Are you that one person in a million who enjoys seeing ads splattered all over the web pages you visit? One of those rare internet users who likes sitting through one or more ads every time you watch a video on YouTube?
Didn’t think so.
While we understand that many people make money from ads on their websites or in their videos, online advertising can be really annoying. We certainly don’t like ads, which is why you won’t see any ads anywhere on our website.
When we link you to someone else’s website, or to a YouTube video, you might be subjected to ads, but those are out of our control.
Ads can mess up your online experience in oh so many ways. One of the annoying things about ads is simply how much space they take up. Assuming your goal in visiting a website is to see the unique content there, ads can make that simple task harder by cluttering up the display.
Here’s an example from a real website, the UK’s Daily Mail. The first image is the site as it appears without an ad blocker. You can see it is cluttered with ads on both sides and above the title.
Now let’s turn on the ad blocker.
Here is the exact same page, all ads are gone.
Realize too that avoiding ads isn’t just an aesthetic thing.
The ads that appear on your screen often slow down your web browsing. Ads can also seriously undermine your privacy and security. Pop-ups and those annoying multi-minute video ads get right in your face, breaking your concentration and adversely affect your web browsing experience.
Regular display ads are not only a distraction. They use up valuable screen real estate, break the flow of the page, and suck up bandwidth loading your device with all sorts of cookies and trackers that let strangers spy on what you do online. Sometimes they even load adware or other malware that hijacks your browser to inject even crappier ads into your life.
Three reasons why you don’t want ads
Still not convinced you need to nuke those ads? Let’s go into a little more detail on the problems ads can cause:
Online ads are horrible for privacy. Most ads are served by advertising networks through third-party domains. They usually contain sophisticated tracking software (trackers). As you do your thing online, the trackers allow the advertising networks to gradually build a detailed profile on you.
In the best case (for them), the profile will eventually contain personal information like your age, where you live, the identities of your family and friends, what you like to look at online, and who knows what else. Any bit of info that they can glean that might be useful will end up in that profile.
Why go to all the trouble to learn so much about you? So they can stick ads in front of you that they think will persuade you to buy their stuff. Or so they can sell the information to someone else who wants to do the same.
Online ads aren’t simply ads. They’re actually surveillance tools that strangers use to abuse your privacy. This description sums it up nicely:
Nothing is so creepy as ads for a product you looked into earlier following you from site to site, then from app to app, as you are tracked and retargeted by a desperate vendor’s algorithm.
–Cory Doctorow, July 2019
Did you know that it is possible for your device to be infected with malware simply by visiting a website with ads?
Malvertising is the term for spreading malware through infected ads. It works like this: you visit the website. The website loads the infected ads. The infected ads silently, automatically, load the malware onto your device while you are wondering why this page is showing you all these ads for “get rich quick” schemes or whatever.
You don’t have to click on the ad, or a button on the page, nothing like that. It just happens. This stuff really is evil. Even worse, malvertising affects major sites that are presumably secure, such as the New York Times and BBC.
What kinds of junk gets distributed by malvertising? It might be something that exploits security flaws on your browser or device to steal personal data. It might be ransomware, which encrypts your data and holds it hostage until you pay some creep to maybe restore the ransomed data.
As you might imagine, all those ads downloading all that crap onto your device can hurt its performance. Mobile devices are particularly affected. Remember that on your mobile phone, ads appear in the browser, but also in many mobile apps. Unwanted ads can have an impact even when you aren’t using a web browser.
A study from 2016 found that mobile ads can use up more than 3/4 of mobile bandwidth and almost half of your mobile data. Mobile networks have gotten faster since then, but surely ads are sucking up more resources too. This will also hurt battery life as your phone is forced to download more resources.
Philosophically, it doesn’t matter how much of your bandwidth and data ads suck up, you are paying for those resources. In effect, a significant percentage of the money you pay for your data plan goes to pay strangers to put junk on your phone you don’t even want.
No thank you. It is definitely time for an ad blocker.
Ad blockers to the rescue
Now that we agree you need some privacy tools to block ads from contaminating your online life, the question becomes what you can do about it. The answer is that you can use an ad blocker.
In this guide we’re going to examine different ad blocker options – from browser extensions to dedicated apps and hardware solutions. Within each category, we’ll tell you which we solution we think is best, and why.
