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Free Anti-Virus Protection Still Has Its Costs

You could say that today's column comes a year or so late. I last reviewed free anti-virus programs back in the end of 2005, even though I've tried out multiple "payware" security utilities since then.


So this morning's review covers the free versions of the Avast, AVG and Avira anti-virus programs. As you can see, I ranked Avira slightly higher than the other two, despite its obnoxious habit of throwing up full-screen windows advertising its paid edition. (This page details how you can disable those pop-ups, if you're not averse to a little tinkering.)


But I can't say I hated any of these three apps (though AVG came close, considering my history with its presentation of past updates to its software). They're less objectionable in general than some of the paid security suites I've reviewed, which work themselves into far more parts of Windows -- and as a result, are far more likely to cause the kind of inexplicable malfunctions that defy any quick or easy fix.

Overall, I think you have to show a little sympathy for the developers of all these tools: We expect them to stay invisible until you're about to do something stupid -- at which point they should stop you, no matter what, even if it means administering an electric shock through the keyboard.


I left one other, free anti-virus program out of this review -- the open-source ClamWin (a cousin of sorts of the Mac anti-virus tool ClamXav). I have a predisposition for open-source programs, but in this case I couldn't justify including one. The reason appears right on the ClamWin home page:

Please note that ClamWin Free Antivirus does not include an on-access real-time scanner. You need to manually scan a file in order to detect a virus or spyware.

In other words, it will only catch a virus if you think to order up a scan of that file. But the people who most need virus protection are the ones who won't think to right-click every new file to have it inspected by a security program.

So what's your current anti-virus solution -- one of the free ones I reviewed, a payware option, or a combination of restrictive system settings and disciplined use? And when Microsoft rolls out its free anti-virus software later this year, will you give that a shot?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  February 12, 2009; 10:14 AM ET
Categories:  Security , Windows  
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I was using AVG 'til they started doing that pre-fetch of web pages thing, then I switched to Avast. Pretty happy with it, though I could do without the audio alert that it's been updated.

Posted by: Hemisphire | February 12, 2009 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Interestingly, you complain about the "upselling" tactics for companies that are providing a service for free, on the WP Web site that wouldn't load properly a few minutes ago because it was hanging on a banner ad.

Also, you spend the whole article talking about everything except the programs' detection rates. How well do they do the job they're supposed to do? Wouldn't it be smarter to tolerate a more intrusive upsell from a product that actually caught viruses that the "invisible" one didn't? Mentioning things like aesthetics and the speed of scans seem pointless when you don't mention anything about efficacy.

And finally I'm not sure how this is an "influx of free antivirus choices" since all of these programs have been available for years.

Posted by: scarper86 | February 12, 2009 12:06 PM | Report abuse

For people who are willing to pay, I recommend VIPRE from Sunbelt Software. Less expensive and faster than Norton, and not a resource hog. There are still issues with MAPI support, but there is a workaround.

AVG Free is good if you have at least 1GB RAM, but with less it just slows everything down. Avira is a good alternate choice if you can get past the ad and the "cuteness" of Luke Filewalker.

Posted by: catester | February 12, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Mcafee is free thru my ISP(Comcast), so that's what I use. In fact, it's all I've ever used since the 90's. I've never had a virus.

Posted by: Max231 | February 12, 2009 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Hemisphire, reinstall the program again, and do a 'Custom Install' and un check the link scanner in your AVG. If you don't use a mail client, un check the mail plug in as well.

I use AVG for all my machines. I occasionally hate it, but find it superior to all the others I've tried, particularly better than Norton or McAfee at any cost.

Posted by: JkR- | February 12, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

I should have written that I use FREE AVG on all my machines

Posted by: JkR- | February 12, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

I've been using Avast for years. I actually enjoy the "Virus database has been upDATEd" message, but I understand that it might bother people. It's easy enought to turn off all sounds.

Posted by: larrymac | February 12, 2009 1:57 PM | Report abuse

I started off with Norton, went to Kaspersky and now use BitDefender.

Kaspersky is Russian, whereas BitDefender is Romanian.

I have several antispyware scans, since I find that products that are good in the AV field, seem to generally weak in the spyware area.

Superantispyware often seems to pick up 'unspecified trojans' that Dit Defender either does not consider to be Trojans, or for some reason does not catch.

I use to like and run Spyware Doctor, but there were conflicts between it and Kaspersky, so I removed it and while there is now a combination version of Spyware Doctor for both AV and spyware, I never hear anyone recommending it.

Adaware SE Personal was fantastic, but I guess as more & more spyware proliferated, the SE version [under the new version name, Asaware 2008 Free] began to hang up and take almost forever to complete] and the Plus & Pro versions while adding a highly effective spyware blocker, lost even more speed.

SpyBot seems to run faster than Superantispyware, but also seems to find less, though I did like SpyBot.

I would install the free version of Avast, but then I would loose many of the 'tools' that come with Bit Defender's Total Security package.

