Microsoft created the world's most popular operating system — one that's also heartily embraced by hackers and virus writers. And it begat the...

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Microsoft created the world’s most popular operating system — one that’s also heartily embraced by hackers and virus writers. And it begat the world’s top Web browser, which makes it all too easy to mistakenly download and install spyware, adware and other garbage.

You’d think the company, which presumably knows its own Windows and Internet Explorer code, would have long ago come up with something to repair PCs possessed by malicious programs.

Think again.

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Though Microsoft regularly releases bug fixes, security patches and even the occasional virus-removal tool, it has only recently made programs available to help people wrangle back control of their computers after they’ve clicked the wrong pop-up ad or installed adware-packed freebies.

The company now has two free programs to help rid PCs of unwanted pests. Though Microsoft Windows Malicious Software Removal Tool and Microsoft AntiSpyware show some promise, they aren’t close to being magic bullets.

I tested the programs on a Windows XP computer I borrowed from my wife’s cousin. The 3-year-old PC, a Gateway running Windows XP Home Edition, was basically unusable.

Annoying pop-up windows, a sign of adware, were the least of its problems. It took more than a minute to load a single Web page and often crashed minutes later.

It refused to load Windows Update, Microsoft’s site for downloading security patches and other fixes, so I installed Microsoft’s Malicious Software Removal Tool manually, with the help of another PC and a USB drive.

The removal tool scanned the sick machine and reported no problems, even though there were big problems.

The tool looks for a limited number of pests, such as “Sasser” and “MSBlaster,” so it didn’t find the worm, “Netsky.P,” which had infected this PC. The program, though, will be updated each month and will presumably become more effective.

By building its tool into Windows Update, Microsoft shows it’s aggressive about snuffing out pests. But it’s got to stay up to date with the threats — and send out updates as close to real time as possible.

Installation of the prerelease version of Microsoft’s antispyware program, which can be downloaded free from Microsoft’s Web site, was easy. The final version’s price, if any, has yet to be announced.

The interface was clear and simple. A thorough scan discovered 77 spyware and adware programs, which I removed. But bizarre behaviors continued and I eventually broke down and reformatted the hard drive, then reinstalled Windows XP.

The clean start gave me a chance to try Microsoft AntiSpyware in its other role — as protector of a clean system.

It did a good job and was easy to use. It continuously monitors 59 checkpoints and alerts users whenever a program attempts to make a change.

Overall, I was more impressed with the antispyware program’s protective measures and simple interface than with its ability to cleanse existing infections.