Friday, 30 September 2011

Ad blocker shootout: AdAway vs. AdFree

Ads and the hosts file

Android is a product from Google that you, the customer, get for free. Right? Wrong! YOU are the product, and Android is the market where Google sells you to its advertisers. Same goes for the "free" apps on the Android Market that sell your data, screen space, and privacy to their advertisers.

You can block most ads from any program on your PC by adding the ad servers to your Windows hosts file. By doing so, requests for ads are sent to a server without any ads: your own computer is the server, and it won't send ads to itself.

The same trick works on Android too. It has a hosts file just like Windows, and if you add the URLs of the banner farms you can redirect them to an empty box of ads instead of to their own ad-infested server. The Android hosts file sits in your internal phone memory in /system/etc/hosts. The hosts file is a plain text file without an extension.

When you block an advertiser in your hosts file all its ads are blocked. They won't appear in any web browser, they won't appear in any app, they won't even appear on this website. They won't set tracking cookies either, so you can use your apps and surf the web without a bunch of advertisers spying on you.

Blocking ads by manually tweaking your hosts file is a tedious job. But there's no need to do it by hand, because (cliché alert) there's an app for that.

Apps against ads

AdFree is as famous on Android as AdBlock is for Firefox. It's a very simple app that downloads the addresses of a large number of advertising servers, and writes 'em to your hosts file together with a pointer to the IP address This is the loopback address of your own phone, so any request for ads is effectively thrown away.

AdAway uses the same trick, but it combines three servers (,, out of the box. You don't have to use all three. Even better: AdAway lets you add your own hosts file sources. You can add your own addresses to a blacklist in case the default lists don't include them. It also has a whitelist, just in case you want to let some ads pass through to support the developer of your favourite app, or because you run an app that breaks if it can't connect to its sponsor. If you want to tweak things even more, you can redirect URLs to any server of your choice.

AdFree is closed source, AdAway is open source. Both require root access to edit your hosts file. When I switched from Symbian to Android I used AdFree, but I moved to AdAway because it can do a lot more.

For obvious reasons both apps don't display ads ;)

AdAway (alternative download links, no longer in Play Store)
AdAway (Google code)
AdFree (alternative download links, no longer in Play Store)
AdFree (BigTinCan)

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