The 20 Most Annoying Tech ProductsObtrusive behavior, irritating habits, constant nagging--crummy products have bugged you for years. Here are the ones you say have bothered you most.
Dan Tynan, PC World
Dan Tynan writes PC World's Gadget Freak column. He is perpetually annoyed by something.
Artwork by Chip Taylor
Unlike PC World's 25 Worst Products of All Time, irksome products aren't necessarily bad, buggy, or dangerous. But they all have one or two traits that make you want to wrap them in 200 pounds of steel cable and toss them off the side of a boat. From stupid features and rude behavior to brain-dead design and poor corporate policies, these 20 products have truly annoyed us over the years, and some continue to do so.
This list hardly covers every annoying tech product ever made. But where did this list of 20 come from? You picked the worst ones by voting in our Annoyances Poll, and you'll see your Top 10 most annoying products flagged with icons. Just for fun, we've added 10 more products that didn't get enough votes from you in our poll but that we found particularly irksome.
It's still possible, though, that a product not listed here or in our reader survey really got under your skin, so please post a comment below. If nothing else, you might feel a little better.
AOL CDs (1993 to 2006)
As our #1 worst product of all time, America Online gave all of us plenty to be irked about over many, many years.
Photograph by Courtesy of Lydia's AOL Disk Collection
Estimates put the number of discs shipped between July 1993 and July 2006 at over 1 billion; we feel like we received that many ourselves.
Your Take BobMac says: The biggest AOL annoyance shows up when you do the math. They offered 1099 free hours, but you had only 50 days to complete your time. 50 days = 1200 hours - the 1099 free hours = 101 hours of free time, which is 2.02 hours per day of the 50-day trial. When you factor in the reboot time to get back on after AOL kicks you off, there isn't even enough time to go to the bathroom for 50 days. No wonder so many people hate AOL.
argiiod says: While I have no love for the thieving folks at AOL, I still have to thank them for all the free discs. I use them to decorate everything from my computer room to the cockpit of my RV, and I make "computer" clocks out of them by simply adding battery-operated clockworks (believe it or not, these kitschy items still sell like hotcakes at flea markets, swap meets, and yard sales).
The Most Annoying Tech Products, Numbers 2 to 5
Windows Me (2000)
Obviously, you agreed with our take last year when we called Windows Me the "worst version of Windows ever released." It was a mess.
Shortly after its release a tidal wave of bug reports smashed into Redmond. Installation was difficult, hardware driver support was sketchy, and system crashes were routine.
As one PC World columnist said: "If you upgraded to Me from an older version of Windows, you might feel that the term Millennium refers to the length of time it will take to fix the glitches."
Your Take wildbill2u says: I was having a problem with Windows 98. I went through five Microsoft tech reps including supervisors, all of whom directed me to different fixes. After hours and days on the phone, one of them came up with a wonderful "thank you for your patience" gift. A free copy of Windows Me.
What a bummer. I'd rather she had given me herpes. At least I would have enjoyed something of the experience. I suspect a free vial of anthrax or Ebola was the next step up the chain of techs. So now I go to Annoyances.com or the Techguy.com for help.
Apple iTunes, Microsoft Windows Media Player, Microsoft Zune, Napster (2003 to present)
The media players themselves are mostly fine, but their incompatible digital rights management (DRM) schemes drive us nuts. Despite Apple's recent decision to sell some DRM-free songs, most iTunes tunes still play only on iPods, a couple of Motorola phones, or a computer with iTunes software on it. (And the DRM-free songs cost 30 cents more.)
Windows Media files are worse--now, two different, totally incompatible DRM file formats use the .wma file extension. So if you buy a WMA file from a service that uses Microsoft's PlaysForSure DRM (most notably Napster), it won't work with the Zune (which uses Microsoft's Zune DRM). Can't we all just get along?
Microsoft has said it will "soon" sell DRM-free music for the Zune. We'll see.
McAfee Internet Security, Symantec Norton Internet Security (1998 to present)
Security suites are supposed to be like personal bodyguards for your PC, quietly enforcing the rules and keeping you safe without drawing attention to themselves. Not these two.
