What's the best free ad blocker?

In the real world, you can shut the door on an unwanted sales pitch. Or change the channel. But it’s not so easy when you’re browsing the web. Pop-ups clog your desktop; some websites are so congested with ads they take forever to load, and they’re a pain to read. On the web, there’s no escaping annoying ads.

But online ads aren’t just an annoyance—they also put your privacy at risk. These ads are “personalized” or “targeted” based on your browsing history with third-party data brokers buying and selling your web activity so Big Tech can customize its ads. Websites use trackers to record what you view, what ads you click and, of course, what you buy. It’s a vicious cycle of data theft, and the whole system relies on surveillance.

Thankfully, you have options. More and more people are turning to ad blockers to make their browsing experience cleaner, faster, and less intrusive. In this article, we’ll cover how ad-blockers work, what benefits they offer, and the best options available.

How do ad blockers work?

Most ad blockers start with a list. When you tell your browser to load a website, the ad blocker will look at the various resources to load on the site, compare them to a list of known ads, and block those ads accordingly.

Ad blockers also follow a list of rules to determine what is—and isn’t—an ad, with further rules to separate “bad” ads from “good” ones.  Ads that clear these rules, and generally stay unobtrusive, might be allowed to get through. For example, the popular ad-blocking extension Adblock Plus follows a list of restrictions that includes (but is not limited to): animated ads; video ads with autoplay; and how much space an ad can occupy on a page.

After checking against lists and rules, most ad blockers use two additional methods to prevent ads from appearing on your screen. Below, we’ll take a closer look at both.

HTTP request blocking

Today, most web ads originate on servers separate from the websites on which they appear. In other words, the content of the page you’re viewing originates on that website’s server; the ads come from somewhere else. HTTP ad blockers can identify these ads and then block the requests to load them. This action essentially cuts them off early and prevents them from ever being loaded.

Element hiding

If an ad exists on the website itself, an ad blocker can conceal the ad using a special script that overwrites the ad in the CSS (essentially the code that determines how the page should appear in your browser). This approach is less common than request blocking, which stops ads before they ever load, but is still in use with some blockers.

What’s the best ad blocker for Chrome?

Now that you know how ad blockers work, it’s worth noting which of them are available on Google Chrome. Below, we break down the pros and cons of some of the best ad blocker extensions for Google Chrome.

1. uBlock Origin

This free, open-source ad-blocking extension offers a few unique features. Unlike some other ad blockers, with uBlock Origin, there are no “good” ads. Instead, uBlock blocks everything, giving fewer opportunities for trackers to follow your activity. Also, the fact that uBlock is open-source (meaning anyone can view and contribute to its source code) means it has access to many more block lists, and these lists can be added or removed as needed.

Of course, blocking everything results in other problems. For example, some web page elements may not display correctly. And, since uBlock Origin doesn’t allow the “good” ads that most websites rely on for financial support, it can actually hinder the ability of your favorite sites to produce the content you love.

Pros:

  • Completely open-source
  • Cross-browser support
  • Strong privacy features
  • Add or remove lists as needed

Cons:

  • More elements may not display correctly than with other ad blockers
  • You have to research and install the extension; it’s not browser native

2. Adblock Plus

Adblock Plus is a Google Chrome extension, which allows the user to set how strictly Adblock Plus blocks ads. However, a big concern with AdBlock Plus is that it uses a default list of “acceptable” ads—these are pay-to-play ads sponsored by AdBlock Plus.

Pros:

  • Proven effectiveness and popularity
  • Well-established

Cons:

  • Built-in exception list for “acceptable” ads
  • Can be resource-heavy and slow down page performance

3. AdGuard

AdGuard is a popular alternative to Adblock Plus. The application blocks ads before they load to your browser, speeding up your online experience. Like Adblock Plus, AdGuard provides options for security, privacy, and targeting filter lists.

Pros:

  • Less resource-heavy than other ad blockers
  • Supports a complete suite of extras, including AdGuard DNS and AdGuard Home (for  protecting servers at home)

Cons:

  • Limited customer support
  • Requires upgrade to a paid version to see all features

What’s the best ad blocker for Android?

As bad as pop-up ads can be on your desktop, they’re even more annoying on mobile. So it’s worth noting that some—but not all—of the extensions available for Chrome also work to block ads on Android devices. Below, we’ll explore both categories.

1. AdGuard

On Android, AdGuard offers the same features as the desktop version, and there’s a subscription to the paid version of AdGuard that works for both desktop and mobile devices.

2. AdAway

AdAway is free to use, and takes an unusual approach to ad blocking: Instead of blocking ads, AdAway intercepts the ad before it loads, and redirects it to a nonexistent location. However, this has at least one major drawback: AdAway detects—and redirects—ads from other domains, but the ads will get through if they’re hosted directly on the page you’re viewing. In other words, AdAway effectively blocks third-party ads, but still allows some first-party ads.

3. Adblock Plus

In addition to the desktop features already listed above, AdBlock Plus offers some blocking of trackers and malware, making it more than just an ad blocker.

Ad blockers and Internet privacy

While we’ve only discussed ad blockers for Chrome and Android devices, there’s usually some kind of native (i.e. built-in) ad blocker on iOS devices, and most other web browsers. However, not all built-in solutions will reach your desired level of protection. As a fallback, some users may opt to install a third-party extension.

But it’s worth noting that extensions add-ons downloaded from app stores have their own potential risks. They’re often built by third-parties (i.e. not by the company behind the browser), and can introduce new security issues. They can increase the load on your web browser, leading to a slower browsing experience overall. And they increase your online fingerprint, making you more identifiable as you visit websites.

Because of these pitfalls, the ideal solution is a browser that blocks ads automatically, enabling truly private browsing without the need for a risky extension. That’s where Brave comes in.

Brave: The all-in-one solution

Brave comes with simple, built-in ad blocking, thanks to its Shields feature (viewable right in the address bar). Brave also blocks third-party trackers, again without reliance on risky extensions. And Brave’s open source lists allow you to easily customize what’s blocked and what’s not. Brave offers the best blend of both native ad blocking and speed & performance on page load.

But Brave takes things a step further. While everyone agrees that blocking annoying pop-ups, flashing gifs, and autoplay videos is a good thing, there is an underlying problem—the entire Internet economy relies on those ads. While Brave believes no one is entitled to your data, we also know websites need revenue to make great content. That’s why Brave offers the Brave Rewards feature, which allows users to opt-in to see privacy-preserving, first-party ads from the Brave Private Ads network. If they do, they’ll earn a crypto token (the Basic Attention Token, or BAT) which they can turn into cash gift cards, swap for other crypto or—here’s the kicker—directly tip the websites they love. (What happens if users don’t opt in? Nothing! The Brave browser will always be free and ad-free by default.)

By replacing the old advertising and the old revenue model, Brave gives both users and content creators the best of both worlds: Unparalleled privacy, speed, and a way to support websites.

Get started with Brave!

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