Here's our exclusive first review of PC Tools' latest antispyware utility. It will be available to download from www.pctools.com from next month.

It seems like only yesterday that Spyware Doctor 4.0 was launched, but version 5.0 is already with us. At first glance, the two versions look remarkably similar. Probe a little deeper, though, and the feature set has been noticeably extended.

Spyware Doctor is now able to integrate with other PC Tools products. With this release there's a free optional upgrade to the PC Tools antivirus engine, so that incoming emails are checked for spyware and viruses, while the scanner looks for both sorts of malware. Plus, there are plans for integration with Firewall Plus to provide an integrated suite.

Healthy updates

One criticism concerning updates has been addressed. Previously, updates had to be manually initiated, but now it's possible to set up automatic 'silent' updates that require no user intervention. This means updates are incremental and download faster.

Spyware Doctor 5.0 has a commendably light system footprint – even on an antique 450MHz P3 laptop it made little difference to performance. Plus, home PCs will benefit from revamped multiuser support, since version 5.0 supports the removal and detection of threats from all logged-in user accounts.

Incoming and outbound emails are scanned through the Email Guard, although we weren't able to test this feature in the beta. File Guard scans files in real time, while the Process Guard has better rootkit detection – although it's switched off by default.

As before, Spyware Doctor's protection breaks down into two components: an on-demand scanner and a number of real-time monitors. File scanning has been accelerated thanks to its patent-pending spider-scanning technology. A complete Intelli-scan of 3.5GB of data took just three minutes on our ageing laptop.

At the heart of version 5.0 is OnGuard Protection, which comprises a range of tasked guards: Browser, File, Keylogger, Network, Popup Blocker, Process, Site and Startup. Another is on its way: the Behaviour Guard will detect zero-day attacks.

Each one can be disabled and you can only configure exclusions for websites or files. This will prevent new programs initiating automatically with your PC, block programs that collect your keyboard input, stop known malicious programs running and prevent access to malicious sites. The Process Guard can even kill kernel-level spyware processes.

One of Spyware Doctor's enduring strengths is its ease of use. Its clear interface makes it easy to drill down to tweak a configuration setting, although the range of options seems less than in version 4.0. You could accuse it of being overly paternalistic, but most users will welcome the jargon-free description of each threat.

However, one minor criticism remains. It still over-eggs the malware pudding a bit, describing tracking cookies as infections – a trifle fanciful.

Verdict

Spyware Doctor 5.0 continues the good work laid down by its forebears and manages to combine ease of use and effectiveness. Indeed, we'd go so far as to suggest that Spyware Doctor might be the best antispyware utility available.

Instant Messenger and spyware

A little over a year ago an IM (Instant Messenger) worm targeted AIM users, leaving a nasty payload of rootkits, trojans and adware in the process. IM is prone to a range of attacks, including IM-borne viruses and worms, SPIM (spam over IM), malware and phishing attacks. Not only is its huge user base attractive, but IM's ability to transfer files and bypass firewalls makes it an effective medium for spreading malware.

Ever since version 4.0, Spyware Doctor has protected IM communications from spyware. Back then it warranted its own IM Guard, but version 5.0 integrates this functionality with the Site Guard. This module prevents users from visiting malicious links sent via Instant Messaging. Spyware Doctor previously supported only MS IM clients but, with this release,
IM support is generic and you'll be prevented from being lured to a bad site by any IM client.