And just in case you have some specific questions that don’t get answered as we go along, we’ll close out today’s guide with an FAQ section where we answer the most common questions about the best ad blockers.
First, we are going to examine five different ways to block ads:
- Browser ad blocker extensions
- Ad-blocking browser (Brave)
- Ad blocker apps
- Ad blocking on your device or router
- VPN with ad blocking
Now let’s examine each solution in more detail.
1. Browser ad blocker extensions
It should come as no surprise that free browser extensions are one of the most common types of ad blockers. And if you have been around the internet for a while, you also know that “free” is a squishy term in the online world. While some people do create free software out of the goodness of their heart, many people want to make money from their work – and off of you the user.
But they know they probably can’t sell their little browser extension. As a result, many of the publishers of free ad blocker browser extensions out there come up with ingenious ways to make money from your use of their product.
Making money by selling data
Unfortunately, there is more than one way to skin the cat (or at least make money off your “free” ad blocker).
Ghostery is another popular free ad blocker. They too make money off their product, but their approach is different than that of the “we block most ads” crowd. According to a 2016 report by Wired magazine, Ghostery users,
…don’t see ads and aren’t tracked by pesky data trackers. The company, however, makes money by collecting anonymized data on what those trackers pick up. It repackages that data and resells it to publishers, websites, and other companies it says can use the information to help improve the speed, privacy, and performance of their sites.
And for all we know, there may be other such approaches out there we haven’t discovered yet. As Robert Heinlein said, TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch), and many of the “free” ad blockers out there are poor choices for privacy-conscious users like us.
Are there any privacy-friendly ad blocker browser extensions?
Yes, there are a few. We like two in particular: Privacy Badger and uBlock Origin. Interestingly, neither product considers itself a traditional ad blocker.
Privacy Badger is a product of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a major international privacy advocate and non-profit organization. The Privacy Badger website has a long explanation of what this extension does and doesn’t do and how it compares to traditional ad blockers. In the interest of saving you some time, we would summarize all of that like this:
Privacy Badger watches the behavior of content that appears in your web browser. It looks for things that seem to be tracking you as you move around the internet, and blocks those that seem suspicious. It just so happens that the majority of things that seem to track you turn out to be ads.
In effect, Privacy Badger “learns” what things seem to be tracking you and deals with them for you. It doesn’t rely on any of the myriad filter lists that tell traditional ad blockers what to block and what to let through.
To do its job, Privacy Badger keeps track of third-party domains that embed images, scripts, and advertising in the pages you visit. It looks for telltale tracking techniques and if it sees one of those domains tracking you on three separate sites, it starts blocking content from that domain. This approach has the following benefits and drawbacks:
- Privacy Badger can learn as it goes along, and doesn’t have to wait for some external filter list to be updated before it can start protecting you
- One drawback is that anyone that is tracking you will get to do so across three websites before being blocked
- The other drawback is that ads that aren’t tracking you are still displayed
The Privacy Badger browser extension is available for Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Edge, and Opera browsers. It works both in normal browsing mode and in incognito mode.
You can learn more about Privacy Badger here.
uBlock Origin (not to be confused with “uBlock”)
uBlock Origin explicitly states that it is not an “ad blocker.” It bills itself as, “…an efficient wide-spectrum content blocker. Easy on CPU and memory.”
uBlock Origin does use filter lists to know which ads and trackers to block.
Free and open source, uBlock Origin can be customized in various ways, including by selecting the filter lists that it will use when checking content.
This approach has the following benefits and drawbacks:
- uBlock Origin doesn’t have to learn if something seems to be tracking you before blocking it. If it appears in one of the lists the extension uses, it can start protecting you immediately
- By default, uBlock Origin loads two ad blocking lists, meaning that it will block virtually all ads, whether they are tracking you or not
The uBlock Origin extension is available for Firefox, Safari, Microsoft Edge, and Chromium-based browsers like Google Chrome. Like Privacy Badger, it works both in normal browsing mode and in incognito mode.
Important Note: “uBlock Origin” is not the same product as “uBlock”, which is a similarly-named ad blocker that allows “acceptable ads” in exchange for payment. The result of a soap opera-like split between the developers of the original uBlock extension a few years ago, uBlock Origin is the version that is truest to the original vision and is maintained by the original developer. To avoid installing the “wrong” version, you need to go to your browser’s web store and make sure you download the extension that has the full “uBlock Origin” name.
