Over the past year, a number of you have been telling us that, due to “pre-optimization” of computers, it’s difficult — sometimes impossible — to walk into a Best Buy and leave with the advertised deal (in effect, you would be paying a $39.99 surcharge over the computer’s advertised price). We decided to look into your complaints. We sent the Consumer Reports secret shoppers to 18 different Best Buys in 11 states, and one of our shoppers was denied the price advertised for a specific model because only pre-optimized computers were available. When the Consumer Reports engineers compared three “optimized” computers to ones with default factory settings, there was no performance improvement. In one case, an optimized laptop actually performed 32% worse than the factory model.
Would you pay $39.99 to improve your computer’s processor speed by 200%? What about software updates that would take you two days to perform on your own? Or how about services that take an “incomplete” computer and make it more useful? Good deals, right? Just one problem: None of these claims – made by real Best Buy sales clerks about the company’s Geek Squad optimization services – is true.
We wanted to know three things:
- What is optimization? What does the service consist of?
- How is Best Buy marketing the service? How widespread is “pre-optimization,” in which a store sells computers that have already been optimized?
- Is optimization something you should consider? Can you do it yourself? Is it a good deal? Are there any downsides to the service?
To find the answers to these questions, we enlisted the help of the Consumer Reports secret shoppers, the technical experts on CR’s electronics testing team, and of course, Consumerist readers themselves.
Meet Betty and Nelson
All Betty (not her real name, but a real Consumerist reader) wanted was to go to Best Buy, pick up a laptop she saw advertised in a newspaper circular, pay for it, and leave.
It wasn’t that simple. She was quickly informed that if she wanted the laptop she saw in the ad, she’d need to pay $39.99 for optimization.
“I replied that I really didn’t care about computer optimization, and that I came into the store to purchase the laptop for $649.99, the advertised price,” Betty told us in an email. “[The Best Buy employee] said that there was nothing he could do about the $39.99 optimization charge, since those were the only models left in the store.”
Betty is the stubborn type. She refused to pay for a service she didn’t want, so she was told to go pick up the laptop at another branch. Once Best Buy employees began calling around, they discovered that the pre-optimization issue persisted at other nearby stores.
After another 45 minutes passed, the second manager Betty spoke to agreed to waive the fee.
Reader Nelson, however, wasn’t as lucky. He wasn’t able to walk out of the store with the advertised deal. Despite protesting, he was charged a fee for a service he didn’t want.
“It wasn’t optional,” Nelson told Consumerist, “They said that they sold out of the unoptimized $250 Acer laptops and the only ones left were the optimized versions. The other Best Buys around my area were sold out too.”
Nelson managed to talk Best Buy down 50%, to $20 for optimization, but still feels cheated. He told us he doesn’t think pre-optimization is fair to the people who don’t want the service.
What is optimization?
Getting to the bottom of what exactly the consumer gets for their $39.99 was more difficult a proposition than we initially assumed. Eventually, we had to buy three optimized laptops and enlist the help of CR’s electronics testing experts to tell us what had been done to them, but we started by looking at Geek Squad’s website.
Here’s how they describe the service on the Geek Squad blog:
Our Geek Squad Agents enable up to 100 system tweaks that improve PC performance and functionality, including optimized startup and shutdown, improved menu navigation, quick launch and taskbar cleanup and program shortcut creation.
There are also several different types of “new computer” services being sold to prospective buyers. They include, but are not limited to, anti-virus installation and recovery-disc creation. The services range in price from $29.99 to $219.99, and include offerings for both Windows PCs and Macs.
On our first visit to Best Buy we intended to ask about the optimization services, but the sales staff never seemed to come our way, so we grabbed a Geek Squad folder full of sales information that was being made available to prospective customers.
It included a confusing and intimidating order sheet that seemed inspired by the ones used by auto mechanics, complete with official-looking carbonless copy paper. The menu seemed designed to replicate the experience of having your car serviced.
