Free antivirus software: The best and the rest

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Protecting your PC, Mac, smartphone ... for free

While I have a near-perfect fix for your PC virus problems -- switch to Linux -- I know most of you aren't going to take me up on it. Some of you, though, could probably be talked into going Mac, but while Macs are still a good deal safer than Windows, Mac malware, like the BlackHole RAT Trojan horse are beginning to show up. What's a user to do!?

Well, if you're not going to switch operating systems, you should take a look at the free antivirus programs that are available. Yes, there are lots of paid antivirus programs out there such as Norton AntiVirus; Kaspersky Anti-Virus, and McAfee AntiVirus Plus, but there are lots of good, free antivirus programs out there as well. So why spend money when you don't have to?

Now, if you really doesn't know the first thing about protecting yourself online, then it probably is worth paying the money for a security program. But, I don't mean just an antivirus program. I mean a full security suite like BitDefender Total Security 2011; Kaspersky Internet Security 2011; or ZoneAlarm Extreme Technology. These days there are endless threats on the Internet, and if you're not technically adept it's all too easy for them to mangle your computer and possibly your life as well.

If you elect to go down this path, I recommend that the first thing you do is to consider the security programs I list above and other top-rated Internet security suites. Next, check the pricing carefully. Many of these programs are available in inexpensive "family" packs for three PCs. In addition, check online for the best price. You can almost always find a deal for better than list prices.

Security basics

If you know your away around your computer, you'll probably do just as well to just get a free antivirus program. Before you even do that though, make sure you're already practicing safe computing.

What do I mean by that? Well, for starters, you should always have automatic software updates set up for your operating system on both your Mac and Windows PCs. Sure, doing it by hand may only take 10 minutes a month, but unless you want to control every aspect of your computer why bother? The simple truth is that the most popular attacks on PCs are the so-called zero-day attacks.

While some zero-day problems like the recently discovered Windows SMB (Server Message Block) problem, are unpatched problems, the ones that are usually attacked by malware authors are recently patched security holes. If you don't patch immediately, you can be sure they'll be attacked. Yes, your antivirus defenses should catch them before they act -- if you've kept them up-to-date with automatic updates -- but why take a chance?

The same is true for programs you probably use all the time like Adobe Acrobat, Flash or Microsoft Office. Sure, the vendors often don't get the security patches right, but it's still safer than relying on the virus writers leaving you alone while you wait for a foolproof patch.

You should also keep a current backup of your system. This is where Mac users, who have Time Machine at their beck and call, have it all over Windows users. With Time Machine, making good backups really is mindless once you've set it up.

[ See also: Why Time Machine isn't enough for backup ]

While Windows does provide some backup and restore features, I prefer to automatically copy off files to NAS (Network Attached Storage) drives with Karen's Replicator, an old, but remarkably reliable freeware backup program. If you prefer (and you have a fast, and I mean fast, Internet connection) you should also check into online backups. These last have the advantage of, if things go really wrong and your house goes up in flames, your data won't join it.

The free alternatives

These are, based on my own experience and beating on them in my office lab, the best of the current crop of free Windows antivirus programs. Fair warning, I'm not running an antivirus lab here. What do I bring to the table is decades of experience with Windows, since version 1.02 to be exact and the first big security problem I ever had to deal with was the Internet Morris Worm back in 1988. In other words, I know a thing or two about security.

I also relied on the tests by AV-Comparatives.org and ICSA Labs. Both of these are independent antivirus testing companies.

Before going any farther though, let me just say one more thing: Don't run two or more of these antivirus programs at once. I keep running into people who think that if one antivirus program is great protection, then two would be even better. Ah, no it doesn't work that way. What's far, far more likely to happen is that the two programs will fight with each other and you'll start seeing slowdowns or even crashes. Just don't do it. This is one time when you really don't need belts and suspenders.

While I think little of Windows security in general, I will admit that Microsoft Security Essentials actually works pretty well on my XP and Windows 7 PCs. Security Essentials also has the advantage of, surprise, working hand-in-glove with Windows so you're less likely to see conflicts between it and the operating system itself and other Windows programs.

That's the good news. The bad news is Security Essentials simply didn't pick up as many threats on XP as it did on Windows 7. If you're running XP, I'd look for another program. It also doesn't help any that scareware programs, which try to trick you into downloading malware by flashing a fake antivirus warning has taken to imitating real Security Essential warnings. This is one kind of imitation flattery no one needs.

As a known open-source and Linux fan, I'll bet you think I'm going to have good things to say about ClamAV, the open source antivirus program. I hate to disappoint you, but I don't. It's at best OK on PCs. It's fine to run on a mail server (that's what I do), but all it does is scan e-mail and downloaded files for viruses and the like and it's very, very slow. Frankly, the only reason I even mention it is because if I didn't someone would want to know why. Now you know.

Another popular free Windows antivirus program, AVG has gotten better since I grew discouraged with an earlier version. In particular, I found that it worked faster than before, it no longer gave me false positives, and it did well at cleaning up malware infections. I had to downcheck it though for not catching as many viruses and the like on their way into the system though. Still, I'd consider using AVG again -- and I had honestly given up on it.

If you want really fast virus checking, it's hard to beat Avast. It zoomed along on both my Windows 7 and XP systems. The new version, 6.0, which just came out also includes features, such as Script Shield, WebRep, and AutoSandbox, that give excellent real-time protection.

While I'm tempted to switch to Avast, I'm going to stick with Avira for protection on my Windows systems. Why? Because Avira just works really well and is really fast. Maybe Avast would be better since its recent feature refresh, but I'm going to stick with Avira for now on most of my PCs while running Avast on some of the others.

That is, after all, one of the pleasures of free antivirus software: You can always try them out for yourself at no cost and see which one works best for you. Just don't, please don't, try to run more than one of them at a time.

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