What is the best ad blocker browser extension?
We really like the idea behind Privacy Badger, and the organization that backs them (the EFF). However, when the goal is to block all ads, whether they are spying on you or not, one of the best options is uBlock Origin.
While uBlock Origin offers a lot of customization options, you don’t have to touch them if you don’t want to. Simply download and install the extension from your browser’s web store and get back to browsing. uBlock Origin will start working immediately, greatly improving your browsing experience.
If you are up for a little bit of customization, there are three privacy-related optional settings you might want to be sure are set. Here’s how to do it:
- Click the Open the Dashboard icon (circled in red in the preceding image).
- On the Settings tab, scroll down to the Privacy section and make sure that the options circled in the following image are all selected.
- If you are unsure why you might want any of those settings turned on, you can click the information button (the letter ‘i’ in a grey circle) after any option you are curious about.
2. Ad-blocking browser (Brave)
While it isn’t hard to install a browser extension that will block ads for you, another option is to use a browser with ad blocking, privacy, and security features built right in. We’re talking about the Brave browser, which has ad and tracker blocking activated by default.
Brave is based on open-source Chromium and is well-configured for privacy and security out of the box. It is also featured in our guide on private and secure browsers.
It’s also worth noting, however, that Brave has its own ad program. Yes, that’s right, the browser that blocks ads will also show you ads, if enabled. This has generated some controversy because the browser essentially blocks websites and creators from earning advertising revenue, while also showing ads of their own, for Brave’s own profits. (Note that the user can enable or disable these Brave ads, and it’s also tied in with a cryptocurrency program for “rewards”.)
Leaving the whole ads and “rewards” program aside, Brave still offers a good ad-blocking browser that is simple and easy for anyone to use.
3. Ad blocker apps
While ad blocker browser extensions are fast and easy to install as well as usually free, they do have drawbacks. Specifically, they depend on the good will of the browser companies to do their jobs. Considering that many of the most popular browsers come from giant corporations like Google that make money from selling ads, that is a precarious position to be in. Indeed, for a while in 2019, Google banned uBlock Origin from the Chrome web store. User pressure eventually caused Google to allow uBlock Origin again, but the incident illustrates the problem.
Standalone adblocker apps (ad blocking software) attack this problem directly by doing all the ad blocking outside of your browser. This not only prevents a browser company from disabling your ad blocker, it allows one app to protect everything. If you are like us and use multiple browsers on each device, this will definitely appeal. Potentially even more interesting is that this kind of app can block ads that appear elsewhere than in your browser.
For example, various Microsoft apps and even Windows 10 can display ads. Browser extension ad blockers can do nothing against that kind of annoyance, but ad blocker apps can. (See also our Windows 10 privacy guide, while you’re at it.)
AdGuard – The best stand-alone ad blocker app
AdGuard is one of our favorite standalone ad-blocking apps with support for many devices. You can use AdGuard on Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS devices. They also offer browser extensions and other privacy-oriented products.
Beyond ad blocking, AdGuard offers capabilities like parental controls, phishing protection, and anonymity protection. The Windows app is the AdGuard flagship product.
As you can see below, the app has a clean user interface, and although it works fine right out of the box, there are a ton of options you can customize as needed.
If you don’t need the full power of the standalone app, their browser extensions might serve your web browsing needs. According to the website, “Despite having several intrinsic limitations compared to the standalone apps, they still do a decent job at blocking ads and trackers and are completely free.” Instead of describing all the variations between the versions for different operating systems and browsers, we suggest you visit the AdGuard website and check out the exact features of the version that is right for your devices and use cases.
Pricing on AdGuard is somewhat confusing. Several variants of their products offer a free version, while the standalone app requires yearly subscriptions (priced monthly but billed yearly) as well as lifetime prices. The price also varies with the number of devices you plan to protect, as well as any discount coupons you might encounter. Figure on starting at $30 per year to protect three devices.
One thing to keep in mind if you do decide to go with a standalone ad blocker like AdGuard is that it will be consuming memory and CPU cycles at all times, as opposed to a browser-based solution that is only active when you are using the protected browser.
