Ad-Aware's efficacy remains questionable

One of the first applications built to find and remove malware and spyware, Ad-Aware's reputation has been well-justified. The latest version adroitly addresses some user concerns, yet performance-based annoyances remain.

The bottom line: One of the first applications built to find and remove malware and spyware, Ad-Aware's reputation has been well-justified. The latest version adroitly addresses some user concerns, yet performance-based annoyances remain.


Editors' note: Portions of this review are based on CNET's review for Ad-Aware 9.5 Free.

Ad-Aware 9.5 Pro Internet Security continues the development progress that publisher Lavasoft began in the previous version. No longer content with offering only malware protection, Ad-Aware now includes antivirus protections licensed from Sunbelt, the makers of Vipre, as well as interesting in-house improvements.

Lavasoft first started changing Ad-Aware's protection engine more than a year ago in version 8.1, when it introduced Genotype. This heuristics-based technology identified identical snippets of code across multiple threat mutations. In version 9, Genotype received support from what Lavasoft calls "Dedicated Detection." This tech looks inside files, analyzes the code, and creates a loose pattern for finding families of related malware. The company touts that a single dedicated detection signature can detect hundreds of thousands of threats. More importantly, Lavasoft expects that dedicated detection will lower false positive rates by creating more points of comparison.

The second new engine, MagmaShield, is proactive. It emulates processor instructions, comparing approved processor-level operations against those that are undefined in the application layer. This means that it aggressively looks at how a file interacts with the CPU and uses that to call out threats faster.

Ad-Aware 9.5 Pro has a fairly straightforward installation process, simple in procedure. The installer file is a small 9 MB stub that then downloads the large main file, so users who are on slower connections ought to prepare for a lengthy download wait. Ad-Aware has no toolbars and won't attempt to commandeer your default browser's search engine, an irritation that some competitors still believe in. Installing does require a reboot, which is expected for security software. The install itself was a bit slow, taking more than five minutes including the reboot, yet still noticeably faster than it used to be.

Ad-Aware's interface hasn't changed much since version 8, which means that it's still in dire need of a refresh. The main window offers three icons that you can click on to update your virus definition files and engines, scan your system, or check your status on Ad-Watch Live, Ad-Aware's real-time protection engine. Below the main icons there's a button for updating your scan schedule and accessing support, while a toggle button to jump between simple mode and advanced mode sits in the bottom left corner of the interface. The interface's simple mode merely makes some otherwise visible options disappear, hidden behind an extra click. All but the newest of users ought to feel comfortable using Ad-Aware's "advanced" mode.

As you can tell, it's sort of a mess, and we're not done yet. At the top right of the interface are a series of buttons that replicate the three features in the main window, as well as a fourth for accessing "extras." A Settings button sits below those four.

Tapping the Scan button will run a full scan, and there's no way to change this behavior to Smart scan or Profile scan, the Ad-Aware term for a custom scan. Within the Scan window there are tabs near the top for jumping into the scheduler, the quarantine, and the ignore list.

The Ad-Watch Live window will show you which kinds of real-time protection you have running. Process protection defaults to on, while File, Network, and Registry protection are available only in the Ad-Aware paid upgrade. Some competitors, such as Avast, offer all of these in their free version.

As mentioned above, the "Dedicated Detection" and MagmaShield engines are the biggest feature improvements in Ad-Aware 9 Pro, although there's no direct interaction between them and the user. Lavasoft has tweaked the scheduler behavior a bit in version 9. Users can schedule Smart scans, Full scans, custom scans, and can set them to run daily, weekly, monthly, or at Windows startup.

In addition to virus and malware scans, Ad-Aware 9 Pro offers a browser track sweeper. Accessible from the Extras button, it can wipe your cache, cookies, history, last-typed URLs, and tabs from Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, and Opera. The Toolbox, a second tab under Extras, contains options such as additional process-protecting features that are restricted to the paid upgrade.

Ad-Aware has some limitations that make it hard to compare favorably to its competitors. You can't view other parts of the program while running a scan, and the scan itself lacks a progress meter or a pause button.

Free version restrictions are largely absent in this version, so Pro users get a silent/gaming mode called "Do not disturb," advanced rootkit removal, and real-time threat blocking of blacklisted IP addresses, malicious processes, Registry changes, and malicious files. The Pro also offers a start-up process cleaner, to help your machine boot faster, and the offered support includes in-product access to the Lavasoft Support Center.

Ad-Aware 9 Pro performed scans on a real-world computer quite slowly, taking close to 2 hours for its first Full scan. The quick, "Smart" scan, which checks only mission-critical areas of your computer for infection, took about 4 minutes in version 9, slightly slower than the quick scan under version 8.3. Meanwhile, version 9.5 averaged 5 minutes, 37 seconds over three cold-boot runs. So, despite Lavasoft's claims that the program has gotten faster, it appears that the opposite is true.

Lavasoft has not submitted Ad-Aware to be tested by any third-party efficacy tests at threat detection and removal, so we can't speak directly to how secure it will make you. CNET Labs has tested the suite for how it affects your system, and found that while it had a lighter-than-average impact on system performance, its scans were the slowest we've encountered so far this year.

Security Program Boot time Shutdown time Scan time MS Office performance iTunes decoding Media multitasking Cinebench
Unprotected system 40 6 n/a 395 120 342 17,711
Average of all tested systems (to date) 57.41 19.18 1,323 420.17 125.17 351 17,097.17
Lavasoft Ad-Aware 9.5 Pro Internet Security 54.4 16.9 2,080 405 125 347 16,884
Lavasoft Ad-Aware 9.5 Free Internet Security 59 12.8 2,076 406 123 342 17,132

*All tests measured in seconds, except for Cinebench. On the Cinebench test, the higher number is better.

These benchmarks show that Ad-Aware is definitely light on your system for startup and shutdown times, at least when compared to the average-to-date. Its impact on in-use programs, especially during the iTunes decoding test and media multitasking test, were the smallest so far this year. However, Ad-Aware's scans were the slowest we've seen by around 200 seconds compared to the next slowest, and around 700 seconds slower than average.

The in-system marks are strong, no doubt, but most people will be looking at scan speed, and that definitely has to be tightened when coming from an underdog position.


Longtime fans will notice the changes to Ad-Aware, and the program continues to grow in the right direction after several missteps in recent years. However, given the gains that Ad-Aware's paid competitors have made, and at similar price points, we're hesitant to recommend Ad-Aware 9 Pro any more than we have.

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