First Look: Microsoft AntiSpyware 1.0 Beta

Review: There's a lot to like with Microsoft's new spyware-fighting beta.
By now you've probably heard that Microsoft intends to jump into both the anti-spyware and antivirus product categories by offering Windows utilities that will reportedly be free for download. Last Friday, Microsoft offered its first version of the anti-spyware program it purchased from Giant Company Software in December, Microsoft AntiSpyware 1.0 Beta. If you use Windows 2000 or later, you can download it and try it for yourself from this Microsoft Downloads page. For more on the news about Microsoft AntiSpyware and reactions from companies like Symantec, see Microsoft Debuts Beta Anti-Spyware Software.

I spent two hours over the weekend putting Microsoft AntiSpyware through its paces with a test machine that, conveniently, has been cruising the Internet almost daily for six months without spyware protection. I downloaded the latest versions of Ad-Aware SE and Spybot - Search & Destroy, since they're both free and in wide usage. Here are my conclusions.

Microsoft AntiSpyware offers a real-time monitor, automatic spyware-signature updates, and provides an optional peer-based exploit-detection data-sharing mechanism to help protect against fast-breaking new spyware woes. Microsoft AntiSpyware has an Internet Explorer anti-hijack feature. It can quarantine or delete spyware it disables on your machine. It has the ability to optionally save a Windows restore point. It gives you a way to access to Internet Explorer BHOs (Browser Help Objects), ActiveX apps, startup programs, IE settings, IE toolbars, and other trouble spots that tend to be the areas where spyware latches on. Microsoft AntiSpyware has a rich feature set for a program you can download for free. It also has an absolutely excellent user interface.

Unlike Ad-Aware, Spybot, and Pest Patrol (the latter wasn't tested for this story), Microsoft AntiSpyware completely ignores "tracking cookies." In its Tracks Eraser, found in the Advanced Tools area, it offers a function that erases all your cookies, but it doesn't display standard advertising cookies on its scan-results screen. Frankly, I find this refreshing. In most cases, so-called tracking cookies, while not exactly beneficial, don't threaten any significant aspect of your privacy. They support Internet advertising, but not in invasive ways. It might be possible for a tracking cookie to be used in conjunction with a truly nasty spyware program, but I suspect Microsoft AntiVirus would be on top of that sort of thing. Deeper testing would be required to be sure.

Like every other spyware test I've ever run, the test subjects each found threats the others didn't. I'll spare you the details, but when you strip out the tracking cookies, Ad-Aware didn't find jack, Spybot found the ever-popular DSO Exploit (but since this PC's version of Internet Explorer is completely up to date, it's probably protected from DSO), and Microsoft AntiSpyware found the MySearchBar adware and MySearchBar browser plugin. Of the three, I would have to give a D to Ad-Aware, a C to Spybot, and a B to Microsoft AntiSpyware. All three of these tools should have found MySearchBar, though. Only the new Microsoft utility did.

In our tests, AntiSpyware's very rapid Quick Scan found the exact same list of problems found by its very slow Deep Scan. Unlike Spybot and Ad-Aware, AntiSpyware's deep scan appears to scan every file on your computer. It takes significantly longer than the other two products — about as long as Pest Patrol's scan took in tests I ran a couple years back. The AntiSpyware scan is configurable, and it operates more like Ad-Aware's scan than SpyBot's. AntiSpyware's results screen also provides a good deal of information, something that's always been a Spybot weakness.

All in all, I'm impressed with Microsoft AntiSpyware at first look. I intend to use it on a long-term basis, and if it makes sense to, I'll come back and review it in more detail later.

Lately I've been hearing from a number of people that this spyware package or that spyware package is the only one to use. Which anti-spyware tool do you find to be the most effective? Drop me a line and let me know about it. A URL to the product home page would be a help.

This article appeared previously in Scot's Newsletter. Scot Finnie is Editor, the Pipelines and TechWeb, as well as the author of Scot's Newsletter and previously an editor with Windows Magazine, ZDNet, and PC/Computing. He has been writing about Windows and other operating systems for two decades.

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