November 30, 2010, 9:57 AM — Depending on whom you ask, paying for antivirus software is either a good investment or a total ripoff. In reality, neither viewpoint is accurate. You can find plenty of good reasons to choose a paid antivirus product, and plenty of good reasons to go with a freebie.
We teamed up with security testing company AV-Test, to find out what you get--or don't get--with free antivirus, and when it makes sense to subscribe annually to a fee-based program.
Four basic levels of antivirus products exist: free, paid antivirus, suites, and "premium" suites. As you move up the ladder from free antivirus to premium suites, you typically get more features, such as identity theft protection, firewalls, parental controls, and system performance tools.
Free antivirus software usually provides a bare minimum level of protection. It will scan for malware, and often can perform automatic scans, too. Some free apps may have additional protection tools such as a browser add-on that checks for bad links--and Comodo's free Internet Security Premium has a firewall. But such features are usually limited to paid antivirus products. Some free apps offer behavioral malware detection, which finds malware based on how it acts on your PC--a good way of detecting brand-new malware outbreaks. (Behavioral detection is standard on paid products.)
Paid antivirus straddles a middle ground between the basic freebies and the feature-packed security suites: They typically offer more comprehensive security tools (such as parental controls and identity theft protection) and more flexibility than a free antivirus package, but they have fewer additional features than suites, which are intended to be one-stop security shops.
One of the biggest drawbacks to going with a free product is the lack of technical support. While most companies offer some sort of phone support for paying customers, free antivirus users usually must fend for themselves. Avast does offer e-mail support for its free customers; most others provide only a knowledge base or forum where users can go for help.
Another tradeoff is that free antivirus products often have some sort of advertisement for the company's paid product. Avast Free Antivirus has an upgrade link in the upper-right corner of the main window, and Avira AntiVir Personal will display an ad for Avira's paid antivirus software.