Ask Paul: September 1 (Premium)

Happy, um, Thursday, and welcome to an earlier-in-the-week-than-usual edition of Ask Paul ahead of the Labor Day long weekend. Why? I’m traveling to the Finger Lakes region of New York state for the holiday weekend.
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andrew asks:

Paul, is your goal of eliminating ads and general obnoxiousness reasonable while still using Windows? Between desktop notifications telling me to use programs I already use, a cute and handy weather indicator in the taskbar suddenly being replaced with calls for my attention to check out some new celebrity bikini photos or whatever (Breaking News!), search selling me things what aren't the files I am searching for, etc. it seems as though Windows is one of the worst offenders. I gave up and switched my desktop machine to Zorin OS, and the digital silence is amazing. Short of switching OSes, I'd think you would be stuck playing whack-a-mole with various settings hidden as deep as possible to disable that stuff.

Obviously, I spend a lot of time thinking about this. But between writing the relevant parts of the Windows 11 Field Guide recently and what is suddenly a tsunami of laptop reviews that require me to keep reconfiguring Windows 11 from scratch, it’s been top of mind. And looking past my personal issues with Windows and telemetry, and how you can’t disable it (for the most part), I have been trying to think through what the real-world impact is of this behavior. Not just for me but in general.

And the issue you raise here is really multiple issues, each with its own threat assessment. That said, the overall impact, honestly, is usually quite minor, though that will depend on how you use Windows. Most people reading this site, for example, probably disable Widgets (well, hide the taskbar item) and know what they can do about “suggestions,” which appear as toast notifications and occasionally elsewhere in the UI. Most “normal” (non-technical) users probably don’t think about this stuff and regard the occasional interruption as part of the Windows experience.

But let me briefly consider each of these issues.

Widgets. I hide the icon, so there’s no harm, no foul, but I should at least point out that this interface has gotten a lot better and that there is a pretty simple wizard you can use to tailor it for your interests. (Open Widgets, click your profile image, choose “Manage interests” to go to the Microsoft Start website, and then scroll down to the bottom of the navigation bar on the left and choose “Tune your feed.”) Do I wish that I could literally disable this? (For example, Widgets still appears if you type WINKEY + W.) Sure. But it’s not offensive.

Default app nonsense. I’ve made a mini-career over the past year of complaining about how you can set Chrome or whatever browser as the default but you will still run Edge if you click on a story in Widgets, a web-based search result in Start search, or an item in Search highlights, and I will nev...

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