While I like Firefox 3.0.6, within the last week my error counsel has contained some 'new entries' that are not short, that I would copy here, but I am afraid that if I did that, the post would get blocked AGAIN.

Posted by: | February 12, 2009 3:35 PM | Report abuse

This is the error message from Firefox. Lets see if it gets blocked.
Error: uncaught exception: [Exception... "Node cannot be used in a document other than the one in which it was created" code: "4" nsresult: "0x80530004 (NS_ERROR_DOM_WRONG_DOCUMENT_ERR)" location: "file:///C:/Documents%20and%20Settings/Administrator.REBORN/Application%20Data/Mozilla/Firefox/Profiles/hca5em46.default/extensions/%7B3112ca9c-de6d-4884-a869-9855de68056c%7D/components/bootstrap.js -> file:///C:/Documents%20and%20Settings/Administrator.REBORN/Application%20Data/Mozilla/Firefox/Profiles/hca5em46.default/extensions/%7B3112ca9c-de6d-4884-a869-9855de68056c%7D/lib/toolbar.js Line: 1"]

Posted by: | February 12, 2009 3:37 PM | Report abuse

Problems with anti virus software embedding credit card info, growing ever more expensive, and then largely breaking after installation led me to abandon Windows largely. I have one laptop on which I do my taxes with Turbo Tax, and otherwise remains unused. For day to day web surfing, I use a desktop running Ubuntu.

Not only does it eliminate most virus concerns, when someone does manage to take over your browser there is always control alt backspace.

Posted by: dwm042 | February 12, 2009 5:02 PM | Report abuse

Het hemisphire why don't you turn off the audio in avast,I have forgotten how I did it.You could start by right clicking the Avast notice when you boot up.

Daud nz

Posted by: Daud | February 12, 2009 10:16 PM | Report abuse

So what are the pros and cons of using these "free" Anti-virus?

Don't they somehow track your activities etc? for free

Posted by: Eopinion360 | February 13, 2009 8:08 AM | Report abuse

I've used Avast for years, and it's worked fine. One nice feature is the auto-scan screensaver. Since I leave my computer on most of the time, I don't have to worry about scheduling or manually running full system scans. Also, there are other free AV tools out there. For instance, the excellent free COMODO two-way firewall/"proactive defense" package also offers an accompanying free AV program, I believe. I declined it only because I'm so happy with Avast.

Posted by: rboltuck | February 13, 2009 8:43 AM | Report abuse

I had PC-cilin preinstalled on both Dells. When my subscription ran out I considered going with free programs. It originally took about 2 mos to get the PC-cillin configured correctly....the thought of having to repeat similar set up and configuration for a different program made me decide to renew the PC-cillin. It was working perfectly and renewal kept everything swimming along with the settings I had determined to be correct.

Posted by: tbva | February 13, 2009 9:27 AM | Report abuse

I use Avast and am quite satisfied. I particularly like Avast's real time protection of files and web sites accessed, and of P2P files downloaded.

By the way one may disable to audio messages. Go into settings, select sound, click on settings, and you will be presented with the Windows sound selection menu. Scroll down through the event menu to the Avast section, and change Automatic VPS update to none.

I also regularly use Malwarebyte and Yahoo antispy.

Posted by: ChrisBrown11 | February 13, 2009 9:53 AM | Report abuse

I have used the free version of Avira for two years now, and use it under a number of different operating systems (Windows XP, XP x64, and Vista 64). I have never had a problem with the package doing what it is supposed to do, which is keep the system free from viruses. Yes, the pop-up is annoying, but you can simply close it and the software keeps chugging along.

Avast and AVG I've had problems with in the past, and personally wouldn't use them due to the issues I've run into. Avira remains the best of the 'freeware' (more like nagware) anti-virus packages in my mind (and their constant topping the AV-Comparatives rankings doesn't hurt, either). As for Microsoft coming out with an anti-virus package, the old joke comes to mind that the day Microsoft makes something that doesn't suck is the day they start making vacuum cleaners.

Posted by: TalGreywolf | February 15, 2009 10:24 AM | Report abuse

I have used Trend Micro for the past year or so. I find that AVG and the other freeware are less comprehensive because of the lack of an integrated firewall. Norton I find obnoxious, it burrows into your code and also tries to automatically bill your credit card for a renewal. Indeed stopping them billing me required several emails. I will never trust anything that Microsoft puts out. Moreover, there is surely at the very least the potential for an abuse of Microsoft's monopoly power when they start providing firewalls and antivirus because they have an incentive to make life difficult for competitors such as Trend Micro and Norton. On a related area, there is a real lack of good backup programs, whether free or charge.

Posted by: iansmccarthy | February 15, 2009 11:37 AM | Report abuse

Erm...the best anti-virus software is Unix. And if you want free there's Ubuntu.



Posted by: steve97 | February 18, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse

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