August 27, 2008, 10:37 AM — Do-it-all suites are the name of the security game these days. Sure, you can gather free programs that cover the bases much as a suite would, but who wants to bother with finding out which apps work together and which ones might leave you pulling your hair out?
We do. And what's more, we did--all so that you could have an easy-to-follow guide to building your own free suite.
We tested the following applications on Windows XP; not all of them work under Vista, but we've suggested replacements that you can consider if you're on the newer OS. Bear in mind that these downloads are free only for home use.
Your Antivirus Base
For our free collection we went with AVG Free 8.0. It installs easily, and it works under XP and Vista. Its ads for its paid version don't get in the way, and since it ferrets out spyware and adware, you don't need to install a separate antispyware program. Also, it generally does well in signature-based detection tests from organizations such as AV-Test.org (those tests typically evaluate the paid product, but the free and paid versions use the same signature-based scanner).
AVG Free does have some limitations: Though the app will detect and block rootkits (stealth technology used to hide other malware) before they invade your PC, it won't detect or remove a rootkit that has already successfully infiltrated your computer. Furthermore, its ability to detect new threats that don't yet have a full signature generally isn't that great.
But hey, it's free. When you install it, you'll be prompted to install a browser toolbar, but you don't need to do so to get AVG's LinkScanner feature, which checks for attack code on Web search results and puts a safety indicator icon next to each one. (Be sure to see Steve Bass's discussion of a potential LinkScanner-related slowdown and how to fix it.)
If you use AVG, be aware of one potential gotcha: The free ThreatFire malware detection utility seems like a great pairing, since ThreatFire does a fine job of detecting new malware without a signature and also detects and removes rootkits. But the current version, 3.5, conflicts with AVG and will cause system lockups. PC Tools, maker of ThreatFire, says that it's working on a fix, but for now you should avoid using the two together.
An Outbound Firewall
After installing antivirus software, many people replace the Windows XP firewall with a third-party firewall to regulate outbound traffic. This strategy can stop malware that has already invaded your PC from sending stolen data to a crook, but even free ones come at a price: You'll almost always have to deal with some annoying pop-ups when a new, unknown (to the firewall) program attempts to connect to the Internet.
Still, if you're willing to tolerate the pop-ups, outbound blocking can provide good protection. To get it, we chose Online Armor Personal Firewall Free. Though there aren't any universally accepted firewall tests, Online Armor did well in the extensive Firewall Challenge by Matousec.com, a security testing group. This program is also easier to use than many other free firewalls.
After going through the installation and Safety Check, right-click the OA system-tray icon and deselect Program Guard; that feature, when running, will display pop-ups for every new program that you attempt to install or run, instead of just the apps that attempt to connect to the Internet. For us, the huge annoyance wasn't worth it.
Online Armor does not work with Vista. But you can enable the Vista firewall's outbound blocking (it's turned off by default) with the free Vista Firewall Control.
Extra Web-Search Safety
AVG's LinkScanner component checks sites in your search results for browser-busting exploits. To add warnings for dangerous downloads, user complaints, and spam potential, bring SiteAdvisor into the mix. This free download from McAfee will add an icon that sits next to the one from AVG in your search results, along with a safety indicator for the currently viewed page.
The Cleanup Crew
Many all-in-one suites offer PC tune-up features that can clear out old junk in temp directories or eliminate Windows Registry clutter. To get the same features in your free suite (for Windows XP or Vista), download CCleaner.
When you install the gunk-busting utility, keep an eye out for a check box along the way that will not-so-helpfully offer to install the Yahoo toolbar. If you don't want the toolbar, deselect the box.
And when you use the program, remember that you might not want to jettison everything that CCleaner--or any other gunk remover--suggests clearing, such as your Firefox browsing history or the list of documents that you've recently opened in Windows Explorer. And whenever you use any Registry cleaner or optimizer, be sure to back up the Registry first in case something goes wrong (CCleaner offers to do it for you each time you use the Registry tool).
The Free Security Bonus
With this last tool, your roll-your-own suite will go beyond what even the best paid suite can provide. The free VirusTotal Uploader gives you a right-click option in Explorer to upload any suspect file no larger than 10MB to VirusTotal.com, where a whopping 35 different antivirus engines will scan it. No single antivirus application can catch everything, and for this reason VirusTotal provides a great (and easy-to-use) second line of defense.
If you get the go-ahead from all of the engines, you're almost certainly golden. If you see one or two generic-sounding alerts, the file is likely safe, as the warnings are probably false alarms. But if you receive, say, seven or more different warnings, and some of them identify a specific threat, watch out.
If you don't want to deal with multiple downloads and you would rather pay $50 to $80 for a set-it-and-forget-it approach to PC safety, see our Top All-in-One Security Suites chart for our security-suite ratings. In exchange for a little more effort, however, this collection can keep your PC safe and sound for free.