For example, the folder contained a sheet that touted a six-month anti-virus protection deal, provided for free with all PC purchases. Geek Squad offers something called “Standard Security and Performance” ($69.99), which includes optimization and then the installation and configuration of anti-virus software (plus the cost of the software itself).
If, however, you choose computer optimization alone ($39.99), you could still get anti-virus programs offered with “Standard Security & Performance,” because they’re part of that six-month deal.
We drank coffee and tried our hardest to see why anyone would choose to pay $69.99 for a service that was nearly identical to one that cost $39.99 and were unable to think of anything that sounded reasonable.
The Secret Shopping Adventure
According to Nelson, the salesperson told him that ‘optimized was better’ and that Best Buy were sold out of un-optimized laptops. “Yes, I felt it was an attempt to upsell me on the ‘optimization fee,”‘ Nelson told Consumerist. “She knew I wasn’t going to budge on that ridiculous price of $40 extra ’cause I knew what I was talking about.”
With that in mind, we set out to see if Betty and Nelson’s experience could be replicated. Did Best Buy make inflated claims about the value of these services, and in some cases, even try to sell pre-optimized computers to customers who didn’t want them, citing a lack of unopened computers?
To help us find out, we dispatched the Consumer Reports secret shoppers to 18 Best Buy branches in 11 states.
The shoppers are scattered throughout the U.S. and are responsible for researching and sometimes purchasing the products that Consumer Reports tests. For our mission, each shopper was to go to a Best Buy location and inquire about an advertised laptop, then report back about the optimization options that were offered – and how they were characterized by the sales staff.
The first shopper reported back within a few hours. She had indeed been denied the advertised deal because all available units had been pre-optimized.
Here is her account of the conversation:
Salesperson: Best Buy has this model, but it’s $369.99 instead of $329.99.
CR Shopper: Why?
S: Because it was already optimized.
CRS: What does this mean?
S: The model is quicker, the user can “sign on” and it won’t have to be configured.
CRS: Why is it quicker?
S: Because they removed the trial version of products like Norton.
CRS: Does that mean that I will not have anti-virus protection?
S: They can install a 6-month antivirus program.
CRS: Is the optimization optional?
S: It’s not optional because we don’t have any of this model without the optimization, but we have other laptops that are not optimized.
CRS: Can you waive the fee?
S: The fee can’t be waived because it’s already installed.
We also learned a few other interesting things about Best Buy’s optimization sales pitch. One shopper was told that optimization made the computer’s processor “200% faster.” The same shopper was told that he could try to optimize the computer on his own, but without assistance he would not be able to increase the processor speed.
When the shoppers asked if they could duplicate the optimization themselves, they got a variety of estimates of the time they would save if Best Buy did it for them. One shopper was told she would save “an hour and a half,” while another was told that downloading Windows updates alone would take 6 hours. One shopper was even told that optimizing a computer at home would take about two days!
Another shopper was warned that the laptop was “incomplete” without optimization.
When she asked what the salesperson meant by “incomplete,” he told her that it didn’t come with anti-virus software or Microsoft Office. The salesperson went on to tell her that optimization was her choice, but that Best Buy didn’t “recommend getting online” without it.
He explained, “You’ll get online, get a virus, and end up spending $200 to clean it up.”
When she asked if she could install anti-virus software herself instead of paying Geek Squad to do it, she was told installing software yourself, “negates the vendor’s warranty.”
During this same conversation, our secret shopper says the salesperson also told her that the manufacturer’s warranty was “obsolete” and had been “replaced” with Best Buy service contracts (which she would need to pay for, of course, and that were not included in the optimization price).
Not all salespeople touted optimization, and many branches did have unoptimized units of advertised laptops in stock, and were willing to sell them without pushing optimization. One sales rep even told our shopper not to buy a laptop during that visit, because some “truly amazing sales” were coming up soon.
In Which There Is Science
Though we did learn a few interesting things about Best Buy’s sales practices, we found ourselves no closer to being able to tell if optimization was a good deal – or even precisely what it was.
