How To Choose The Best Free Virus Protection

As someone who used to run a virus protection system for a large multinational corporation, every once and a while someone will ask me for advice on choosing the best virus protection for their PCs. Corporations have little resistance to spending the money for reliable virus protection because they need immediate and skilled support for mission-critical operations when something goes wrong. For the home user, the question tends to be more along the lines of “What virus protection program can you recommend, and can I get it for free?”

For the personal user, virus protection has gone from a software purchase to a recurring annual payment, with consumers paying between $40 and $80 per year to have adequate virus protection on their PCs. Once those consumers stop subscribing, they no longer get updates and their virus protection becomes ineffective in a matter of days. Don’t get me wrong. $40 a year is a small amount to ask for all the research and testing goes into keeping PCs protected against the latest threats, but for some, a recurring payment can fall outside of their budgets.

Wouldn’t it be nice to get something that works as well as a commercial product, and get it for free? Well, you can. There are several products on the market that offer virus protection for no cost, but they vary widely in the amount of protection they offer. As a layperson, how do you pick the product that gives you the best protection? You don’t need to be a security expert to find the answer, but you do need to know who to look to for accurate information.

Figure Out Who Not To Trust

You could simply follow the pack and download one of the most popular virus protection products, or poke around for reviews on the web, but both of those methods will tell you that Avira’s Antivir is the best free product out there. The reviews will claim all kinds of certifications, and tell you that the free version of Antivir will not only protect you from viruses and adware, but it will stroke your hair and ward off bad dreams as you drift off to sleep.

Despite popular opinion, it’s simply not true. When a site says that the free version of Antivir is a VB100 and ICSA certified product that removes the highest percentage of viruses and spyware according to independent testing labs, they are actually referring to the commercial version of the product, Antivir Premium, which costs around $54 per year. The free version of Antivir doesn’t even have an antispyware component included in it, yet many review sites on the wild, wild web don’t fact check and simply attribute testing results from the commercial version to the free version as if they’re the same. They are not.

The same goes for BitDefender. If you ever see a review recommending the (current) free version of BitDefender, click the little X in the browser tab because those people did no research whatsoever. While the commercial version of BitDefender is usually ranked in the top 10 for virus protection, BitDefender Free is an on-demand virus scanner that lacks an on-access scanning component. That means that the free version has nothing that stays resident in memory to protect your PC. Nothing. The best you can do with BitDefender Free is get infected with a virus, and then scan for infections later. Any site claiming that the free version is a worthy choice to stand guard at the gates of your PC might not be a site you should take recommendations from.

You hope that the reviews you read were written by people who know what they’re talking about, but you never can tell if a site is recommending a particular virus protection product because it “seems” better, because they heard it was better, because they are trying to sell you something, or because are they simply parroting advice that they found during a five minute liaison with Google. The question becomes, who can you trust to recommend a product to protect your PC?

Get Independent Test Results Of the Commercial Versions

There are four independent testing companies that you can look to for quality virus protection information. Unfortunately, they generally only test commercial software and you’ll rarely see a free product make their lists. The best that we can do is look at the test results of the commercial versions and then see how close the tested versions are to the free versions. It’s an incomplete method, but it tends to produce better results than blindly trusting the advice of sites that may not be qualified to recommend your antivirus product.

  1. AV Comparatives
    AV Comparatives is a non-profit Austrian company that does independent, vendor requested testing of antivirus products. To get their latest test results, go to their home page and click on “Comparatives”. Click on “Online Results” to get a chart comparing all the different virus protection products. For a more in-depth report, click on the “Report” link. There you can see how fast products scanned, how many false positives they got, and what percentage of viruses they caught at the default and maximum settings. Here you can find the September 2008 results.
  2. AV Test
    AV Test is a German company that specializes in the testing of antivirus products. On their main page, you can usually find something under the news section that links to their latest antivirus test results, such as the September 2008 comparison.
  3. VB100 Certification
    Virus Bulletin has been a major source for virus and malware news since 1989. Their certification, the VB100 was first introduced in 1998 and requires that a program detect 100% of known malware with no false positives with both on-demand and on-access scanning at its default settings. You can’t get the details of how products fared without being a paid subscriber to their magazine, but with a free registration, you can access the pass or fail histories of any virus product that they have tested in the VB100. Unfortunately, this Yes/No answer provides little information beyond helping to support or refute the more detailed testing results from organizations like AV Comparatives or AV Test.
  4. ICSA Certification
    The International Computer Security Association (ICSA) is an independent testing and certification division of Verizon. Most of the time, free antivirus products will not get ICSA certification, but their commercial versions will, so this step is only a guideline to get an idea of how good a commercial product is. Like the VB100 result, this certification can only serve to support or refute more detailed testing results. Go to the ICSA homepage and click on “Antivirus”, and then select “Certified Products” from the dropdown box. You should end up at the Antivirus Certification List.