Norton and McAfee are constantly prompting us to check our security settings, update our subscriptions, and/or buy more products. Given that most new PCs ship with one of these two packages preinstalled--and their subscriptions typically expire after 90 days--it's almost certain they'll nag you too. We have enough problems with our machines' security without also having to worry about our security software.
Your Taketechdragn says: You forgot to mention the fun times had by all when, for unknown reasons, a Norton product will fail to work and require a reinstallation--but will also require that it be uninstalled, and won't. Then you get to track down the special Norton uninstall program, which, after 5 minutes of running, will eventually remove the offending program but comes up with a warning that you must reinstall Norton immediately. (Like I was ever going to do that, after that pain.) A side note for HP software doing the same thing.
Real Networks (Progressive Networks) RealPlayer (1996 to 2004)
The most annoying product on our list is also #2 on our list of the all-time worst products. Why did it leapfrog AOL to become the annoyances champ? Mostly because it had a relentless pushiness about everything it did.
For example, in 1996 Progressive Networks (now called Real Networks) began offering RealPlayer in a $30 Plus version and a free version, but finding the download link for the free one was like playing "Where's Waldo" on the Real.com site. Once you tracked down and installed the free player, it declared itself your default media player for all file formats and began nagging you to pony up $30 for Plus.
Later versions installed themselves into your Windows system tray and popped up pointless (and annoying) "special offers" from Real advertisers. And, of course, Real's notorious attempts to assign unique ID numbers and track consumer media usage--anonymously or otherwise--did nothing to endear itself to us. Pay $30 for this pioneer of pushiness? Get real.
The Most Annoying Tech Products, Numbers 6 to 10
Bonzi Buddy (1999-2004)
Described as a "helper" application, Bonzi Buddy delivered contextual ads to your PC, basically after collecting information from you. Its passing has not been mourned.
As reader Randy J put it to us: "I used to do support for one of the big ISPs. Bonzi Buddy was one to remember. I once used a computer with it on there. It kept popping up and obscuring things you needed to see. I had to uninstall it from many, many people's systems."
MySpace (2003 to present)
Gwendolyn would like to be added as one of your friends. Brittany would like to be added as one of your friends. Latisha would like you to view her free adult video, which incidentally will download spyware to your hard drive.
Sure, the biggest Web sites always attract scammers (see eBay), but they don't have to make it easy. MySpace's minimal barriers to entry make it a haven for bogus "friends."
Microsoft Windows Vista (2007)
It's one of the unwritten laws of computing: All versions of Windows are annoying. Vista wins a prize in part because of its overzealous "Cancel or Continue?" confirmation windows so brilliantly lampooned by Apple's "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" commercials.
But that's only the tip of the Vista annoyance iceberg. Installing Vista onto an older system? There's a good chance that your graphics card, sound card, and some of your older software won't work properly. And even if you have a new system with either the Premium or Ultimate version installed, Vista won't display its nifty 3D Aero interface if your PC lacks the graphics horsepower for it. No warning screens, no error messages, no explanations--Aero simply doesn't work. That's annoying.
Your TakeHarmonic7 says: Good list. Got my personal top three (RealPlayer, QuickTime, and Norton). Glad to see Vista included. I'm bound to get disagreement on this, but I really don't think Me is that bad an OS--I've worked on both 98 SE and Me, and can see very little difference between them. Also, I worked on a friend's Me that was totally infested with malware and had Microsoft components missing when he got it. Fixed it up (he didn't want to reinstall), and it worked flawlessly in spite of his reckless OS hacking, until it finally crashed four years later when one of those missing components was called. Reinstalled the OS, and it's been working fine again for the last year or more! In any case, I wouldn't be at all surprised if, in a few years, Vista replaces Me as the most hated OS of all time (just sayin').
rkinne01 says: I do not agree with Vista being on this list. Vista has only been out for a few months; give it a chance before you trash it. Many of the problems that I have seen posted are generally easily solved or are errors caused by people who have no experience installing OSs. I think that at this point in its existence Vista is in a lot better shape than XP. I personally didn't see why everyone is so put off by the UAC; screen pops, you push a button, you're done. What's so bad about that? The way people carry on, you'd think UAC took an hour to complete per task.
