Inundated with Bloat: MSI Manages to Double Boot Time on New Laptops

By Published May 25, 2017 at 6:17 pm
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One of the most frustrating aspects of the hardware industry is when a company made a perfectly viable product, but somehow flummoxed execution. The consumer doesn’t see the architecture or the engineering – at least, not outside of reviews – they see the full picture. In this capacity, consumers get a view of a product that is similar to a product manager’s: The big picture as it comes together, seeing past all the smaller details along the way.

A GPU might, for instance, be a powerhouse when analyzed under an SEM or in a vacuum, but could prove hamstrung in adverse thermal conditions resultant of an inadequate cooler. More appropriately, a laptop could host the best mobile hardware available, but prove devalued when flooded with unneeded software. The fastest SSD in the business, as bogged down with bloatware, will still be slower than a clean Windows install on a fresh HDD.

This big picture is sometimes lost to the chaos of marketing development efforts, particularly when MDF starts exchanging hands, and lost in the need to turn a profit in an industry with small margins. That’s what happened with MSI’s laptops: These are completely capable, highly competitive laptops that demand attention – but they’re plagued with an ineffable concoction of applications, responsible for doubling time required to boot. That’s not all, either – we have measured an impact to noise output as the CPU boosts sporadically, an unpredictable and spurious impact to frametimes, an impact to battery life, and an overall reduction in product quality.

All because of bloatware.

 

The components are the hard part: the chassis, the cooling, and the packaging of silicon from chip makers isn’t trivial. MSI has done an excellent job with some of their laptops when considered from a hardware perspective, but the company has thwarted its own efforts with unnecessary software partnerships.

This isn’t the first time we’ve reprimanded MSI for its bloatware. The company’s laptops, despite receiving overall high marks in our reviews, always carry at least a dozen aftermarket applications – many of which launch on boot. This entire episode almost feels like a jaunt through the Twilight Zone: This industry has had a discussion on bloatware for longer than this publication has existed, at this point, and a few manufacturers are relapsing. They’re relapsing to days of unactivated, pre-installed WinZip copies (yes, really), photo “management” software, and a dozen control panels that reskin Windows core functions. Providing a dozen pathways to the Windows Control Panel is not a value-add for anybody. We don’t need six different ways to get to battery management.

Some of the SIs have figured it out; in fact, it’s actually a service – a selling point – to buy laptops from SIs explicitly because they’ll often offer a no-bloat option. That’s almost tragic. Great for them, though.

But talking about the issue in a cursory fashion doesn’t quite do it justice. Let’s walk through the pre-installed applications on MSI’s brand new GE72 7RE Apache Pro notebook, equipped with an Intel i7-7700HQ and GTX 1050 Ti. We’ll run a few A/B tests with and without the bloatware, just to establish a bridge of communications that MSI can hopefully understand.

Insurmountable Wall of Bloatware

Starting off simple, here’s a bulleted list of what’s included in the laptop’s default shipping state:

  • Battery Calibration
  • BurnRecovery
  • CyberLink PowerDVD 12
  • Dragon Center
  • Firebird SQL Server – Magix Edition
  • Help Desk
  • Proset Wireless
  • Killer Performance Suite
  • Magix Content and Soundpools
  • Magix Music Maker Silver
  • Magix Photo Manager 16
  • Microsoft Office 365
  • MSI Remind Manager
  • MSI TrueColor
  • Nahimic 2
  • Norton Online Backup
  • Norton Security (trial)
  • SCM
  • Sizing Options (one of the worst)
  • SteelSeries Engine 3.8.1
  • WinZip 17.5
  • XSplit Gamecaster

msi bloatware control panel

Some of these are more defensible or useful than others. XSplit is, perhaps, one of the best optional adds – it doesn’t pop-up on boot, either. As for all this Magix software, and the infuriating Sizing Options software, there’s really no reason for it to be on the laptop.

The Objective Impact: Boot Time Doubling

To double anything in the world of computing is an impressive feat. A 2x gain – that’s hard to do, especially with the advanced state of today’s hardware. Multiplying a metric two times over. Think about the gravity of that delta, just for a moment.

Then realize that MSI’s managed to do it – in a negative fashion.

The MSI laptop team has doubled the amount of time the OS requires to fully boot. From depression of the power button to the time the system is usable (read: when the hour glass stops spinning), we’re measuring an increase from ~18-18.4s in boot time to roughly 40s. That power button might stay depressed, because this time increase is completely avoidable. But here we are, again, a year after our initial bloatware analysis on MSI’s notebooks.

Again, to clarify, this is an A/B difference between a completely clean Windows install and one which carries MSI’s parasitic software. Tooltip pop-ups, warranty reminders, screen white balance adjustment (reskinned f.lux), Norton AV, backup utilities, window resizing tools, and numerous control panels that overlap in functionality are all responsible for this behavior.

Here’s a table with our logged boot times:

 

Clean Install

MSI Stock Config

Pass 1

18.0

39.6

Pass 2

18.4

40.4

Pass 3

18.4

40.0

Pass 4

18.6

40.0

Pass 5

18.4

41.2

These numbers, by the way, are awfully generous to MSI: They don’t account for the wretched, unreliable usability of the system post-boot. If one were to attempt typing around the 30-45 second interval of stock config boot operations, a frustratingly delayed input would be encountered. This is a sporadic, but reproducible issue – one which we’ve recorded, as seen in the video version of this content – and causes words to appear long after they’ve been typed. Testing in a search bar or notepad window works well: We can type at speed and see hard freezes and skips during typing, whereupon a freeze creates a mobile phone-like effect of instantaneously printing all letters to screen.

