Ad blockers have become essential tools in our navigation of the online space in recent years, helping to enhance performance, protection, and privacy. With such a boom in popularity spawning hundreds of products across a multitude of platforms, it can be difficult to choose which ad blocker is right for you and in what ways it could help.
At some point or another, we have all faced the dreaded pop-up, an intrusive form of advertisement deployed by companies that often prioritize income revenue over user satisfaction. The same can be said for auto-playing videos and cluttered websites filled to the brim with animations, audio, and text, inevitably slowing systems and their bandwidth.
Enter the ad blocker, software designed to help consumers avoid the manipulation of brands by preventing advertisements from appearing on screen. Desktop users immediately see improvement with faster loading webpages, but the benefits are particularly evident on mobile and laptop devices with the conservation of battery life.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this is where the tool’s functionality ends given its namesake, but certain products can be capable of so much more. They help to protect users from malicious advertisements known as ‘malvertising’, as attackers utilize them to disseminate harmful code. This can be done by redirecting the user to a compromised website or piggybacking a stealthy download to unsuspecting victims, in some cases without a click on the advertisement itself.
Ad blockers also prove instrumental in the battle for privacy as websites continue to siphon user data. A number of advertisements are infamous for tracking each click a user makes, building a profile of interests that include intimate information such as age, location, friends and more.
Types of Ad Blockers
Like always, not all programs are built equal and can come in a variety of different forms. While some types are distinctly more popular than others, it’s imperative to weigh up the pros and cons to determine the best ad blockers for browsers such as Chrome, Firefox or Safari, operating systems such as Windows 10, Android or iOS and the myriad of devices out there.
Whether a user opts for a company-owned piece of software such as Google Chrome or open-source offerings, almost all browsers come with built-in ad blocking features to avoid adware. Sadly, these measures are often limited, with most turning towards extensions to make the most of a browser’s capability.
By far the most popular type of ad blocker, extensions are the easiest to install with just a few clicks and offer a range of customization. Ads are usually blocked by default; with users having to manually whitelist trusted websites should they wish to contribute to a company’s revenue.
Of course, Chromium-based browsers have the largest selection of ad blocking extensions thanks to Chrome cornering most of the global market. Although Firefox has a good range available, support for others listed in our top 5 most secure browsers built for privacy is fewer and further between. Users also risk vulnerability to browser fingerprinting when utilizing many extensions, resulting in a need for extra protection such a Canvas Defender for Firefox.
Free isn't necessarily good
At first, it might seem like a blessing that many ad blockers are free to use, but unfortunately, not all of them can secure the level of privacy a consumer expects. Some make their money by discretely whitelisting the advertisements for companies that opt-in to share revenue with the developer, while others sometimes operate by collecting and selling the data of users themselves.
Pros of Browser Extensions
- Easy to install
- Large selection of paid and free ad blockers
Cons of Browser Extension
- Support ranges per browser
- Vulnerability to browser fingerprinting without added protection
- Some free ad blockers aren't as private as they seem
VPNs with Ad Blockers
Virtual private networks (VPNs) are vital when it comes to online privacy with their ability to hide what you get up to, which makes them the perfect tool to couple with ad blockers. Some developers have taken away the middle-man by offering ad blocking features within their service, leaving more time for privately browsing the web and less time hunting for the perfect software.
As a one-stop shop, users reap all the benefits of a traditional ad blocker alongside the function of a VPN, making it incredibly difficult for adware to form a profile. The bundles are often a part of premium subscriptions, which enables a user to protect multiple devices at once.
With the built-in program being a paid feature, there is no funny business as to how the company is making money but this does make it less accessible than some browser extensions. The primary drawback, however, is that ad blocking cannot be used independently as the function only activates when connected to the VPN
Pros of VPNs with Ad blockers
- Comes bundled with a VPN
- One stop shop for privacy
Cons of VPNs with Ad blockers
- Requires a premium, paid subscription
- Ad blocker functionality cannot be used independently
Ad blocker desktop applications
Although it’s a much more unconventional method of getting rid of advertisements, there are a small number of ad blocker applications that can be directly installed onto desktops.