Vista is coming along very nicely. More and more apps are becoming compatible all the time, as are more drivers (come on, HP and nVidia, get with it). I am using Vista now and could not imagine using XP full-time again; XP has always felt rough around the edges to me. Vista looks and feels smoother than XP ever did, and is clearly more secure.
Microsoft Windows Update (1998 to present)
Yes, we know, our computers would be even more vulnerable if we didn't use Update to plug Windows' seemingly endless security holes. But using it to distribute Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage tattleware puts Update firmly in the annoyance column (not to mention the way it autorestarts your system after it's done installing).
Delivered as a "critical" update last spring, WGA installed itself with minimal notice, secretly phoned home with information about users' systems, and wrongly identified possibly millions of legitimate copies of Windows XP as pirated.
Apple QuickTime for Windows (2001 to present)
What is it about media players that makes them think they own your PC? Install QuickTime, and it immediately sets up camp in your Windows system tray, drops icons on your desktop, and loads the qttask.exe applet every time you power up--no questions asked.
You can kick it out of the tray, but the next time you upgrade or reinstall the program, it sneaks back in. Worse, if you want to use iTunes, you have to take QuickTime along with it. Plenty of programs are looking for a home in your system tray, but most of them ask politely first.
None of the following products and services quite got enough votes to make your Top 10 list of the most annoying products, but we found them irritating enough to merit inclusion. Here they are, in no particular order--other than how often they tried our editors' patience.
Microsoft Office 97 (1997)
Illustration by Courtesy of Rhetoric for Engineers
Even more annoying, though, was Office 97's lack of backward compatibility. For example, you couldn't open a Word 97 document in Word 95. After corporate users balked at Microsoft's bald-faced attempt to force them to upgrade, the company released an Office 97 service pack that allowed users to open files in either version of Word.
Adobe (Macromedia) Flash (1996 to present)
Adobe's animation tool, introduced by Macromedia in 1996, has arguably done more than any other product to liven up our Web browsers. But it's also the dominant technology behind those running, jumping, spinning, swirling, flashing, dancing, popping, peeling, and just generally irritating rich-media Web ads. We like Flash, but we wish Web designers would use its power for good and not evil.
AOL Instant Messenger, Microsoft Windows Messenger, Yahoo Messenger (1997 to present)
So you invite a friend to stay over at your place for a while, and before you know it he has invited his half-wit cousins to camp out in your living room. That's what these chat clients are like. To get a simple program for IM-ing your friends, you also have to put up with their Webby companions (such as AIM Today and Inside Yahoo) that load at startup. They also install browser toolbars, change your home page, and toss ads in your face. With chat buddies like these, who needs enemies?
Sony PlayStation 3 (2006)
More eagerly awaited than Vista and almost as disappointing, Sony's PlayStation 3 is full of minor annoyances--from buggy wireless to slow and cumbersome firmware updates (requiring a USB cable). Owners of HDTVs who expected the PS3 to enhance the look of their DVDs got a rude shock: Unlike many DVD players equipped with HDMI outputs, the PS3 doesn't upscale the disc's native 480p resolution to high-definition. And the PS3 still has the distinction of being the only Blu-ray player that does not output movies at 720p. Instead, movies must be scaled (with varying results) to the fixed-pixel-unfriendly 1080i. Worse, problems with high-definition copy protection (HDCP) caused some PS3 titles to blink on and off on some TV sets. The most annoying thing about the PS3? Its $599 list price.
Even More Annoyances
eBay (1995 to present)
The world's biggest auction site has many problems, but its seemingly random approach to policy enforcement is what gets our hackles up. Do something wrong when you post an item--like charge too much for shipping--and the auction police delete your item without any warning, forcing you to redo the listing from scratch. We wouldn't have an issue with this if eBay were better at policing actual scams, such as bogus listings, rampant phishing schemes, and bidding circles in which scammers artificially pump up each other's ratings. Yet by all measures, auction fraud remains Netizens' single biggest complaint. Irritating? You bet.
