Do you think you're protected against spyware that sends private information on your computer to others, adware that determines what ads you see on web sites based on visits to other sites, and other malware that, among other things, may use your computer to bombard others with spam? We did, too, until we tested two of the most popular products that address these problems, Spybot and Ad-aware. Both are free. We used the default settings for both products during testing.
Our test computer for this review, used to visit and write about the worst of the netherworld of the Web, is protected by McAfee VirusScan Professional Edition and our favorite Microsoft Internet Explorer ad blocker, Google's toolbar. We also manually review and edit new files on our system and Windows registry entries based on more than 15 years of online experience. But after this review, we're no longer as smug as we were just days ago.
As the granddaddy in its category, Ad-aware is the product to beat. And if numbers were the only criteria, it would win hands down. It found 47 questionable files and registry entries in about the same amount of time as Spybot found 5. However, Spybot found the most serious malware, including one we thought we'd fully removed manually. Malware is becoming more sophisticated, sometimes reinstalling itself after deletion. Interestingly, both products removed one element of Alexa, but neither found both elements.
Like your antivirus program, anti-spyware products require frequent updating to protect against the latest attacks. Both Spyware and Ad-aware make this as easy as a mouse click or two, and require only a minute or three depending on your Internet connection. Unfortunately, when we updated both products on the same day for this review, Ad-aware's reference file appeared to more than 40 days old, while Spybot's file was just 3 days old.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for both the publisher and user of spyware programs is how aggressively to act on potential malware. Based on our tests, Spybot found the most serious problems, though we wish that the default settings had allowed us to approve the product's removal of the files and settings before they were deleted. Spybot also was the more conservative of the programs in what it deleted or recommended for deletion, yet offered more diverse options. In short, it makes use easy for everyday users, yet is more aggressive for advanced users.
Meanwhile, by default Ad-aware offers far more deletion candidates, but those candidates were generally safer. (It did, however, offer the only two candidates for removal that we declined to accept, because we had previously and intentionally made related changes to our test system.) But like Spybot, Ad-aware offers excellent options for advanced users.
Because of the complexities of the advanced features of these products, help systems are key. Both help systems are commendable, though Spybot's help file was somewhat dated in explaining the current version of the product.
The latest version of both products provide a recovery feature in case you encounter problems by removing an object. (Fair warning: If you use advanced features, especially related to the registry, you may not be able to access the program, let alone its recovery feature without considerable expertise.) Spybot also contains an interesting "immunize" feature for Internet Explorer and Opera users, which sets features of those web browsers to protect you from malware.
Both Ad-aware and Spybot contained minor anomalies in our testing, the most serious of which was a failure when Spybot offered to create a backup option of the registry on first use. That's a commendable feature, but on our test system the backup task failed and required heavy-handed closure of the task before we could proceed. However, we encountered no ill effects on further use of the product. Our biggest complaint about Ad-aware is that it created a desktop icon and Start menu item without our consent.
Our recommendation between Spybot and Ad-aware is easy: Use both. Spybot is a no-brainer solution to catch the nastier stuff with just a mouse click or two; with just a little care, Ad-aware can clean up the rest of the nasties that infect your system. Both require minimal hard disk real estate, you can update them while you fetch another cup of coffee, and they're free. They're the best bargain we've seen in a long time -- and they let us feel just a tad smug again.
PROS: Finds and fixes the worst offenders for beginners while offering excellent options for advanced users.
CONS: Its help system hasn't quite kept up with the latest version and, by default, is conservative in what it removes.
Download at http://www.safer-networking.org; free.
Spybot automatically fixes the most offending malware.
PROS: Catches an impressive number of malware gotchas and, by default, lets you to decide what to remove.
CONS: Could be more aggressive in identifying candidates for deletion, update files could be more frequent, and it adds a desktop icon and Start menu entry without permission.
Download at http://www.lavasoftusa.com; free for personal use.
Ad-aware finds and offers to fix an impressive number of gremlins.
J.W. Olsen has written, edited, and served as freelance book project manager exclusively in technology publishing since 1990.
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