simple, cohesive solution for finding and downloading content such as movies and TV shows. While Google has made impressive strides in this area with more seamless integration of Google Play with Android, it's refreshing to see choice on a smartphone. Without naming names, I'll venture to say that users of other platforms are not so lucky. (Keep It.)

YouTube: This is truly a matter of preference. Analytics say video "snacking" on mobile is all the rage and most of those 3-minute snacks are consumed via YouTube. This is a popular service (even comes pre-installed on the iPhone) and carriers like it up front for obvious reasons, especially as they've signaled the final death of the unlimited plans. (Keep it if you use it, trash it if you don't.)

Clock and Weather Widget: The beautiful, apple of every iOS user's eye, HTC's brilliant weather, time and date app. (Keep It, if only to spite those iPhone users who are envious of your options for personalization.)

Under the hood: There are many more pre-installed apps that either the carrier or the OEM hopes users will consider. Click on the “Applications” button on the home screen of the One X and you'll find, among other goodies: Amazon Kindle (eReader app); Car (a handy, simplified UI for using your phone while in the car); MOG (on-demand subscription music streaming), the entire suite of Google apps (Talk, Books, Latitude.)

In all, I have to say that I think Android OEMs, as well as carriers, are approaching pre-installed software with a bit more tact now than they have in the past. While not every offering will please, these pre-installed "suggestions" are a good introduction to the true power of a new device for the first-time smartphone user.

Perhaps the most discouraging thing is that while you might be able to trash those offensive applications from your homescreen many remain installed on your phone. I tried to ‘disable’ the MOG app on the One X and was told: “If you disable a built-in app, others may misbehave.” This is where a friendly “suggestion” crosses into the territory of heavy-handed imposition, and I think this is where paying customers are right in their criticisms of “crapware.”   

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