Get Spyware Doctor for free - a first look at the Starter Edition

The Starter Edition of Spyware Doctor is available for free as part of Google Pack. This is my first look at it.

Spyware Doctor is a popular commercial anti-spyware program. The product's home page is littered with accolades, though a few are for version 3.8, and others are for version 4, whereas the current version is 5. The CNET review at download.com gave it 3 stars (out of 5)* and 2,362 people at download.com rated it the same 3 stars.

PC Tools sells the full version for (approximately) $30 for one computer, $50 for two and up. That you can get a mostly functional version of the software for free, may have passed under your personal radar. It did mine.


The free trial version has been downloaded a whopping 17.4 million times at CNET's download.com. According to the vendor, PC Tools, "The trial offers time unlimited real-time protection (free spyware blocking), but does not remove threats detected during on-demand scans."

But, there is another free version, a "Starter Edition". The bottom of the product's home page says: "The Starter Edition offers full scan and removal of threats, and basic real-time protection, is available for free as part of the Google Pack."

Full spyware removal for free? This I had to check out.

You can see the difference between the free Starter Edition and the full version . In short, the Starter Edition will find and remove spyware and adware on a par with the paid version. What it's lacking, is most of the protection features that prevent infection in the first place. Interestingly, this is almost the mirror image of the free trial which offers all the protection, but none of the removal. The Starter Edition even offers tech support by email, the paid version adds phone support.

Google lets you pick and chose Google Pack applications

The Google Pack download page, shown above, let's you pick and chose applications. You can download just Spyware Doctor by itself, which I did. Google Pack works with Windows XP and Vista.

First Impression

The Google download and install process is straightforward. However, even though it said Spyware Doctor was up-to-date, that was not the case.

The just-installed software was old in two respects. According to PC Tools, the latest version is 5.1.0.273, Google installed version 5.1.0.272. The Spyware Doctor self-update facility (called "smart update") found a bunch of missing updates and easily installed them. But, even after bringing it up to date and re-booting, the version number remained 5.1.0.272.

You may forgive things like this since Google Pack is in beta, but Google has re-defined the term beta, their software retains that label for years on end. Google Pack, in particular, was first released two years ago.

Old software though, was the least of my problems. Spyware Doctor seemed to be conducting a denial of service attack on me. It (program swdsvc.exe, the PC Tools security service) was consuming all the processor cycles on the machine. Mind you, I hadn't asked it to do anything other than update itself.

If software thinks it knows best, fine. But it should ask the user before doing something resource intensive, or, at least, say what's going on and let the user cancel it. Spyware Doctor didn't indicate that it was doing anything, so I shut it down to prevent the machine from overheating.

You may prefer your anti-malware software to run quietly in the background and not ask you or tell you anything about what it's doing. But that shouldn't be the default behavior. And there is no excuse for not indicating somewhere in the user interface what's going on.

One thing I will say for it though, it fully shut down. Not all anti-malware software is so polite.

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Is the last update date here somewhere?

One of the first things I look for with new anti-malware software is the date of the last definitions update. Spyware Doctor has a "Database Version" but, as shown above, "5.08870e" doesn't resemble a date in any way, shape or form. It also has a count of "Intelli-Signatures" whose meaning is a mystery.
I take this as a bad sign. If anti-malware software can't do something as easy as reporting the last update date (so that I can insure it's current), then maybe it won't report other important information in a clear, simple way. The last update date is low hanging fruit.

Update: January 6, 2008. I was wrong about this, the last update date is reported. However, the last time I checked the software, it said it was updated three days ago and had a green check mark. In the anti-malware world, missing three days of updates is not an all green condition. If anything, it's a yellow. Sure enough, the software was missing an update to the "database".

Sure enough, after running some scans, Spyware Doctor showed itself to be weak at reporting. After a few scans, I did a "view history" and the last few scans didn't appear in the history. Unlike Windows Explorer, Spyware Doctor doesn't have a Refresh option.

The data recorded about each scan was also incomplete. I did some scans of selected folders and the log doesn't show the folders that were scanned. Custom scans let you chose among a host of different "scanners". Also missing from the scan log is the type of scanners that were used.

To C or not to C

I discovered a couple undocumented missing features in the Starter Edition.

For one, scans seemed limited to the C disk. All the scans I ran on drive letters that represented mapped network drives were refused. There was no error or warning, the scans just always examined zero files.

The other missing item is the Tools button. It is shown in the getting started documentation and also visible in the CNET video at download.com. What the tools are though neither says.

Updates

Long term, it's not clear who owns what with regard to software updates. Both Spyware Doctor and Google Pack have their own self-updating features. When it comes time to upgrade to version 5.2 or version 6 is Google or Spyware Doctor or both or neither going to perform the update? So far, the answer has been neither.

Google Pack installs two processes that run all the time in the background. One is a normal program, one is a service. Since Google offers instructions on how to un-install the Google Pack updater, I can only assume that it is not necessary for Spyware Doctor to function correctly.

Keep in mind, this was just a first impression, my experience using Spyware Doctor spans all of an hour or so. Still, for a mature, well reviewed product, I expected better.

Update:As you can see below, someone claiming to be from the marketing department at PC Tools left a long comment. See my long reply Spyware Doctor Starter Edition - a second look . January 7, 2008.

Update: December 29, 2007. It wasn't hard to find critical reviews of Spyware Doctor version 5. There were quite a few negative comments at Amazon.com, indicating I wasn't the only one to find it a resource hog. At CNET, Robert Vamosi reviewed it shortly after it was released in March and gave it 6 stars out of 10. He review included this "...until this recent release [Spyware Doctor], 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 ... it failed to remove the load points for more than half the spyware samples within our test group."

*The review at download.com doesn't specifically say which version was reviewed, is undated and doesn't indicate which version(s) of Windows were used for the testing.

See a summary of all my Defensive Computing postings.

About the author

    Michael Horowitz wrote his first computer program in 1973 and has been a computer nerd ever since. He spent more than 20 years working in an IBM mainframe (MVS) environment. He has worked in the research and development group of a large Wall Street financial company, and has been a technical writer for a mainframe software company.

    He teaches a large range of self-developed classes, the underlying theme being Defensive Computing. Michael is an independent computer consultant, working with small businesses and the self-employed. He can be heard weekly on The Personal Computer Show on WBAI.

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