Spyware scanners for Windows

Most every Windows box needs a spyware scanner. Here are those I’ve looked at for my clients.

(TODO: Substitute the term malware for spyware. Neither term is precisely correct for what is under discussion here, but “malware” is perhaps less misleading for most readers.)

The term “spyware” is variously defined. In its most precise sense, it is software that tracks (spies on) the user without consent. Here I use it in its more common sense of all non-viral malicious software; in other words, things traditional antivirus scanners don’t block but you wouldn’t want to have. This broad and imprecise category goes by many names — “potentially unwanted applications”, “malware”, “badware”, “unsolicited commercial software”, “parasites”, and others.

Some spyware scanners are bundled into security suites, enormous all-in-one packages of antispyware, antivirus, firewall, spam filter, parental control filter, cookie control tools, and more. Such products tend to be bloated and are nearly always incompatible with your preferred antivirus and firewall. I strongly prefer to choose à la carte the most appropriate product in each class of security software, and do not consider suites.

Installing antispyware is but one part of securing a Windows box. Don’t forget to consider the bigger picture.

If you install a third-party product that has real-time protection, insure that the built-in Windows Defender has been deactivated and that the Windows security center properly detects the new scanner. (TODO: Document how.)

I began my search looking for a standalone spyware scanner that is good at prevention, and that means real-time protection and automatic updates. If it doesn’t do that, then it simply isn’t going to keep a clean computer clean. Beyond that, I look for a scanner that:

  • is open source and under active development
  • runs adequately on low-spec hardware such as netbooks
  • can be configured either as a “set it and forget it” solution for novice end users, or can optionally provide controls and feedback appropriate for power users
  • has been reviewed by a reputable organization such as AV-Comparatives or Virus Bulletin
  • is localized into the end users’ language (program, help files, and support)

A modest wish list, yet as of this writing (October 2010) unobtainable. The only open source project I can find, Winpooch, is inactive. Automatic updating and real-time protection are mostly limited to paid products. A few no-cost products can be jury rigged with the Windows task scheduler to run scheduled updates and scans. Such products are so indicated when known, but they are neither newbie-friendly to set up nor are the resulting scheduled operations reliable. TODO: Must the task scheduler be run as Administrator?

The following is not an exhaustive list of all that is available, but only what I’ve looked at so far.

IObit Malware Fighter
Proprietary; for purchase. Real time protection and automatic updates. Replaces the discontinued IObit Security 360 Free.

Malwarebytes Anti-Malware
Proprietary. No cost and paid versions available. Real time protection, scheduled scanning, and automatic updating available in paid version. Localized into Spanish and other languages. Often described as best of breed.

TODO: Try the Windows scheduler per this discussion to run periodic updates and scans. See “command line parameters” in the help file; relevant arguments appear to be /update /scan -quick.

Super Anti Spyware
Proprietary; no charge for personal use. Real time protection and automatic updating available in paid version.

Spybot Search & Destroy
Proprietary; no cost for personal use. Localized into Spanish and other languages. Active user forum. Does not provide real-time protection, and setting up automatic updates or scheduling automatic scans is a convoluted and unreliable process. Many years ago was considered best of breed, but most current reviews are negative.

Spyware Terminator
Can be used to add real-time scanning to ClamAV antivirus.

Windows Defender
Proprietary. Included with Windows Vista and 7, and available for XP at no cost. Localized into Spanish and other languages. Provides real-time protection, automatic updates, and scheduled scanning. I have repeatedly observed it to let malware through that other scanners catch, and to allow the malware to silently deactivate it. Not recommended.

Useful comparisons of some antispyware solutions can be found in the Potentially Unwanted Applications section of AV Comparatives.

Spyware Warrior, although outdated in many places, remains a useful resource.

PCMag’s July 2010 roundup of free virus and spyware solutions mixes standalone scanners with suites, but provides useful information.

AlternativeTo and Wikipedia have community-maintained lists of antispyware products. Approach these unreliable sources with skepticism: I reference them out of a lack of reliable sources.


About Warren Post

So far: Customer support guy, jungle guide, IT consultant, beach bum, entrepreneur, teacher, diplomat, over-enthusiastic cyclist. Tomorrow: who knows?
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3 Responses to Spyware scanners for Windows

  1. Pingback: Securing a Windows computer | Warren's tech notes

  2. Pingback: Windows Defender for XP, Vista, and 7 | A maze of twisty little passages

  3. Pingback: Using Spybot Search & Destroy | A maze of twisty little passages

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