As we’ve learned in past coverage, though, MSI does not respond well to criticism – the company normally challenges our content or privately asks us to change the title (which is unethical, as far as we’re concerned). For this reason, we decided to dig deeper than just one key metric.

Battery Life Reduction

Depending on how it’s tested, the GE72 7RE’s battery life also experiences detrimental effects of flooded services and background applications. We primarily tested with a trace workload of office-type tasks: Typing, web browsing, and some video playback looping until death of the battery. The tests were conducted three times for parity, then averaged.

msi ge72 battery life bloatware

We’re seeing a 6-8% reduction in up-time, depending on which pass is measured (closer to 6~7% with the averaged data). In some tests, we saw upwards of 10% reductions in battery life. We did not test idle battery life, but it’d theoretically be more exaggerated than productivity tasks. Gaming tasks, as might be apparent, experience minimal change between the bloat/no-bloat A/B tests, given the already intense load from the application. For office work and web browsing, though, a non-trivial amount of uptime is axed to accommodate software that will almost certainly go unused.

Noise & Turbo Boost

Intel’s Turbo Boost functionality ties to the fan, in some capacity, triggering ramped fan states as the notebook encounters bursted workloads. This was actually our first inspiration for the article, although system hangtime during typing and lengthy boot times later added fuel to that fire.

The noise was interesting in particular, though: We noticed greater modulation in fan RPM (via subjective listening) with the system in its bloated state than with a clean Windows install. Curiosity piqued, we configured a logging noise meter (@ 20”, noise floor 26dBA) to log laptop noise emissions over a period of about an hour with bloatware installed. The curve looks something like this:

msi ge72 noise bloatware

The noise modulation corresponds to fan speed ramping, which corresponds with Turbo states firing off to accommodate pings and polls by background processes. Although removing these does not entirely remedy the fan speed modulation, it helps to a point of becoming nearly unnoticeable. The greatest problem with computer noise is not necessarily raw dBA output, but more to do with noise change peak-to-peak. More frequent changes are more noticeable and more annoying, naturally.

Frametime Disparity

Here’s another curious point: In our last round of bloatware tests, we measured and reported frequent, high-impact framerate reductions with the bloat-infected system. Today, we’re not seeing as big of a negative performance impact – that’s good. One of these applications – and it’s nigh impossible to know which, given how many there are – has somehow changed. Perhaps fewer calls home during gaming, or maybe a lower priority process state – we’re not sure. But the framerate impact isn’t as immediately bad as it used to be.

We can, however, still measure frametime variance with greater frequency of occurrence than when testing a clean install. Here’s a sample of that data:

msi ge72 frametime blops3

Although not nearly as bad as previous testing, we can state that there is enough variance between tests on the bloated system that we’re seeing reliability issues. With a clean install, the numbers are consistent and predictable – one pass tends to equal the next, more or less. With the cluttered install, pass results can sometimes equal one another, or can be wildly different in the worst 1% and 0.1% frametimes. We see some of that in the above interval plot, where more spikes are encountered.

So no, this isn’t as bad for framerate as we’ve seen in the past, but it’s producing inconsistency – and we don’t like that, particularly when it is for no gain.

The Reason Why

Bloatware like MSI’s doesn’t get installed because they believe the user will genuinely make use of, for instance, Magix music editing tools, a SQL server, or Winzip. They’re installed because of agreements with those ISVs, where either favors or money (and MDF) trade hands. That’s not abnormal to the industry, but MSI must realize that there needs to be a weighted interaction between itself, consumers, and the ISVs. There comes a point at which reputation is irreparably damaged, whereupon a consumer will not entrust MSI with their next purchase. Remember: Not every buyer is an enthusiast like our audience. Many laptop buyers will suspect it’s either an issue with the hardware (not true) or with Windows (mostly not true), rather than assuming the manufacturer has elected to sabotage their own product with software that drags to a crawl. This is where we get defectors from a brand or from an OS – they’ll buy something else next time, just because this laptop seems “slow.”

And they’d be right to do so, because it is – but it can be fixed with a clean OS. It makes no sense that MSI would invest so much into reasonably quality hardware, then ruin it with software partnerships.

When we asked MSI about this problem, the company noted that other manufacturers also pre-install software. MSI is admitting to being an industry follower, with this statement, and is straying from innovation or improvement.

After all, as we all know, bad behavior is acceptable if “everyone” else does it.

Editorial: Steve Burke
Video Producer: Andrew Coleman

Last modified on May 25, 2017 at 6:17 pm
Steve Burke

Steve started GamersNexus back when it was just a cool name, and now it's grown into an expansive website with an overwhelming amount of features. He recalls his first difficult decision with GN's direction: "I didn't know whether or not I wanted 'Gamers' to have a possessive apostrophe -- I mean, grammatically it should, but I didn't like it in the name. It was ugly. I also had people who were typing apostrophes into the address bar - sigh. It made sense to just leave it as 'Gamers.'"

First world problems, Steve. First world problems.

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