4. Ad blocking on your device or router
Another great product from AdGuard is their free ad blocking DNS. You can use this on anything that allows you to specify the DNS manually. This includes many routers as well as individual devices. As described on the AdGuard DNS page,
AdGuard DNS is a foolproof way to block Internet ads that does not require installing any applications. It is easy to use, absolutely free, easily set up on any device, and provides you with minimal necessary functions to block ads, counters, malicious websites, and adult content.
Note: Even when using a third-party DNS service, your internet provider can still see every website you visit. If you want true privacy and encryption, you’ll need to be using a VPN service.
The AdGuard setup page gives you instructions for using AdGuard DNS with a range of devices. Select the operating system or device you use and follow the directions to get instant free (basic) ad blocking. Instructions are included for: Windows, macOS, Android and iOS mobile devices, Ubuntu, and routers. These instructions are clear and if you are at all comfortable adjusting your operating system’s network settings, you should have no problem making the changes.
Other router-based solutions
If you have an Asus router that runs Merlin firmware and don’t mind mucking around with settings, you might want to give Diversion a try. Diversion, formerly known as AB-Solution, “is a shell script application to manage ad-blocking, Dnsmasq logging, Entware and pixelserv-tls installations and more on supported routers running Asuswrt-Merlin firmware, including its forks.”
Another powerful ad blocker worth considering is Pi-hole, and it’s also free.
Pi-hole is an open source ad blocker that will run on anything from a Docker container to a Raspberry Pi. Configure your router to use Pi-hole as your DNS server and it can act as the ad blocker for your entire network. Pi-hole has a huge range of capabilities that should please anyone who is willing to tinker with their network.
5. VPN with ad blocking
The last ad blocking solution we will examine is blocking ads through your VPN (Virtual Private Network).
If you are new to VPNs, see our What is a VPN guide.
There are a handful of VPNs I have tested that offer good ad-blocking solutions, directly in the VPN apps. I really like this solution (if you are always using a VPN, as recommended) because it is light weight and efficient. Simply enable the ad blocking feature in your VPN app and it will block all ads on your operating system.
Example: Below is NordVPN with the CyberSec feature enabled. CyberSec blocks ads, trackers, and known malware domains.
Deal: You can test drive NordVPN and the CyberSec ad blocker with this 70% discounted price.
Here are some of the best ad blocker VPNs we have tested. Click the VPN name below for the full review:
Note: These VPN ad blockers will only be active when you are connected through a VPN server.
Now that we’ve covered five different ways to block ads, let’s review some of the basics and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).
Best Ad Blockers – FAQ
Before we wrap this up, here are some of the most common questions (and their answers) we’ve run into on the subject of Ad Blockers:
What is an Ad Blocker?
An ad blocker is a tool that prevents advertisements from appearing somewhere and/or tracking you. Most commonly, people use them to block ads from appearing on web pages. Over the last several years, ad blockers have become quite popular, with tens (or hundreds) of millions of people using them worldwide.
Why are ad blockers so popular?
Ad blockers can make a huge difference in the readability and usability of a page. Pages without ads are a lot less cluttered, and they can display a lot more of the actual content you are interested in on a single screen. Then there are those incredibly annoying ads, you know, the ones that block the whole screen until you opt in to their newsletter, or that display video and sound automatically.
There are also many privacy and security reasons to block ads, which we covered above.
If you think about your own experiences with sites filled with online ads, it is easy to see why ad blockers are so popular.
Where do all those ads come from?
Most of the ads you see on a webpage don’t originate there. Webpages are typically made up of content from many websites: an image loaded from here, a font from there, an icon from someplace else. All this content is automatically loaded from third-party websites when your browser loads the page you selected.
Similarly, most ads you see also come from third-party websites belonging to advertising networks. In the fraction of a second between when you click a link for a new page and when that page appears on your screen, the page notifies the ad network, which decides what ad, if any, to display on the page.
There are various ways that the ad network can decide what ad to display. One of them is to know the context in which the ad is going to be displayed. For example, if you are visiting a webpage dedicated to fishing poles, the ad network will likely send the webpage an ad related to fishing, rather than one related to basketball.
But context isn’t the only way to make the decision.
Have you ever had the experience of visiting a website on a particular topic, only to start seeing ads related to that topic, even if they aren’t related to the context of the page you are visiting? If it seems like you are being tracked by advertisers as you move across the internet, that’s because you are. Advertisers put tremendous effort into tracking you across the internet and building a detailed (creepy) profile of your habits.