See How Close The Free Version Is To The Commercial Version

This is the important step that a lot of review sites miss, and it is critical in evaluating a free virus protection product. If we look at the top three results from AV Test and AV Comparatives that have free versions, we end up with Antivir Premium, Avast Professional, and AVG Antivirus. Because those are the commercial products, the test results don’t tell us anything unless we verify that the free version is very similar.

Every company offering a free version will have a chart comparing what additional features you can get on their antivirus products with each higher payment, and those charts will tell us how the features of the commercial and free products compare. If a free product is vastly different than its commercial product (as is the case with top rated AntiVir, which lacks an adware/spyware component), we know that the ratings aren’t going to apply like they would in a case where the free product and the commercial product are more closely related (as is the case with Avast, which is almost identical).

A Few Antivirus Version Comparison Charts

  1. Antivir (version comparison)
  2. Avast (version comparison)
  3. AVG (version comparison)

Conclusion

You can get antivirus for free, but figuring out if there is a penalty to using a free product requires that you know who to trust for your information. Getting professional testing results for commercial products and verifying that the free products are similar to what was tested can get you the protection you need at a price that you can live with.

For a comparison of a number of free virus protection products using this method, be sure to check out the follow up article, You Want Free Antivirus? You Got It!.

7 thoughts on “How To Choose The Best Free Virus Protection

  1. The sad thing is that even with the best anti-virus software out there, it still comes down (at some point) to end user education.

    Tell dear old dad that when he’s surfing the pr0n and run across a site that automagically downloads a file and then tries to execute it, it’s in his best interest to not install that. That file that came attached to the e-mail about his erectile dysfunction? Please don’t open it.

    It’s amazing how some of the smartest (perhaps competent is the right word) co-workers of mine can still be duped into something that is going to get them infected.

    While I personally don’t use any sort of virus protection (besides my choice of OS and being aware of what I’m doing), I’m eager to see your comparison of free products, seeing as how this is your specialty.

  2. Personally I don’t use any antivirus. I’ve seen some of them (Norton included) eat up to 60% of available CPU. I can’t justify handing over that much computing power to AV.

    Also, I used to work for a firm that was (and probably still is) an authorised reseller of AVG. In our own in-house tests AVG found only 11% of viruses. While I don’t like to single out Norton, it only found 40% of the viruses thrown at it.

    That’s not to say people shouldn’t use antivirus, but the only use I can see for it is peace of mind.

    I say ditch IE, only open something when you know what it is and where it came from and viruses shouldn’t be an issue.

  3. As computer illiterate as they come, that would be me … I need to understand how to get this free virus protection. I was actually told my cable and internet provider (Comcast) can provide free virus protection. Is that true? If it is true, do you know if it’s any good?

  4. @N0ia: You’re absolutely right. User education is a key component.

    @Lewis: After seeing some of the things that people are willing to click on, I would say that virus protection is essential especially in households with kids. Even though viruses have been on the decline for years and a lot of issues can be avoided by keeping up with security patches, why take a risk?

    60% sounds like a lot unless you’re under a full scan, but if I remember correctly, McAfee had built in CPU throttling that could be set by the user in their corporate product to avoid that type of situation.

    @Joyce: It’s right here: How to get McAfee Virus Protection For Free.

  5. i had a mcaffee trial subscription 10 years ago. i never upgraded it, just let it expire and then deleted it. i have never had a virus.

  6. You gave some pretty good advice here. A lot of other people just tell you to get a certain program, but I like the way you gave information, but left the decision up to the readers.

  7. I haven’t seen a self-gratuitous Mac or Linux comment yet…
    so let me have at it.
    Oh, just get a Mac. If you are already computer illiterate you will fit right in.
    Or install Linux, more specifically Ubuntu, because we all know Ubuntu is now all Linux in and of itself.

    Those are ways not to get virusssssses.

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