While we may think that the current selection of free antivirus software might be the best thing on this earth since potato peelers, there are some online situations for which they are NOT suitable.
To put it bluntly, if you’re doing anything that matters – like online banking, cryptocurrency trading, or anything else that would leave your life screwed if you got hacked – for God’s sake shell out the money for a premium AV product.
They’re not that expensive compared to a financial life left in shambles. The paid versions provide a tighter lockdown and faster updates against all manner of malware nasties, so let’s be clear. Even the best of the best of free AV software doesn’t offer the robust protection of a paid version.
To Pay or Not to Pay
So, what should a web user do? Free or paid? Need more information, please! Okay, let’s drag this discussion out a bit before getting into our free AV recommendations. Here are a few drawbacks to not paying.
Limited to Non-Commercial Use: This should not come as a surprise, but most of the good free AV software products are the stripped-down version of a premium product that costs money.
Often the free version is limited to personal use, which means you shouldn’t use it as a primary means of defense on your business system. If you really want to protect your business, you need the protection inherent in a commercial security suite. Don’t fret. Yes, it costs money, but it’s a deductible expense.
Robust Features: Considering what we just said about free AV packages being lightweight versions of the premium product, it shouldn’t outrage you to learn that you get more features when you pay for them.
Depending upon the vendor, expect that paying for protection will come with various upgrades related to malware scanning, firewalls, and a generally better chance at stopping bad guys and gals from compromising your device.
Better Support: Another area where free AV software tends to lag is in the availability and quality of technical support. This will become evident the first time you try to dig a nasty piece of spyware out of your system and the best you get in the way of technical support is a reference to an FAQ system and hearty, “Good luck, mate!”
Stop the Free-Bashing
By now, the more intelligent members of our reading audience may be wondering, “Why the hell are you being so hard on free software if you’re about to recommend which ones we should use? Were your recently dropped on your head?”
Simmer down. We actually think there are some pretty amazing free AV products out there.
The best of them include not only formidable tools to get rid of existing malware but real-time protection against phishing, spear phishing, ransomware, Trojans, ‘bots, and more. This is honest-to-goodness quality cyber security at zero cost. There. We said it. Free AV software is good. Are you happy now?
Are Independent AV Tests Worth a Pair of Fetid Dingo Kidneys?
Actually, we’re a big fan of independent antivirus testing labs. There ain’t no payola going on here. Yes, security companies can pay to have their product reviewed, but there is no promise the findings will be pleasant.
Smart companies take these detailed reports, which are released regularly to the public as well, and use them to improve their product. While the software submitted for testing is normally the premium version, the dirty little secret is that even free AV software is outfitted with complete protection.
The company hopes you love how well their free version works and become a raving fan who eventually decides to upgrade to their flagship offering with a host of added features.
The bottom line is that if you see a vendor’s product show up in several of these lab reports, it’s a good sign that you’re looking at a serious industry player. The lab’s scientists are too busy to waste their time on products that will never amount anything. We said all that to say this.
One of the steps we took to evaluate free AV software was to read through these reports. If a lab thinks it’s worth a sniff, we’re going to listen to what they say in forming an initial opinion.
Release the Malware!
Obviously, we don’t just take the word of a bunch of nameless scientists as gospel. If this article recommending the best in free antivirus products is going to have our name on it, you can bet that we’re going to install the things and unleash all sorts of rotten malware on it to see how well each performs at rooting out the bad stuff. Hope you didn’t mind we used your computer for the testing. Just kidding!
The first thing we do in our hands-on test is turn loose a bunch of different types of malware samples. With only rare exceptions, most free AV products detect and quarantine them right away, and certainly when we try to launch them. So they do a fine job at removing oldish malware.
Will they perform up to snuff with brand, spanking new nasties? That brings us to the next step, which includes visiting dozens of new websites, usually less than 24 hours old, which have been designated as malicious. We learn in a hurry whether or not we have a good product on our hands.
7 Excellent Free Antivirus Products
Without further ado, let’s get to our list of seven free AV products we recommend, plus bonus recommendations of the best three paid security software products we could find.
#1. AVAST Free (No, it’s not talk like a pirate day)
We always want to follow typing AVAST with “ye mateys” but will try to refrain. Oops. Too late. All jokes aside, this is the top better-than-elf-on-a-shelf choice in free protection from bad stuff.
Great reports and testing, plus a heck of a lot of bonus features that catapult it to the head of the pack of our recommendations. The only real downside is that the password manager features aren’t as robust as we’d like. The verdict: you could do worse but it would be hard to do better.
#2. AVG Antivirus (Still in the game)
AVG is a veteran of the free AV software wars. Recent updates in design and user interface haven’t changed that. Still a solidly reliable choice for online protection. The testing labs love AVG as much as we do.
