In-Depth

Bursting the Pop-Up Bubble

Two tools that stop popups dead in their tracks

If you were a homeowner and strangers walked through your front door day and night, you'd be a bit perturbed. Maybe perturbed is too soft a word, but using obscene language is not my style.

Popups are like those strangers. These browser windows that seem to come out of nowhere are just as much an invasion of our privacy. They disrupt our computing experience and gobble up our precious RAM with sleazy sales pitches. Like spam, popups destroy what should be a wonderful computing experience.

I lived with popups for too long, methodically shutting down window after window—that I never opened in the first place! And if my best girl used my computer, why there'd be a dozen come-ons I'd have to double-click out of.
So I was mighty glad when STOPzilla gave me a call and asked me to review their pop-up blocker. It didn't take but two seconds for me to start the arrangements.

STOPzilla claims its edge is preventing the popups that arise out of adware and spyware. Heck, I don't care where they come from, as long as they go away.

Product Info

STOPzilla
$19.95/year
STOPzilla, an International Software Systems Solutions company
877-877-9944
www.stopzilla.com

Google Toolbar
Free
Google
650-623-4000
www.google.com

Installation was a simple download (they're almost all simple these days, especially the adware and spyware) and the keying in of a typically complex and unmemorable license key (write it down somewhere!).

STOPzilla has three main user-interface elements. The intro screen pops up (isn't that ironic) upon startup and also roars for some reason. I actually find this sound as soothing as an old 9600 baud modem making a connection. It sounds like something good is happening. It sounds like victory.

Then there is a small window that shows the URLs of the blocked popups. And everytime a popup is stopped, the computer makes a nice little noise—just to remind you of all the annoyance you're missing. You can use this screen to allow select URLs to make it through the blocker.

The main window is for configuration, and it's about as simple as a Playstation game. You can set it to either allow or block. This way, if you are on a site with lots of popups you actually want, they can be let through en masse.

I had one issue with dysfunctional Windows Media Player videos from MSNBC.com, but it wasn't STOPzilla's fault. A simple video player upgrade solved the problem. I did eventually run into problems with MSN radio, but that is a small price to pay for no more popups.

Well, almost no more. In over two months, only three popups made it past the STOPzilla barrier. Sweet.

I was pretty pumped over this tool. That's until I talked to Keith Ward, our senior editor. Keith has had great luck with the Google toolbar, which can be configured to block popups, and it's free. Why pay $20 a year for something Google gives for free? I had to find out.

So STOPzilla went back to Allow, and I downloaded Google, which asked for permission to send URLs back to a central site. It promised that my privacy would be protected, so I said Okay.

At first it worked even better than STOPzilla. I never got a single popup. The only price, it seemed, was the toolbar itself, which squeezed my browser window by about a third of an inch. As much as I hate complexity and to lose space, this was an acceptable concession.

Then I noticed the screen going blank and flashing and the laptop clicking every time I moved to a new page. This was almost as aggravating as the popups. I put up with it for two popup-free weeks, then I'd had enough. I tried to reconfigure Google to not transmit the URLs, but there was no apparent way to reset the tool this way. It seemed pop-up blocking, as effective as it is, is an afterthought for the search king.

STOPzilla claims its edge is the ability to stop popups that come from adware/spyware. The company claims that some 80 percent of all popups derive from this insidious software, which can come from downloading a simple weather-tracking tool or file-sharing client.

To test this theory, I downloaded AdAware 6.0 from Lavasoft and dispensed with 30 files related to spyware/adware. Based on this, one can only conclude that Google does a fine job with adware/spyware-based popups. However, Google admits that adware popups can sneak through and recommends software that removes adware.

For me, the main issue is usability. STOPzilla works, is easy to set to allow all popups, or through the blacklist, to allow specific popups. It is unobtrusive, and has made computing more joyous.

Running pop-up blockers is a great idea, but it's not enough. Your organization should have clear guidelines about spyware. Users should not download every new tool such as Kazaa or Weatherbug—many of them hide spyware. And you should consider filtering software that weeds out these URLs. And regularly going through workstations to remove spyware is a great idea for any shop.

About the Author

Doug Barney is editor in chief of Redmond magazine and the VP, editorial director of Redmond Media Group.

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