So, we asked Consumer Reports’ electronics testing experts to help us out. They purchased three optimized laptops from a local Best Buy: An Asus U50A-RBBML05, a Gateway NV5207U, and a Toshiba Satellite A505-S6980. They then compared each optimized laptop to regular factory setups to see what kind of improvements optimization might offer.
Here’s what they found:
When we received our test models, the initial impression was of a rushed service: Some samples were left in standby mode, and two had not finished installing Windows updates. A quick start guide for one laptop had been mixed in with the papers in another laptop’s box, and a power cable for one sample was missing.
Upon comparing the optimized changes, the first noticeable change was a cleaner desktop. Most of the removed shortcuts were for trials, promotions and software added by the manufacturer. The programs themselves were still installed and available for later access. Updates had been downloaded on all three models, but differences in the factory default setup can affect how the system is optimized. On one laptop, for example, because Windows Defender was deactivated by default, its definitions had not been updated.
Some optimization changes seemed intended to make the laptop easier to use, such as adding the status bar to the file explorer, or displaying the file menu bar in Internet Explorer. Including a link to the Downloads folder in the Start menu, for example, can save you a few clicks. Security settings were adjusted to allow for automatic Windows updates, and in Internet Explorer, privacy settings were eased up to allow websites you visit to save info you provide on your PC.
Because optimization was being pitched to some of our shoppers on the basis of improving the computer’s performance, we asked the tech team to compare the performance of optimized computers to ones with factory settings.
Here are the results of the tests:
We ran the 3DMark 2003 graphics benchmark on each laptop, comparing optimized and non-optimized settings. For two of our samples, the Gateway and Toshiba, performance changes were negligible. On the Asus laptop, however, optimized tests actually scored about 32% worse than the non-optimized setup. We have been unable to isolate the source of this performance change. On none of the three tested laptops did the optimized settings give a performance boost in our test.
And finally, we wanted to know if a consumer could “optimize” their own computer.
Some of the optimized settings were changes that typical users can do themselves, and basic security measures, such as the Windows Firewall or OS updates, are normally already activated by default. The optimization service does cover most of the security settings we recommend you perform, but in addition, you should check that Windows Defender and your anti-virus software are active and updated, and keep a recovery backup of your system and files. Geek Squad’s optimization is best for saving consumers the hassle of waiting for updates to download, or applying tiny “tweaks” to promote usability. However, you might not like all the setting choices Geek Squad makes, and as a performance enhancement, the optimization failed to impress.
In Which We Draw Conclusions
Based on the results of the tech team’s tests, we believe that optimization is not a good deal for most consumers. Our tests show that the service did not improve performance, and there are a number of free ways to do many of the same tasks (though you may be out of luck if you just have to have those exclusive “100 system tweaks”). We’ve listed a few of them below.
Yes, having Geek Squad download your Windows updates can save you time, but the tech team found that the service was inconsistent. Best Buy hadn’t finished installing all the updates, and of course, a power cable was missing from one of the computers. The computers we received still had the trialware installed – only the shortcuts were removed from the desktop.
We asked Best Buy about the inconsistent information provided by their sales staff, and about some of the more incredible claims about the benefits of optimization. A spokesman admitted that boasts of a 200% performance gain “seem a bit aggressive.” He also said that no stores should refuse to sell a consumer an unoptimized version of a product.
“This is about the choice,” the spokesman said. “If you don’t want it, you don’t have to get it.” He added that “we always try to stock some that are stock and standard so customers have the choice,” and suggested that customers who feel they were pushed into optimization when they didn’t want it should contact the company directly.
We asked Best Buy about the real value of optimization to consumers. The spokesman acknowledged that the service “isn’t for everybody” and “some people can do it themselves.” He said that one advantage of optimization is the “customization” that can be performed for individual consumers. However, when asked about pre-optimized computers – which aren’t customized for individuals – he suggested that “things like the updates and tweaks and removing programs” still make it a useful service for some buyers. “I would get optimization for my parents,” he said.
