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Review: Nettlesome glitches sink Spyware Doctor 5

Story Highlights

• Spyware Doctor's interface is intuitive and easy to use
• Suffers from software glitches
• Failed to identify or remove a test Trojan horse
• Doesn't include telephone support
By Robert Vamosi
CNET.com
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(CNET.comexternal link) -- PCTools Spyware Doctor is one of the last independent antispyware apps on the market, and, until this recent release, was one of the better choices.

Version 5 introduces new under-the-hood protection -- and a number of nettlesome software glitches.

In testing done by CNET Labs, Spyware Doctor did shield us from and identify already installed spyware in six out of eight test cases, but it failed to remove the load points for more than half the spyware samples within our test group.

Last year, we liked Spyware Doctor 3.2, praising its "sleek and easy-to-use interface" and noting that it "packs a lot of protection under the hood and is backed up by one of the most aggressive spyware identification programs in the business."

What a difference a year makes.

PC Tools appears to be heading somewhere significant with the changes introduced in Spyware Doctor 5; it's just not there yet.

Setup

From the start, we found the Spyware Doctor download process to be confusing.

The Start Spyware Scan Now button on the PCTools site is the button to start the file download, but that could be made more clear. Once downloaded, Spyware Doctors launches an installation wizard that walks you through the process.

We like that the Spyware Doctor Smart Update is automatic, and this is accomplished before first use. But the download files themselves are a la carte, with the option not to download and install any one piece, and you have to hit Next to continue the process. Dial-up users may be tempted to download only a few of the recommended updates, which would be a mistake.

Note: The free trial copy of Spyware Doctor will not remove any spyware found until you purchase the full product. We think this is wrong, and a crude way to force sales. Once you do register, you'll be invited to download a few additional updates such as the Malware Detective, a roughly 600KB file that sends samples of found spyware to PCTools for further examination.

Should you want to remove Spyware Doctor 5, there's a handy uninstall icon provided in the All Programs list. After uninstall, however, we found several traces of Spyware Doctor still in the system registry. This surprised us, since most of the antispyware apps we tested had totally clean uninstalls.

Interface

In general, we found Spyware Doctor 5 to be buggy. On different machines, the Spyware Doctor 5 sometimes crashed upon launch, or froze while finalizing a scan; in a few cases, we had to use the Windows Task Manager to kill the executable and start over.

Once running, the Spyware Doctor's interface is intuitive and easy to use. All of its features are clearly labeled and accessible. In addition to the expected spyware scanning, there's a host of system immunization and real-time monitoring features available in the OnGuard section. Spyware Doctor includes a powerful scheduler that allows you to automate full system scans, quick scans, and even live program updates.

But for every action -- if we initiated a scan, or wanted to enable a feature, for instance -- we noticed several personal firewall alerts; Spyware Doctor appears to call home for every detail.

Even so, after a full system scan, our attempt to learn more about an item that Spyware Doctor had labeled as a high-risk cookie went unsatisfied. The link for "more information" opened our default browser and took us to a PCTools page, but it was a page that talked generally about phishing threats and not specifically about what Spyware Doctor found on our machine.

Features

Other than antispyware protection, Spyware Doctor 5 doesn't offer a lot of additional features; the improvements, we're told, are internal. The enhanced antirootkit protection within Spyware Doctor 5 is disabled by default. There's a warning on the configuration screen that enabling this feature requires vigilance, as the PCTools antirootkit heuristic findings may include false positives.

Real-time protection can be enabled or disabled, a curious distinction. One might disable real-time protection, for example, to lessen the impact on system resources, relying upon a thorough scan of the system to root out any spyware that had recently installed. But we found during various scans that Spyware Doctor never consumed more than 20 percent of our system resources.

Performance

Overall, Spyware Doctor earned a slightly below average rating among the 10 antispyware apps we tested. Spyware Doctor 5.0 did find more cookies than any other product we tested, although in a number of cases we were unable to confirm the severity of the specific cookies on independent antispyware sites, leaving us to wonder whether these suspicious cookies were truly dangerous.

In exclusive testing by CNET Labs, Spyware Doctor's active shields identified and blocked six out of eight spyware samples we attempted to install, missing only Compare-prices.zip and Marketscore. When scanning and removing existing spyware samples, Spyware Doctor also caught six out of eight, missing Compare-prices.zip and Clickpix.

But when it comes to spyware removal, in a majority of the cases -- five out of eight--Spyware Doctor didn't completely remove the registry load-point entries even on spyware it identified, lowering the product's overall score. In our tests, Spyware Doctor left traces of Compare-Prices.zip, ClickPix, JustFindIt toolbar, MarketScore, NewDotNet/eZula.

Support

Upon installation, PCTools offers Spyware Doctor users a Quick Start guide, a general one-page guide to the program's basic features. Online, we found the Spyware Doctor FAQ to be adequate, although the first part of the FAQ admonished us for not checking whether we had the latest version (we had just download the files and updated, so, yeah, we do have the latest version).

After viewing the FAQ, you can answer whether the questions and answers were helpful. Saying "No" moves you to an e-mail feedback page. Unlike Webroot (the makers of Spy Sweeper), PCTools does not offer free telephone technical support.

Within a year, Spyware Doctor went from version 3 to version 5, and along the way it appears to have encountered many problems, including some software glitches.

We assume the software will be fixed soon enough, and we look forward to seeing future enhancements of this Spyware Doctor -- including antivirus protection -- in next year's review.


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