Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.
Windows Defender is a free, easy to use anti-spyware package that does a good job of protecting you, and includes several advanced tools as well.
Update: Since this article was published, two things have happened: Windows Defender is now included in Windows 7 by default, and Microsoft has release Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE), a fully featured anti-virus and anti-spyware package that actually replaces Windows Defender when install. I now recommend MSE instead of Windows Defender.
There are several reputable anti-spyware programs available these days. Unfortunately, none of them catch every single piece of adware or spyware. But if you're an average user, or like me, you choose to run only one package, then I recommend Microsoft Windows Defender as the one to run.
I recommend Microsoft Windows Defender for a couple of reasons:
As I said, program installation is easy and clean, and that the default settings mean that the average user rarely needs to visit the program again. In fact, after installing, the most common interaction you'll have with it is dismissing the dialog that shows you the results of the most recent scan, and the occasional alert that it will give you when some other application attempts to make a change to a sensitive area. For example after installing the program, I later made a change to a start-up program. Microsoft Defender presented me with a dialog describing what was happening, and giving me the option to allow, or prevent, the change.
While the spyware scan, real-time, automated or on-demand, is the primary feature of note for an anti-spyware scanner, Microsoft Windows Defender does include some additional, interesting "Advanced Tools":
As an effective overall package, Microsoft Windows Defender is, in my opinion, the way to go.
If you're interested in alternatives, or perhaps a second level of anti-spyware program to catch things that the Microsoft product might have missed, I'd point you at these packages:
If you do choose to install more than one anti-spyware package, be sure to enable real-time protection on only one. Much like antivirus programs, two antispyware programs trying to, essentially, do the same thing at the same time can occasionally cause conflicts.
I'll also point out HijackThis. It's a commonly used reporting tool when working with someone remotely who's experiencing problems. It's really aimed at the computer geeks, and will list a fair amount of technical information, but it's free, a quick download, and again, another pseudo-standard tool you'll see mentioned a lot.
And finally, an additional approach is outlined by Michael Horowitz in his very detailed page on removing spyware.
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