Apple Pro Mouse (2000)
In 1981, Xerox released the Star workstation, featuring a graphical interface and a two-button mouse. But Apple didn't get around to adding a second mouse button until August 2005, despite the fact that it had supported contextual menus in the Mac OS for years. This was especially infuriating when Apple released its sleek Pro Mouse in 2000: Instead of right-clicking to access contextual menus, Mac mousers had to hold down the Control key while clicking. Was this Apple's way of guaranteeing a steady stream of customers for multibutton mouse vendors like Logitech, Kensington, and Microsoft, or was it mere stubbornness? We're betting on the latter. In either case, it was annoying.
Plaxo (2002 to 2006)
Change the tiniest detail in your Plaxo contact profile, and everybody in your address book would receive a "Hi. I'm updating my address book. Please take a moment to update your latest contact information" e-mail--a not-so-subtle nudge to get them to sign up for Plaxo themselves so that it would update such info without bugging anyone. Plaxo finally abandoned the practice in March 2006, saying it had accumulated enough members that spamming the world was no longer necessary. We had reached the same conclusion years earlier.
Microsoft Office Outlook 2003 (2003)
What do you call an e-mail client that can't handle e-mail? Outlook 2003. Microsoft's premier e-mail program stored all messages in a single, ever-growing data file. The more mail you got, the slower Outlook ran--until it stopped running entirely. Microsoft's solution? Autoarchive your messages, making them nearly impossible to find later or prompting annoying 'Would you like to archive your old messages now?' dialog boxes. No thanks, I'll just switch to Mozilla's free Thunderbird instead.
Apple Power Mac G4 Cube (2000)
Photograph by Courtesy of Apple Computer and Apple-History.com
You've probably never heard of Harmonium, but you've certainly heard it at work--dozens of times a day. This software, developed by Finnish programmer Vesa-Matti "Vesku" Paananen in 1998 and distributed for free over the Net, allows cell phones to produce distinctive (one might also say cheesy) polyphonic ringtones. (Following them were master tones, which are snippets from actual songs.) The world has been a much noisier place ever since. Thanks for nothing, Vesku.
Intuit Quicken 2005 (2005)
Companies have two ways to guarantee a software revenue stream: Come up with compelling new features that entice users to upgrade each year, or take features away if they don't. Intuit chose the latter path with Quicken 2005, forcing users of older versions to pony up if they wanted to continue downloading data from their financial institutions over the Internet. Intuit QuickBooks 2007 earns a dishonorable mention as well, for forcing users to upgrade if they want to run Windows Vista.
Logitech Harmony 550 (2006)
Photograph by Courtesy of Logitech
14 Surefire Ways to Annoy Users
So you're designing a new product and you want to make sure you infuriate as many customers as possible. Be sure to do at least a few of the following things:
More Ways to Annoy Users, From Our Community
bbrigg says: Number 15 in the surefire ways to annoy users: Have your install program install to an obscurely named subdirectory, and put icons on the desktop and in the quick-launch bar, as well as the root of the Start menu, without giving the user any choice in the matter. A lot of well-known programs do this.
Number 16: Force us to activate and then make us do it every time we use a well-known backup program. (Adobe, are you listening?)
gundark says: 21. When upgrading to a new version of software, insist that the old version of the software still be installed before upgrading. Do not allow a simple CD check for the old version.
Aoertel says: As soon as I clicked the link to read a list on "the most annoying products," what should I see? A pop-up ad wanting me to subscribe to PC World. Physician, heal thyself....
The Most Annoying Tech Products: Your Top 10 List
Here are our community's selections for the Top 10 most annoying products, along with the percentage voting for each product/service/annoyance. If you haven't had the chance to participate, join in: You can still vote for your least favorite annoyance.
All others (less than 2% each, for a total of 31%): Comet Cursor, IM Clients (AIM, Yahoo Messenger, Windows Messenger), Adobe Acrobat, Adobe Flash, Apple Pro Mouse, Comcast DVR, eBay, Hotbar, Microsoft Outlook 2003, Quicken 2005, Sony PlayStation 3, Microsoft Office 97, Plaxo, SoftRam, Twitter, Windows Plus Pack for Windows XP, BlackBerry, Bluetooth headsets, Microsoft Bob, Gator