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updated 6/16/2011 10:48:59 AM ET 2011-06-16T14:48:59

It's a free world out there. Free maps, free navigation, free calls on the Internet, free email, free apps for smartphones – but should you trust your digital security to a free program?

For Windows users, some measure of security is needed on every computer. Malware, botnets, keyloggers and viruses are daily nuisances and constant threats.

Anti-virus software companies have certainly profited from this fact, but there are also plenty of free options, including free basic programs from the same developers that also offer for-pay packages.

On the free side are some solid and reputable anti-virus programs for Windows machines. Avast Free Antivirus, Avira AntiVir Personal, AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition, BitDefender Free Edition and Norman Malware Cleaner 2.1 are just a few.

Microsoft itself even offers Microsoft Security Essentials. Like the rest, it will scan your system for bad actors and keep a constant vigil on downloaded files.

[ 10 Best Anti-Virus Programs for Macs ]

There are many more paid anti-virus programs from such well-known names as BitDefender, McAfee, Norton/Symantec and Kaspersky Lab. Paid programs generally offer a slew of additional features, which can be helpful or overkill, depending on what kind of computer owner you are – cautious or geeky.

Avast's Internet Security 6 package ($49.95 for one PC for one year), for example, has several features lacking in the company's free version, such as a sophisticated spam filter. It also opens particularly sensitive activities, such as online banking or trading, in a new desktop so that other programs can't purloin passwords or account numbers.

There are usually two levels of paid-subscription packages. BitDefender, for example, has a $59.95 package (for 3 PCs) called Internet Security 2011. But if you opt for the company's $79.95 Total Security (for 3 PCs) package you'll also get system performance checks and online backup.

McAfee's Total Protection package (currently $44.99) is another example of a complete package, which also includes parental controls, online backup, home networking security features and spam filtering. It also lets owners encrypt particularly sensitive files to secure them in case a PC is stolen – ideal for laptop users.

The same, but different

In terms of basic performance in catching infections, anecdotal testing shows that the free and for-pay products were about the same. Some were faster than others, but more expensive software wasn't as a rule faster than the free options.

The only noticeable difference between the gratis and the paid programs was when it came to detecting some new threats, such as a website laced with newly created malware. Paid products, with their more elaborate system behavior monitors, are more likely to pick those up and to warn you about other possible dangers.

Some users have complained about seeing more false warnings from free programs. There's a work- around for this, also free.

When a suspicious file is tagged and you're not sure if it's safe to delete it, you can upload it to Virus Total ( http://www.virustotal.com/ ), which will submit the suspect to scores of anti-virus engine interrogations and present you with results.

The primary differences between the free and pay products comes down to features – some of which can be extremely important – and ease of use.

Free programs generally offer no telephone technical support. This can be a deal-breaker for any small business, or a family with multiple computer users.

And free programs don't, as a rule, offer parental controls that can keep kids off inappropriate sites or warn them about cyberstalking and bullying.

Free programs often also include advertising. This can be negligible, but ceaseless pop-up boxes pestering you to sign up for the paid version of whatever you're using can be quite distracting.

In the you-get-what-you-pay-for category, the paid programs are usually easier to install and run, and have fewer conflicts with other applications.

You'll also find that should you lock down your system too tightly, it's easier with paid programs to select specific features and shut them off, or set rules and behavioral exceptions.

The primary differences between free and paid anti-virus software, however, involve the additional features you get when you pay for a one-year license.

There are the aforementioned parental controls, but you'll also find more elaborate firewalls to prevent intrusions, and performance and conflict scans for Windows PCs. The paid programs also look for suspicious behavior, such as a program attempting to access files it shouldn't.

In addition, McAfee's makers point out that most free programs do not rate or assess the legitimacy of websites or warn about the latest phishing scams.

Who needs what?

If you have a small business, a complete suite is a better alternative. Technical support will prove essential should an employee or virus bring down your computers. Furthermore, features that allow you to block certain types of sites can keep employees from straying to begin with.

Parents may also consider buying a full-fledged program. Not only can the additional controls be helpful, but the additional warnings about phishing can educate younger users. There are also home networking features offered by the likes of McAfee that can prevent freeloaders from using the family Wi-Fi.

For the rest of us, many of the free packages are sufficient. They are usually kept up to date with the latest virus signatures for scanning and monitoring, and their virus-scanning performance is comparable to their more expensive counterparts.

And the mere fact that you are diligent enough to download and install a free anti-virus application means that you're also probably more careful than most people online and may not need the added protection a $50 or $80 program affords.

You aren't likely to open links in strange emails or fall for false ads on malicious websites. In other words, you're not in much danger to begin with.

One last issue to consider, though, is that while you can often add other free software to cover other issues that paid anti-virus software offers, such as parental controls, or use those that are built into some browsers, mixing and matching can quickly get complicated.

Whenever there's a conflict with another program or a warning about a possible security threat, it can be difficult to tell which of several products you may be using is causing the problem. Does a setting in the free Windows firewall protection need to be reset, or is there another program blocking the software you want to access on the Web?

Ultimately, if you do go the free route, don't just click on the first "free anti-virus program" button you see, whether it's a pop-up ad or the result of a Google search. Those are often malicious programs looking to infect a PC. Stick with one of the applications mentioned in this story.

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