Lavasoft has updated its popular malware and spyware detection and removal tool Ad-Aware. Rather than a dramatic redo, version 8.1 builds on the improvements made in the previous version. The new version is faster, has better removal abilities, and introduces a behavioral detection engine.

Called Genotype, Ad-Aware's heuristic-based behavioral detection engine isn't explicitly called out in the interface. However, I noticed that files that had been flagged falsely as threats in earlier versions were no longer called out as such, and the Quick Scan was able to complete in about three minutes, as opposed to 10 minutes in the previous version. These are empirical observations, of course, but this version's improvements should be easy to see for longtime users of Ad-Aware.

Removal techniques have also been improved. Lavasoft is calling the new system Neutralizer, although it's not called out as such in the program interface. What users will see is a "family" of grouped similar threats, such as cookies, the category of the threat, and the action taken. The program defaults to the Recommended action, which means you need to click on the drop-down menu to the right of the listing to see what action will be taken on a per-threat basis. The big action buttons introduced in version 8 still reside at the bottom of the window, which feels further than necessary--it'd be better to have the action button closer to where the mouse already is, at the top of the window.

There is one big change to the interface in v8.1. At the bottom left corner of the window, there's a toggle to switch between Simple mode and Advanced mode. Simple mode is for users who are set-it-and-forget-it types, with fewer options displayed. Advanced mode allows for deeper settings customization. There's also a gaming mode, so that full protection continues to run while you play games or watch videos, but detected threats won't interrupt your entertainment until you're done.

Ad-Aware's new Advanced mode, presenting more options by default. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Fans of personalization get more skin action in this version, too. In addition to the included skins, the community support offered at MyLavaSoft now includes community-sourced translations and skins.

However, fans of the free version do not get all the features available in the paid upgrades. Antivirus is only for paying customers, and while rootkit detection is present, behavior-based heuristics and real-time registry protection are not. Ad-Aware Free cannot scan networked drives, and even a basic feature like the scheduler remains off-limits in the free version. The Ad-Aware toolbox for system tweaks is only available in the Pro version. I encountered a pop-up for the upgrade, although Lavasoft told me that this was an infrequent occurrence. Ad-Aware Plus is available for $26.95, and Ad-Aware Pro is $39.95, and both have a 30-day trial.