Tools to ward off adware

Watch out Madison Avenue: Advertising on millions of PCs is getting harder. Lavasoft AG has updated its Ad-aware program with new power to block pop-up ads, browser hijacks, and spy software that records what you type.

Ad-aware Version 6.0 is accompanied by two new pay versions (Plus and Pro) that provide real-time protection similar to that of antivirus software. The standard version is available as a free download. Plus (priced at US$27) and Pro (US$40) are available directly from Lavasoft.

First Look

The free Standard version remains one of the best programs for protecting your PC from spyware and adware. But both the Plus and Pro Ad-aware programs fall short; both feel incomplete and not intuitive. For example, a new pop-up ad-blocking component is poorly implemented.

Once Lavasoft irons the wrinkles out of the Plus and Pro versions of Ad-aware, its software will become an Internet staple for Net surfers.

All the Ad-aware versions benefit from an improved user interface, more customization options, and a new safeguard function. The program backs up adware components before you remove them, in case you accidentally cripple an ad-supported program.

Ad-aware Standard 6.0 tackles two flaws in earlier versions regarding scanning your PC for hidden files. This release of Ad-aware can be configured to trim the time it takes to scan your PC for adware, and performs the process more efficiently.

Earlier releases of Ad-aware let you reduce scan time by letting you define which folders to scan. But scan times still were long; scanning a 40GB hard disk could take 15 minutes, depending on the volume of data stored on it. Version 6.0 addresses this by allowing you to direct the scans by the files' sizes.

After excluding my largest music and image files, my informal tests using Ad-aware completed scans in half the time of the old software.

Although Lavasoft says its free Standard version supports scans based on file sizes, I was only able to customize scans with the Plus and Pro versions.

A Few Extras

A new Webupdate feature enables Ad-aware to spot new threats more easily. This function updates Ad-aware software with a list of the latest adware and spyware programs. Another improvement to all three Ad-aware programs enables at least some ad-supported programs to keep working even after you remove the ad components. Kazaa, which previously was crippled after a PC ran Ad-aware 5.0, worked fine after Ad-aware 6.0 stripped it of adware and spyware components.

For the first time, Ad-aware offers real-time system monitoring, through its Pro and Plus versions and the component Ad-watch. This utility sits in your system tray. You can configure it to block pop-up ads, prevent Web sites from automatically switching your home page, and ban Web site-based Active-X programs from auto-installing without your consent.

LavaSoft says both versions also disable key loggers, but I wasn't able to verify these claims.

Pro distinguishes itself from Plus with its capability to scan drives over a network. That would let someone with networked PCs scan remote drives for hidden files. A test of the service worked in an office environment. But when I tried this feature on my home network of three PCs connected by a Linksys router, Ad-aware couldn't detect any drives beyond the host PC.

The Pro version also offers Process-watch, which lets you monitor and shut down wasteful programs running in the background. Another feature blocks Trojan horse programs from sneaking onto your PC. Ad-aware was able to spot and remove several Trojan horse programs that piggybacked on test downloads.

Room for Improvement

One disappointment is what Lavasoft calls its "powerful" pop-up stopper component. Pop-up ads from a number of websites, including PCWorld.com, Boston.com, and Yahoo.com, still appeared. This is unacceptable at the prices Lavasoft charges for Plus and Pro versions. Worse, when Ad-watch manages to block a pop-up ad, Ad-aware delivers a pop-up of its own--notifying you that it blocked a pop-up. This seems quite counterproductive.

I did notice an Ad-aware list of 3201 banned domains, the kind that serve up pop-up ads for various sites, in an Ad-aware system folder. That suggests Ad-aware is taking a blacklist approach to banning advertising network pop-ups, as opposed to a blanket restriction on all.

My last gripe with the Plus and Pro versions is the inadequate tech support. Both promise free e-mail support. However, after waiting five days for Lavasoft to answer tech support questions, I've lost my patience.

Version 6.0 represents a giant leap forward for Ad-aware, offering a cleaner-looking interface with more tools. The standard version is sufficient for most users. The pay versions offer some handy tools, but I wouldn't upgrade solely for the ad-blocking capabilities when free pop-up stoppers abound.

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