Update: Since this article was published, two things have happened: Windows Defender is now included in Windows 7 by default, and Microsoft has release Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE), a fully featured anti-virus and anti-spyware package that actually replaces Windows Defender when install. I now recommend MSE instead of Windows Defender.
Update #2: Since that update, Microsoft has renamed the combination of Defender and MSE to Windows Security, and it’s included by default in Windows 10 and 11.
There are several reputable anti-spyware programs available these days. Unfortunately, none of them catch every single piece of adware or spyware. But if you’re an average user, or like me, you choose to run only one package, then I recommend Microsoft Windows Defender as the one to run.
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I recommend Microsoft Windows Defender for a couple of reasons:
- Even though it’s technically still in Beta, the consensus seems to be that it catches the most spyware in comparison to other packages. Not all, but more.
- It’s the easiest to use, and defaults to a safe configuration that, in other packages, you’d have to take extra steps to attain.
- It’s free.
As I said, program installation is easy and clean, and that the default settings mean that the average user rarely needs to visit the program again. In fact, after installing, the most common interaction you’ll have with it is dismissing the dialog that shows you the results of the most recent scan, and the occasional alert that it will give you when some other application attempts to make a change to a sensitive area. For example after installing the program, I later made a change to a start-up program. Microsoft Defender presented me with a dialog describing what was happening, and giving me the option to allow, or prevent, the change.
While the spyware scan, real-time, automated or on-demand, is the primary feature of note for an anti-spyware scanner, Microsoft Windows Defender does include some additional, interesting “Advanced Tools”:
- System Explorers that let you examine, and manage, startup programs, ActiveX controls, Internet Explorer Browser Helper Objects (BHOs), IE settings and toolbars, as well as certain Networking and Windows Shell extensions.
- Browser Restore is a feature that lets you selectively, or all at once, restore Internet Explorer to its default configuration – quite handy if your browser has been hijacked by malware.
- Tracks Eraser does what it sounds like: it erases your tracks from a machine in a number of places that you perhaps wouldn’t think of. Internet Explorer’s History is an obvious example, but also included are things like the list of files and folders you’ve opened recently in Microsoft Common Dialogs, the Google toolbar history, recent files in Office, Adobe Acrobat, and much, much more. It’s a surprisingly long list.
If you’re interested in alternatives, or perhaps a second level of anti-spyware program to catch things that the Microsoft product might have missed, I’d point you at these packages:
- Before running Microsoft Defender, I ran Spybot Search & Destroy which is freeware that does a great job of ferreting out and removing spyware. Spybot is totally free, and includes optional real time protection as well.
- Lavasoft’s Ad-Aware version 6 is also very popular and another pseudo standard you’ll see recommended frequently.
- Spy Sweeper from Webroot, appears to be a very complete and professional package.
X -RayPc is also a newer tool that I’ve used that also found traces of spyware that the others did not.
If you do choose to install more than one anti-spyware package, be sure to enable real-time protection on only one. Much like antivirus programs, two antispyware programs trying to, essentially, do the same thing at the same time can occasionally cause conflicts.
I’ll also point out HijackThis. It’s a commonly used reporting tool when working with someone remotely who’s experiencing problems. It’s really aimed at the computer geeks, and will list a fair amount of technical information, but it’s free, a quick download, and again, another pseudo-standard tool you’ll see mentioned a lot.
And finally, an additional approach is outlined by Michael Horowitz in his very detailed page on removing spyware.