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The spyware-smashers at PC Tools continue to improve Spyware Doctor in every way they can think of. Since my review of version 3.5 they've given it a more informative main status page, added scanning of IM messages for suspicious links, armored the product against attack by the bad guys, and, most important, enhanced its spyware-removal skills in a number of ways. Many of the changes are invisible, but my tests show that the product is definitely keeping pace with the latest malware technology. As with Spy Sweeper 5, our other Editors' Choice in this area, your $29.95 (direct) gets you all program updates for a year, not just spyware definition updates. That's a very good thing, because PC Tools frequently slips in new features between the releases of officially numbered versions.The updated status page isn't a huge change from that of version 3.5, unlike the extreme makeover Webroot did for Spy Sweeper 5. But the clarity of the new main page is a definite plus. Four green checks let you know the product is current, updates are current, you scanned recently, and your subscription is active. If there's a problem, the appropriate check changes to a red X, and the label becomes a link leading to a solution.
For some time, Spyware Doctor's Site Guard has popped up a warning any time you're about to surf to a site known to host bad stuff. You can still proceed, but at least you've been warned. In version 4, IM Guard extends that protection to scan instant message conversations. If "L33Td00d" starts sending you instant message links to sick sites, IM Guard offers to cut off the conversation. Good idea! The feature works with Windows Messenger and MSN Messenger only, not with AIM/ICQ, Yahoo! Messenger, or third-party IM aggregators such as Trillian. That may seem pretty lame, but it's a feature not available at all in competing products, and PC Tools CEO Simon Clausen promises to expand coverage in future versions.
IM Guard and Site Guard are just two of Spyware Doctor's many real-time protection elements. Startup Guard blocks malware that tries to launch at start-up and Browser Guard keeps malicious add-ons out of Internet Explorer. The guards report only on actions by malicious products—they won't dazzle you with brainless pop-ups about innocuous programs. The protection squad also includes Keylogger Guard, which blocks keystroke logging; Network Guard, which protects important network settings; and Immunizer, a module that whacks all malicious ActiveX threats Spyware Doctor knows about. Possibly the most potent is Process Guard, which kills spyware processes—even kernel-level ones—and prevents them from launching.
Well, those are the claims, at least. But what can the product do? I installed Spyware Doctor 4 on a series of virtual machines already infested with commercial keyloggers, spyware samples, and even a few rogue "antispyware" programs. Out of 16 spyware threats, it crushed 14, missed one, and tried really hard to remove the remaining miscreant. It also removed all but one of eight commercial keyloggers. I don't count removal of rogue antispyware in my final evaluation, a tough break for the Doc, because it removed all four! PC Tools says its software now protects against code that tries to write itself into the Ignore list; alas, but I don't yet have a sample that tries. Overall Spyware Doctor was a fraction more successful than Spy Sweeper 5, which failed to remove two keyloggers and three spyware samples.
This version defends itself against direct attack by sleazeware, and it really seems to work. One of my samples is extremely antisocial; it obstructed installation, execution, or both in my testing of Spy Sweeper, OneCare, ZoneAlarm, and even the previous version of Spyware Doctor. I got around the problems by installing or running the protective products in Safe Mode—all except OneCare, that is, which can't run in Safe Mode and so was soundly defeated. Spyware Doctor 4 wiped out this mad dog and never broke a sweat. It also removed all of the malware samples that use rootkit techniques to hide themselves.
A full scan on a clean system took about seven minutes, the same as with Spy Sweeper 5. I did notice that an option to scan and clean bad guys hiding in Alternate Data Streams was turned off by default, but I couldn't see a difference in scanning time with it on or off.
Both these Editors' Choice products have multiple layers of real-time protection against attack; Spy Sweeper calls them "Shields" and Spyware Doctor calls them "guards." When I tried visiting the various sites hosting my spyware samples, Site Guard warned me away from all but four (though it didn't gripe about the commercial-keylogger sites). The powerful Process Guard slammed four of the eight keylogger-install programs and likewise halted over half the spyware installers in their tracks. In some cases the installer did manage to copy its malicious executables onto the drive. I tested Process Guard with each to make sure it prevented the code from running—if so, I gave Spyware Doctor credit for blocking those files. Still, I'd be happier if those dangerous files never reached the drive at all. When Spyware Doctor hollers that it has blocked a significant threat, you'll want to run a full scan right away to clean up any loose ends.
With the guards working together, Spyware Doctor noticed all eight keyloggers trying to install and successfully blocked all but one. It let two spyware samples install and didn't completely block another. That puts it slightly ahead of Spy Sweeper in blocking keyloggers, but slightly behind in blocking spyware. Either way, it's a good performance.
As in my evaluation of Spy Sweeper 5, I put the multilayered approach to the test by trying an end run around Process Guard. I made renamed and modified copies of each of the 14 evil installers that had been killed instantly by Process Guard. Out of those modified installers, two managed to get past all the guards. The rest were blocked one way or another. In four cases, Process Guard saw through the disguise and smacked down the modified installer—super!
Of course, I can always find a few things to gripe about. The "Smart Update" feature really isn't so smart. It needs way too much hand-holding to download and install updates; sometimes it even needs to reboot. And the multitude of guards has no central activity log. When, on a couple of occasions, I noticed an alert just as it was vanishing, I had to check the Results tab for every guard to figure out which one had just activated. But these are minor niggles and will probably vanish with the release of version 5, which should happen this fall.
You can't sit still in this business; certainly the bad guys don't! While Spyware Doctor 4 isn't hugely different from version 3.5, there are little improvements throughout the product. Along with Spy Sweeper 5, it's way ahead of the pack in its ability to remove spyware and keep a clean system clean. According to Peter Mackow of PC Tools, version 5 will be "the most significant release to date." I'm looking forward to it.
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