Unlike extensions, these programs have the ability to prevent advertisements from appearing on multiple browsers at once – which is handy given that having more than one browser installed is always encouraged. Even advertisements baked into other applications and Windows 10 have a hard time against these ad blocker apps.
Also in contrast to extensions, ad blocker apps have a tendency to take up a larger amount of system resources such as memory, even when not in use. Strictly free versions of the programs also remain restricted or have fallen behind on development compared to their paid alternatives, leaving them a little less accessible.
Pros of Desktop ad blocker applications
- Covers multiple browsers and programs
Cons of Desktop ad blocker applications
- Resource heavy
- Free versions are usually restricted or out-dated
- Not much of a selection
Router-loaded ad blockers
With a little know-how, it is possible to load ad blockers onto dedicated or virtual routers, preventing advertisements at Domain Name System (DNS) level. Implementation depends on the interface of each individual router, and while they are often trickier to set up than alternatives, they yield the biggest results.
While previously mentioned ad blockers stop advertisements from appearing, most do nothing to prevent the web page from downloading personalized banners, images, and videos based on a user’s browsing history and stored cookies. Prohibiting these advertisements from loading at DNS level not only maximizes performance but caters to multiple devices in the household, let alone multiple browsers.
Preventing advertisements using DNS is usually a blanket-wide block that can sometimes be customized by the user based on how strict their settings are. There is a risk of select webpages breaking and commercial sites being caught in the crossfire, both of which can be remedied by manually whitelisting. No router-based solution is as accessible as its local brethren, but as mentioned earlier, this is particularly dependent on the router’s user interface.
Pros of router-loaded ad blockers
- Caters to all devices within the premises
- Stops the loading of advertisements as well as showing them
Cons of router-loaded ad blockers
- Can be fiddly to set up
- Not as user-friendly to manage
The best ad blockers services
Best Browser Extension: uBlock Origin
uBlock Origin doesn’t cater to every browser out there, but it does support the core desktop versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Edge, Opera, and other Chromium-based browsers. It is lightweight in comparison to the competition and we were met with the fewest detection messages from websites pleading to whitelist them, enhancing my experience.
Best VPN with an Ad Blocker: NordVPN’s CyberSec
Although the CyberSec security suite isn’t free, it is included within a subscription to NordVPN, giving incredible value for money. Users are able to access all the benefits of our highest-rated VPN service, including ad blocking and malware protection.
Best Desktop Application: AdFender
While AdFender no longer offers a free version as of version 2.50, it remains one the best ad blockers for Windows Vista through to Windows 10 thanks to its relatively cheap $19.95 per year subscription. It has been tried and tested using a wide range of browsers, including Waterfox and Pale Moon, two of the most privacy-focused offerings.
Best ad blocker for Android: AdLock
AdLock’s desktop version isn’t quite as competitive at $22 per year, but its $11 Android subscription proves a treat. It’s a little more intensive on resources than browser-based alternatives for mobile, but as a separate application, it can prevent auto-playing videos, pop-ups and general advertisements mobile-wide. Ad blocking services are prevented from Google’s Play Store, meaning users will have to side-load this one onto their device.
Best ad blocker for iOS: 1Blocker X
As one of the first acclaimed ad blockers for iOS, 1Blocker X has picked up a trick or two that keeps advertisements at bay for iPhone and iPad devices. Acting as an optimization for Safari, 1Blocker X won’t work on applications, but it will save system resources with its 115,000+ blocker rules and settings preventing content from downloading in advance. This is available directly from the App Store for a one-time payment of $4.99.
Honourable mention: AdBlock Plus
AdBlock Plus, otherwise known as ABP, is one of the oldest extensions around, established as the most popular ad blocker plug-in for Firefox. Unfortunately, the extension has received criticism in recent years for its ‘Acceptable Ads’ scheme, allowing some paying advertisers to slip through onto a whitelist. This option can be turned off in the options but given that this is a conflict of interest and there are better, more private services out there, it didn’t quite make our list.