Best Free Antivirus

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Going without antivirus protection isn’t an option. Even if you don’t care about your own computer, leaving it unprotected could let cyber-crooks turn it into a zombie minion and force it to participate in DDoS attacks. Right now, if you have any computers without an antivirus, you need to install protection, and you don’t have to pay a penny.

While paid antivirus utilities tend to do the very best in our lab testing, there are plenty of excellent free antivirus choices, too. Because they are free, you can take the time to consider what’s the best free solution for your situation. That’s the nice thing about free antivirus; you’re not locked in by your choice. You won’t be wasting 40 or 50 dollars if you decide to switch. Which is best for you can depend on your situation.

Limited Lab Results
Most of the independent antivirus testing labs charge a fee to the vendors that they include in their evaluations. That may seem a bit counter-intuitive, but someone has to pay the bills. ICSA Labs and West Coast Labs work with vendors to ensure they reach certification; that’s part of the service. The other labs I follow let vendors know where they went wrong, but their pre-improvement test scores are what gets reported.

Vendors who publish only a free product often can’t afford to participate in testing. Those with a spectrum of security solutions from free antivirus to high-end suite definitely can afford it, but the free product isn’t always what they submit for testing.

The chart below summarizes recent lab results for vendors whose product line includes a free antivirus and for which lab results are available. If the Bitdefender technology that was tested is actually found in Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition (2014), that’s quite impressive, as Bitdefender scored super-high in just about every test. AVG AntiVirus FREE 2014 did quite well, and in several cases the product being tested definitely was the free edition.

Note that while Microsoft Security Essentials appears in the chart, most of the labs treat it as a baseline, not as a serious contender. Microsoft agrees; they’re not trying to compete with free third-party vendors. They just want to make sure everyone has some degree of protection.

The Best Free Antivirus Lab Results Chart


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Cleaning Up the Mess
In the lab results chart, you may note that Sophos also gets high marks from the labs. However, the labs aren’t testing Sophos Virus Removal Tool 2.0 directly. This cleanup-only tool isn’t a full antivirus solution. Rather, it’s for use in emergency, when malware prevents installation of a full solution.

Cleanup-only tools tend to be somewhat more aggressive than standard antivirus. The assumption is that you’ve already tried something else, and it didn’t work. As a result, they can occasionally cause collateral damage. You’ll want to make sure the vendor’s available to help in that case. Panda offers full tech support, up to and including remote-control remediation, even for Panda Cloud Cleaner. Comodo will do the same for paid products, but not for Comodo Cleaning Essentials 6.

Malwarebytes Anti-Malware 2.0 remains PCMag’s Editors’ Choice for free cleanup-only antivirus. In my hands-on testing, I didn’t get a chance to explore what tech-support options were available, because it just did the job quickly and efficiently, with no collateral damage. AVG also did well in that test, but getting it installed on my malware-infested test systems required a lot of help from tech support.

I’ve had to curtail my use of actual malware-infested virtual machines for testing, as I can’t guarantee they won’t bring in other, worse threats, malware that could cause damage outside my testing regimen. An opportunistic infestation of GameOver Zeus that appeared in one of malware-infested virtual machines was my wake-up call. Testing these cleanup-only tools will be harder going forward; I’m working on it.

Real-Time Protection
If your computer isn’t afflicted with malware, or if you’ve taken care of the infestation using a powerful cleanup tool, it’s time to set up a protective perimeter, so no new malware can get in. In my hands-on tests of malware protection, AVG and Avira Free AntiVirus (2014) scored highest, with 9.4 points and 97 percent detection.

More recently I’ve added a new test that relies on a super-fresh feed of malicious URLs from MRG-Effitas. I specifically use URLs that point to executable files, since that makes measuring success easy. If the antivirus doesn’t block access to the URL or quarantine the file on download, it failed. As more results come in, I’ll give more weight to this test. It’s worth noting that the highest scores so far, 79 percent, went to avast! Free Antivirus 2014.

No Excuses!

Clearly there are plenty of choices for free antivirus protection, some of them quite good. The nicest part is that, if you’re not fond of the free antivirus you’ve installed, you’re free to replace it. You’ll definitely find something to like from among these products.

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