Make an uninstaller your antispyware sidekick

The real-time story of an adware and spyware sting operation, and the uninstaller that slashed without mercy.

True story, happening now. It's 1:48 a.m. on a Saturday morning and I'm hand-picking through a mountain of spyware and adware on a friend's laptop. I've borrowed the laptop and Internet connection to "quickly" finish some work, then quickly realized this was actually going to take all night. After a 20 minute start-up churn, I had only just gotten VPN running and Firefox loaded. It wasn't the interminable start-up that had me worried so much as the two casino icons squatting on the desktop. There's no way they were legitimate on this straight-laced pal's rig.

As soon as Revo Uninstaller finally loaded, it was immediately clear that despite updated McAfee protection, the laptop, ancient by the modern standards of a disposable economy, was riddled with adware and spyware. We're talking 180Solutions, WhenU, TopText, CommonName, and a slew of mysterious-sounding toolbars that never showed up on any browser. Not that I'm blaming McAfee--there are years of security unawareness, lapsed protection, and misclicks that I'm sure are bound to this six-year-old Hewlett-Packard. Assignations of blame don't matter, anyhow. What matters is thoroughly junking the refuse that I angrily know is collecting data and bogging down the computer performance.

Revo Uninstaller
These 32 registry items won't be sneaking around on my watch. (Credit: CNET Networks)

I've chosen Revo Uninstaller as my weapon of choice for a few reasons. First, ever since we editors discovered it, it's become a personal favorite. I appreciate the four levels of in-depth removal, and the way the app scours registry and hard-drive files well after completing the unwanted app's built-in uninstaller. It's amazing how many registry entries, program files, and auto-starting dlls remain.

Second, I'm curious. Running a spyware removal program--and there are very good ones--would likely take out most of the adware trash, but would I be any wiser? Late as it is, I'd rather see where the files are hiding out and under which names and pseudonyms. I'd like to eyewitness what the 500 registry entries left behind after the uninstall are called, and get a feel for their cunning. I'm keeping the enemy close. You know, before disposing of it.

By now I've gone through a few demolition rounds, hitting the "brand-named" adware first, and already the desktop looks trimmer. Those garish casino icons have disappeared, their flames deprived of fuel. Adware and spyware beget more adware and spyware, so in some cases, slashing the main app can weaken its spin-offs. Manually deleting those offending icons from the screen, however, wouldn't have done a darn thing to the files in the driver's seat, least of all facilitated the kinds of connections I'm seeing now.

Some of these leftover apps I see in Revo are in obvious need of burning out, like the MBKWbar Toolbar; for everything else, a little Web search helps determine my allegiance while Revo Uninstaller does its worst with the parasite at hand.

It's 2:19 a.m. and the coast is looking much clearer. Of course, caution is necessary any time you get in the vicinity of essential computer processes, but a good uninstaller should help you along. That and my great-grandmother's mantra, "When in doubt, don't," have rung true this far. I'll soon be able to restart the computer to complete some of the leftover file deletion (that's normal,) then set the trusty laptop to defrag overnight. Then I'll come back tomorrow, refreshed, to finish the job with a CCleaner bath and one more antispyware scan just to make sure.

About Jessica Dolcourt

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.