The New Service Economy
Best Buy takes the position that optimization is simply a choice available to consumers, and that it’s not for everyone, but looking at the larger picture it becomes clear that the company is betting heavily on services like optimization to take them through the recession and beyond.
In a recent Fortune magazine article, Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn cited “connectivity” (such as Geek Squad services designed to help consumers use their electronics together more effectively) as a potential $250 billion business that his company is going to aggressively pursue to remain competitive with more diverse big box threats like Walmart.
The company is experimenting with a new store layout that eliminates the many racks of DVDs and CDs and instead has stations for MP3 players, laptops, and such, according to Fortune. Each station will be manned by Best Buy employees who might turn your tech questions into sales opportunities for Geek Squad. A difference between Best Buy and Walmart (which recently started to offer a support service for electronics), says Dunn, will be that they own their own service company – Geek Squad.
“The operative word here is ‘owned,’” Dunn told Fortune. “Outsourcing works for back-office operations, but we believe that when an experience touches a customer, you must own it.”
Geek Squad’s services still represent a tiny percentage of Best Buy’s income, but that number is growing. According to a presentation delivered by Best Buy (PDF) at a conference in 2008, in the company’s fiscal 2006, Geek Squad services and Best Buy’s appliances installation business accounted for about 2.5% of domestic revenue, the same percentage that was brought in by extended warranties and other service plans. By 2008, the Geek Squad and appliance installation revenue share was up to 4%, while other service plans had declined to 2%.
At a 2008 conference associated with the W.P. Carey School of Business of Arizona State University, Sean Skelley, then Best Buy’s senior vice president for services (he’s currently president of international retail operations), said that Geek Squad – which Best Buy purchased in 2002 – gave the company a “relatable mythology” to connect to its customers, according to a W.P. Carey online article. Skelley was impressed by Geek Squad’s use of terms like “special agents” to refer to its staff. “We were interested in Geek Squad for these stories,” Skelley said, “and the brand elements that could help Best Buy get its ducks in a row.”
Skelley also waxed rhapsodically over another company’s creation of a service that kept customers coming back for more, as described in the W.P. Carey article: “Everyone knows you’re supposed to get your oil changed every 3,000 miles. But that was a Jiffy Lube marketing creation rather than an automotive standard, Skelley said. It is the way the company pulled customers back into their stores on a frequent, regular basis.”
Ultimately, it’s not Best Buy’s official policy to press customers into buying anything they don’t want, and they suggest you report any such indiscretions. However, it’s clear that Best Buy’s new post-Circuit City business strategy is to concentrate more on “services.” It might be helpful to keep that in mind when you head into the store with the circular in hand.
You can optimize your computer on your own with free software and a little patience. You’ll have to learn a little about your PC in the process, but since when is that a bad thing? In addition to using some of these tools, you should also keep your web browser up-to-date – and stop downloading cursors and toolbars!
|Overall optimization||CCleaner||This Swiss army knife of optimization can change your startup options, remove files left behind by web browsers, clean up your system registry and delete unnecessary programs. Settings can be complicated, but extensive online help provides answers for most questions.|
|Remove trialware||PC Decrapifier||This program includes a frequently updated database of trial programs bundled with PCs, making it easier to identify those that you don’t want. One click deletes multiple “craplets.”|
|Change startup options||msconfig||This system utility comes with every copy of Windows. It’s not for the faint-of-heart, but it will let you change almost all of your system’s startup settings, including which programs load automatically|
|Remove unnecessary software||Programs and Features (Add/Remove Programs in Windows XP)||This Windows Control Panel lets you remove both third-party software and unneeded Windows components.|
|Block spyware||Windows Defender
Spybot Search and Destroy
|Free programs that are automatically updated with new threats on regular basis.|
|Protect against viruses||Avira Antivir Personal
|Free antivirus programs rated as highly as commercial applications by Consumer Reports.|
Phil Villarreal and Marc Perton contributed additional reporting.