Malware detection is great and we’re in love with the plugin feature that tells you whether or not a website is malicious. The only downsides noted were that it takes forever to complete the initial scan (which might actually be a good thing) and anti-phishing wasn’t as strong as we hoped. Overall, AVG remains a go-to choice for free AV software.
#3. Bitdefender (The opposite of feature-laden)
Remember back when we mentioned how some companies use the exact same core security in the free version as the paid? Here’s one example of that idea in action. The problem is that the free version lacks every useful feature of the paid Bitdefender.
However, if you’re looking for no-frills basic defense against all the uglies running around out there online and can live life without bells and whistles, this is a solid product that generated the highest anti-phishing score. If you already have the standard Windows security in place, this is a great add-on.
#4. Check Point ZoneAlarm (Meh…there’s good and bad)
Despite licensing some of its guts from the respected antivirus brand Kaspersky, ZoneAlarm offers a mixed bag of security effectiveness. On one hand, the firewall works great in both directions and offers real peace of mind.
On the other hand, there have been no independent lab tests of this product. *Shrug* One thing we noted was a lack of anti-phishing features, which is a pretty big thing to leave out. Kind of like selling you a car without a steering wheel. Not a bad choice if you don’t need a comprehensive security suite.
#5. Cybereason RansomFree (Another layer of security)
Cybereason brings a laser sharp focus to a specific type of malware attack – ransomware. This is when malicious software is introduced to your machine and locks it down, making it unusable until you pay a fee (ransom) for it to be released.
If you have data or important files on your local machine, this can be a disastrous intrusion. Testing was a mixed bag. The product performed well against real-world ransom attacks but then failed to detect simulated versions.
Still, the thing is free and offers at least an attempt at protection against having your computer taken hostage. It couldn’t hurt anything.
#6. Kaspersky Lab (The Russians again – oh, my!)
Let’s get this out of the way. In the incessant clamoring about ties to Russians, Kaspersky Labs have been thrown into the mix, but we’ve seen no proof of anything, so will continue to point out that this product gets top marks from independent testers.
The free version performed only adequately for us against malware in testing, though was great at sniffing out and eliminating phishing attempts. No advanced features or direct technical support is included with the no-frills product. Just a rock-solid ally in the ongoing battle against bad cyber stuff.
#7. Sophos Home (Business protection for home use)
Sophos has been working on the business side of the fence for a long time, never really paying attention to the consumer market. Sophos Home is their first venture into this new territory and we’d say it’s been a successful move.
Like Kaspersky, scores with the independent labs were impressive, especially in repelling malware and offering up a clean, neat interface. The results of our own tests weren’t quite so impressive, but not bad enough to pull our recommendation.
3 Worthy Paid Antivirus Products
Don’t be surprised to see the same names from the free list on our list of AV providers that you pay for. As we’ve mentioned, most companies in the industry use free versions as bait to get you to eventually upgrade to the paid platform.
Nothing wrong with that. You just have to decide if your need for protection goes beyond what you get for free.
Here are the three paid AV products we consider superior. Why three? Why not?
#1. Bitdefender Antivirus Plus ($39.99/year)
Living up to its name, you certainly get more than simple antivirus protection with this puppy. Included also are a password manager, hardened browser, secure deletion, ransomware protection, and more.
Lacking are a firewall, spam protection, and parental controls. You’ll probably be able to find it for $24/year on the open market, which gets you protection for one device. Impressive performance both in lab tests and in our hands-on testing, though we found it slightly less effective in malware-blocking than the scientists did. A little money for a lot of protection.
#2. Kaspesky Anti-Virus ($59.99)
We’re not the only ones singing Kaspersky’s praises. This product is lauded by independent labs and even listed among the editor’s choices at prestigious websites like PC Magazine, so we’re not shy about lending our voice to the chorus of positives.
Especially notable is the System Watcher feature, which keeps an eye peeled for malicious behavior by anything that moves out there on the internet. Though not promoted as a ransomware-buster, it does basically the same thing. Its suggested MSRP is nearly sixty bucks, but you should be able to find it for about half that through retailers.
#3. McAfee AntiVirus Plus ($59.99)
Maybe the best deal going. A single subscription, which you can find for $19.99/year, gets you protection for every Windows, Android, macOS, and iOS device you or anyone in your family owns.
This is recognition of the fact that households no longer have a single desktop computer through which they access the internet. But does it work? McAfee has had high name recognition in the fight against cyber mischief for a long time, and for good reason. Generally scored well in both our testing and independent labs.
The Bottom Line
We won’t waste your time by repeating the reasons you might choose between free or paid AV software. The last point we’d like to make is you need to pick one or the other if you’re currently unprotected. Believe us – the bad guys will get you eventually, and when they do, you’re going to wish you had taken our advice. Good luck out there!