How do advertisers track you across the internet?
Just as third-party websites can put an interesting image or display an ad on a webpage, they can also insert various types of trackers on your computer.
These trackers are used by advertising companies to see where you go online and what you do there. Even though trackers don’t appear on your screen, they are a huge threat to your online privacy. The information gathered using trackers goes into databases that record whatever information can be gleaned about you and your online activities. This information is then used to serve you with “better” ads in the future, or is sold to other advertisers who want to track you, or both.
How do ad blockers protect your privacy?
Having everything you do online tracked by unknown parties, and used for unknown purposes feels like a violation of privacy to most people. Ad blockers can help protect your privacy because they can disrupt and block tracking.
Many ad blockers could more accurately be called, “ad and tracker blockers.” That’s because they can not only block ads, they can block trackers too. If advertisers can’t put trackers on your computer or other devices, it becomes much harder for them to track you and create their databases.
Is it wrong to block ads?
While blocking ads offers immediate benefits to users, there are some that argue it is wrong to do so.
One argument is that blocking ads is not in the best interests of users. Without revenue from ads appearing on their sites, publishers might stop making their content available for free, or even be driven out of business.
You might say that you hate ads and wouldn’t click on them anyway, so what’s the harm? It turns out that many websites earn money from ads using the PPV model. PPV (Pay Per View) is a model where the site earns a (usually tiny) amount of money every time an ad is displayed. Critically, the user doesn’t have to click on the ad; its mere appearance on the screen earns the website money.
In cases like this, blocking ads does cost the website money.
Another argument is that blocking ads is denying advertisers the ability to market their wares. If ads for their widgets don’t appear, they will sell fewer widgets. This is true, but is it relevant?
Is someone required to look at your ads just because you paid to put them on some webpage? As far as we know, there is no requirement that I watch TV commercials or listen to radio ads. So why would we be required to look at an ad on a webpage?
What are the best ad blockers?
This is not a, “One Answer Fits All,” type of question. If it was, there would have been no point in spilling so many words on the screen. The right answer depends on your type of device, your operating system, your use case, and your budget.
What is the best ad blocker for Google Chrome?
Assuming you are looking for a free ad blocker browser extension, rather than a standalone app, we recommend uBlock Origin. It does a great job of blocking ads and other sketchy content, without getting paid by ad companies, selling user data to ad companies, or otherwise doing anything that might violate your privacy.
What is the best ad blocker for YouTube in 2020?
The answer to this question depends on how much you value your privacy. AdGuard for Windows has a good reputation for blocking YouTube ads, and doesn’t do anything that might compromise your privacy. However, it is not free beyond a 14-day trial.
There’s also the YouTube Premium version, which provides you with several benefits beyond ad-free videos. However, the price is a steep $11.99 per month, and you are giving money to YouTube, which we are fundamentally against.
AdGuard for Windows costs far less and blocks ads across your entire device, not just on YouTube. And it costs a fraction of what YouTube Premium would cost you.
YouTube Proxy – You can also the YouTube proxy www.invidio.us. Simply take the entire YouTube URL and replace the [www.youtube.com] with [www.invidio.us] to see your video without ads.
How to install an ad blocker in Google Chrome? In Firefox? In Microsoft Edge?
Installing an ad blocker in Google Chrome or any other browser is basically the same. If the ad blocker is available in the browser’s app store, simply go there to download and install it as you would any other app. If the ad blocker is not included in the relevant app store (some browser companies make their money from selling ads, so can get twitchy about ad blockers), you will need to go to the publisher’s website and follow the directions there.
Conclusion: Best ad blockers
And since you made it this far, there is no one “best ad blocker” out there. Instead, there are different “best ad blocker” solutions depending on your circumstances.
Your best bet for finding the “best ad blocker for you” is to think carefully about your circumstances, then choose from the recommended solutions for the scenario that most closely matches your own circumstances.
If you have no idea where to start, check out the standalone version of AdGuard for your operating system. While the exact capabilities vary depending on the operating system, AdGuard products don’t do anything that could violate your privacy, and frequently include additional capabilities like phishing protection and parental controls that could come in handy.
Do you have any feedback or tips for blocking ads? Drop a comment below.
Fully updated and revised on June 21, 2020.