Free antivirus programs vary just as much as paid security programs do in the quality of their protection. And frugal computer users on the hunt for no-cost antivirus software — already faced with tons of options — will have even more to choose from when new free offerings from Microsoft and Panda join the programs currently available from Alwil (Avast), AVG, Avira, Comodo and PC Tools.
To help you figure out which free antivirus app is right for you, we put packages from all of those companies through their paces. Our testing partner, AV-Test.org of Germany, employed its vast "zoo" of collected malware to test detection rates and scan speed. We then poked and prodded the apps to see which ones made stopping malware an effortless task, and which ones made it feel more like drudgery.
For a summary of our findings, see PC World's free antivirus software ranked chart. For our in-depth evaluations, see the individual reviews, linked in this story and in the chart.
Something — but not everything — for nothing
While free antivirus programs give you some value, they don't have everything that a paid security application can offer.
For one thing, you won't have anyone to call if things go haywire, or if you need disinfection help in the event something does sneak past your PC's defenses. Most free apps give support only on online forums, though Avast offers e-mail support (and Microsoft plans to when Security Essentials launches); Avast users can submit online support tickets, too. AVG gives paid phone support, but the $50-per-call fee costs more than most paid antivirus apps.
Do-it-yourselfers can often find good advice at helpful sites like Wilders Security Forums, but even there you shouldn't expect to talk to anyone for help with a free antivirus app. (Unless you can bribe a techie friend, that is.)
Generally, free apps have less-frequent malware-signature updates than paid products do, which can leave a window of opportunity for brand-new baddies to evade detection. Most of the free apps we tried update their signature databases only once daily. Microsoft Security Essentials, however, will also check suspicious samples that don't match a particular installed signature, by running the sample against Microsoft's latest online signatures.
And as long as you have an Internet connection, Panda Cloud Antivirus checks everything against Panda's servers, so it will always use the newest signatures. (If you don't have an Internet connection, the Panda program falls back on local caches.)
Some free utilities have fewer scanning options than paid apps from the same company do. For example, Avira's paid antivirus program will scan http traffic to catch Web-borne malware before it hits your hard drive, but the company's free AntiVir Personal version won't. And AVG's paid app ties in to IM programs for additional security, while its AVG 8.5 Free doesn't.
Finally, some free programs give you stuff you don't want. The AVG app and Comodo Internet Security both default to installing unnecessary search or social networking browser toolbars (you can opt out during program installation), and many free apps display ads urging you to buy the paid versions. Avira's daily pop-up ads are the most intrusive, but Avast, AVG, and PC Tools Antivirus Free Edition all display ads in some form as well.
In spite of all that, in choosing a no-cost antivirus utility, you can get decent protection and save yourself at minimum $30 every year, if you're willing to go without a few nonessentials. For many people, that isn't a bad trade-off.
Which free antivirus software is best for you?
When the results came in, Avira AntiVir Personal claimed the top spot in our rankings. It excelled in the essential malware-detection tests and also boasted the top scan speed. We weren't big fans of its interface, but function matters more than form here. Even the shiniest security tool wouldn't be worth a darn if it couldn't keep a PC safe. As such, our detection, disinfection and speed tests account for the lion's share of each app's final score.
Despite Avira's number one finish, some of the other free programs still merit consideration. For example, if you dislike Avira's daily pop-up ad, you might opt for Avast Antivirus Home Edition's Web traffic scanning and less-intrusive ads — but then you'll have to deal with an even worse interface. Meanwhile, AVG 8.5 Free is a good deal easier to use, but its protection lags a bit behind the other two programs'.
And then there's Microsoft Security Essentials, which uses the same antivirus engine as the company's canceled OneCare paid suite. It isn't yet publicly available as of this writing, and won't be done until the end of the year. But since it promises to shake up the world of free antivirus, we ran tests on the current beta to give you an idea of how well the final version might work.
Rounding out your primary-care options are PC Tools Antivirus, Comodo Internet Security, and the new Panda Cloud Antivirus. Panda's use of online servers to analyze potential malware holds promise, and the app did better than any other in malware detection. Its unfinished-beta state and its unique approach, however, prevented us from giving it a full score and ranking.
We did rank the PC Tools and Comodo apps, but both fell flat in detecting malware. PC Tools says that its program purposely leaves out antispyware protection and thus shouldn't be compared with other security apps; but when every other company has left distinctions such as "spyware" and "virus" behind in favor of keeping everything bad off your PC, the artificial separation of categories seems tired.
We also tried two free products that are designed to supplement existing security. PC Tools Threatfire proved a real winner with its excellent, proactive malware detection. It can capably spot a nasty intruder based solely on what the file tries to do on the computer, without the need for signatures. It can work in tandem with any of the free antivirus apps we tested.
ClamWin Free Antivirus represents the open-source entry in the free-antivirus competition. It scans only when you tell it to, and it won't automatically run a safety check when you save or run a file. You could use it for a second-opinion scan as backup for your main antivirus tool — but its rock-bottom malware detection means you wouldn't get much extra protection from it.
Read PC World's review of free antivirus software: