How-to: Choose an Anti-Virus Program

Stehoscope, Creative Commons v2.0Free or Fee? Does free anti-virus software protect you? Is it worth paying for a full Internet security suite?

Ask any number of people you know and you’ll get an even split of opinions stating that paid-for security software is either a good investment or a total ripoff. The truth is there are plenty of reasons for going fee or free; it depend on your requirements and your level of technical competence.

Four types of anti-virus products exist:

  • free basic protection, usually with a simple scheme for scanning and automatic updates. Usually ad-supported.
  • paid anti-virus protection (with some ‘extras’)
  • paid suites (multi-function)
  • “premium” suites for the premium price.

You can include in the free tools the branded utilities from Microsoft such as Windows Defender and Microsoft Security Essentials. Products such as AVG, Comodo and Avast have been forced to up their entry-level free products in response to Microsoft’s competant giveaways.

Moving up the ladder from free to premium suites usually brings more features, such as identity theft protection, firewalls, PC diagnostic tools, parental controls, root-kit detections and removal.

Some of the free software may include tools such as a browser plug-in to checks for bad links and scanning of downloads. Some even have a firewall.

Further up the scale, you begin to find ‘heuristic’ or behavioral malware detection, which finds malware based on how it acts on your PC – a good way of detecting malware variants. Heuristic detection is standard on paid products.)

You can count on all the free products attempting to up-sell you to a paid product via big banners, buttons and notification pop-ups – usually on an annual subscription basis – with the promise of more features, e-mail, chat and telephone support. You might get a basic level of support with free, AVG and Avast offer limited e-mail support for free customers, others provide only a knowledge base or forum where users can go for help.

The upside for all the free products these days lies in the malware signature updates. All the providers I know treat free and paid products equally for signature updates; none of them want to compromise their reputation for effective protection by short-changing the free customers on updates; beside, forking the update process costs them development time and money, so they keep one signature stack across all their products.

Detection rates can vary slightly, however; the Panda products are know to use the update data stack slightly differently between the free and paid executables, in some areas the malware detection rate is better owing to the types and numbers of tests performed. Get a free personal install of Panda and compare it to the Panda Cloud service, you’ll find a lot more goes on in the Cloud than on your own machine.

Malware removal is another area of difference. All the free versions do a reasonable job of quarantining infected files. Not surprisingly, the paid versions are more thorough at removal and repair.

Speed of scanning isn’t statistically significant these days, the paid versions may be a little faster to execute, but they mostly do more in the process, so a full scan of your machine is still going to be an unattended job, no point watching the pot boil.

It used to be the case that free products had lousy user interfaces and little flexibility; take a look at the current AVG-free for instance and you’ll see this is no longer the case.  It already looks like an advanced, modular suite with lots of options and attractively laid-out navigation.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop you combining free products to build your own suite; Windows Defender sits alongside AVG-free and used to have Zone Alarm firewall in place of Windows Firewall (until Zone Alarm Free turned into nag-ware). Just try not to double-up on functions.

The full suites are intended to be one-stop security shops. Norton Internet Security, for example, is sold as a Premium-only product at around $40 or £40 annually. You can find other paid suites for more or less.

Now, the paid suites do a lot. They are designed to be comprehensive and monitor as much as possible. This is where I have a personal gripe with the paid suites. As a former Norton user, I found it inserted it’s tentacles into every corner of my Windows machine, it got bigger with every release, the data and program updates took longer, so did the scans and it’s resident foot-print – memory and other resources consumed – became a bit of a millstone on my older hardware. And the price kept going up. Much of it sat unused most of the time, while I turned off built-in features but couldn’t kill the Norton nag-ware for other products. So I retired it.

If you’re a competent technical user with some awareness of Internet security threats and the counter-measures to take, then you might well save yourself some green-backs and take responsibility for running one or more free products.

If, on the other hand, you’re buying on behalf of a technical novice and looking for unattended peace of mind, without playing technical support for all your friends and family, then the paid suites can provide that.

Do the risk assessment, try a couple of free suites. Then decide. AJS.

Notable Free Programs

  • Avast Free Anti-virus
  • Avira AntiVir Personal
  • AVG-Free

Notable Paid Suites

  • Norton Anti-virus
  • BitDefender Anti-virus Pro

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