May 05, 2012, 7:38 AM — You want security software that's as close to perfect as possible. After all, if just a single piece of malware slips through your defenses, it can wreak havoc on your PC. The question is, how close to perfect is free antivirus software?
According to our testing, some free antivirus programs do an admirable job of detecting, blocking, and removing malware, but others don't have what it takes to protect you.
For this roundup, we once again teamed up with AV-Test, a well-respected antivirus-software testing lab, to put nine free antivirus programs through their paces. Applying a rigorous battery of tests, AV-Test evaluated all of the packages to see how well each one can withstand both brand-new malware and older baddies, and how well each can clean up a malware mess. In addition, AV-Test performed a number of system-speed tests to determine how much each program will drag down a PC's performance. Finally, after installing the programs, we evaluated how easy each one is to use.
What Do You Get for Free?
Most free antivirus programs are pretty basic: You get the ability to scan your PC for malware when you want to, and most of the products will also continually monitor your PC for malware as they run in the background. But most of them don't include a firewall or extra features like parental controls. (One exception: Comodo's free Internet Security Premium does bundle in a firewall.)
The biggest drawback to going free: Your support options are generally limited. Most free programs offer a message board where users can discuss problems, but these boards don't provide professional support. You can find exceptions, however. Comodo, for example, includes a version of its GeekBuddy software, which lets you work with a Comodo technician to fix issues you encounter.
Which Package Is for You?
AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition 2012 came out on top in our testing. It's fast, it blocks brand-new malware effectively, and it cleans up infected PCs efficiently. Avast Free Antivirus 7 and Panda Cloud Antivirus 1.5 round out the top three.
If you're looking for something that can serve as a supplement to your current antivirus software, we review three possibilities; of those three, PC Tools Threatfire is a good option: It was the best all-around at stopping brand-new malware attacks in our testing. Threatfire relies solely on what's called behavioral analysis—how programs behave on your PC—to identify malware, whereas most traditional antivirus apps use either malware definition files or a combination of technologies to stop threats. Since Threatfire is primarily intended to stop malware before the invader causes a problem, you should be sure to install it on a clean PC.