Is there any point to using dedicated antispyware software?

Originally it filled a need as adware pop-ups littered screens, unscrupulous spyware began tracking browsing behaviour, and traditional antivirus programs proved unable to cope.

Today, every antivirus program will try to block data-stealing spyware, and most virus fighters block — or at least warn you about — adware and other unwanted programs. At the same time, in seeming recognition of an all-in-one tomorrow, antispyware companies PC Tools and Webroot are adding antivirus components to their wares.

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So, is the bell tolling for standalone antispyware software? Not according to sales figures. Chris Swenson, director of software industry analysis with the NPD Group, says plenty of people are still buying antispyware utilities. Sales of Webroot’s SpySweeper, for instance, are up about 19 percent for the year.

Popularity, however, does not equal quality (Paris Hilton, anyone?). Andreas Marx, who runs the AV-Test center in Germany and is our go-to guy for security software testing, says that basic antispyware features in today’s antivirus applications largely match those in dedicated antispyware software. But he notes that antivirus is often better at detecting and blocking malicious software before it can actively infect your computer.

Case in point: PC Tools’ Spyware Doctor 5.0 took top honours in our in our recent tests of antispyware software, but it detected only 38 percent of our inactive spyware samples. Top-tier antivirus programs detect about 95 percent of inactive malware, including keyloggers, Trojan horses, and other nasties.

Yet antispyware products "are often much better at removing spyware from an infected system", Marx says. Although antivirus software frequently disables malware and removes the executable, it tends to leave files and Registry items behind. Antispyware tools are often more thorough in eliminating an infection, he says.

No single product, whether antispyware or antivirus, can detect or eradicate all threats. And though you usually can’t run two antivirus programs at once, designing antispyware to avoid conflicts with antivirus is “almost a known requirement", says Michael P Greene, vice president of product strategy at PC Tools.

Where does this leave you? If you habitually open every email attachment you receive, you probably should shell out for extra antispyware coverage, or use a free program such as Lavasoft’s Ad-Aware - download Ad-Aware here..

However, while antivirus programs’ antispyware protections may not be great, they’re "doing good enough most of the time for most people", Greene says. My take: Save your money.