The software that many manufacturers pre-install on new computers is a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes, there’s something useful in there, sometimes it’s just an advert. Sometimes, which of the two it is depends on the user! Bundling games is awesome for the people who like those games, but is just more junk for people who don’t. Bundling a utility app that does something fancy is awesome for the people who can use that fancy thing, but is just more junk for people who don’t.
There have been malware-infections in pre-installed software in the past, Lenovo and the Superfish debacle still very fresh in people’s minds. This is very uncommon, though. But a lot of things will start along with the computer, especially the ‘potentially useful’ utility software. Doing that, they take up memory space and slow down the computer’s start-up process. And unless you want to use them, there’s no reason for it to mess with your user experience like that!
Bundled anti-virus software has been considered by some security experts to be a security risk. You generally get a 30-day trial, and are then expected to pay for continued protection. Many people don’t and are left with outdated threat databases, but still think they are protected – it came with anti-virus after all, right? Many will simply be unaware of the software (because the initial pop-ups are clicked away without paying attention, and soon forgotten) and are left with outdated software. And having the same outdated version of the same software with system privileges installed on thousands upon thousands of computers across the world, makes for a great target if you want to write malware that infects many users with minimal effort.
I’d say that extended hardware utilities like @Jamil_Stafford mentioned are a separate category: Tools from Synaptic, Intel and other manufacturers may add additional functions to the hardware they have provided for the device like touchpads or network adapters. These programs are not critical to the operation of the machine (like the drivers themselves are), but they may be required to make the most of what you’ve got: adding gesture support to the touchpad is a great example. With Windows 10 though, a lot of these features are implemented at an OS level, and more and more, drivers are the only thing you need to make everything work. Utility software to use manufacturer-specific hardware also sort of falls into this category: think of Dell or HP utilities that let you use the media control buttons or other device-specific features like RGB lighting and such.
All in all, many more advanced users have decided (and I agree) that it’s better to just start with a clean slate: Windows 10 and the drivers needed to make the machine work. If I want to use anti-virus, I can install it myself. If I want games, I can install them myself. If I want to add additional features to my trackpad, I’ll find a utility myself. And what I don’t need, has no place on my machine.
@Jamil_Stafford: Apple’s macOS comes with Gatekeeper. It’s not promoted as ‘it has anti-virus’ and it’s not as vocal about its presence as Windows Defender is, but it does a good job securing Macs from malware.
That doesn’t mean they will not get infected. Despite what many think, the user is still in charge of security on a Mac, and like on Windows, many average users are complete idiots when it comes to device security. That said, I’ve been able to manually clean all malware of dozens of Macs over the past two years, with only one machine being beyond redemption and needing a re-install. The way Apple has compartmentalised its OS and software goes a long way to making malware recognisable, traceable and removable without the need of much more than Finder, Apple’s equivalent of Windows Explorer. If you need some tips on Mac malware removal to make your job at the university easier, shoot me a private message and I’ll share what I’ve got!
How malware gets on the Mac? Same way as Windows. Replace ‘.exe’ by ‘.pkg’ or ‘.app’, and your step-by-step guide to installing Malware on Windows works for macOS. People must actively disable Gatekeeper and give admin approval before anything even remotely serious can take root.