Get top-flight antivirus without spending a dime

Scott spanbauer By Scott Spanbauer

Protect yourself from viruses and other online threats while skipping the annual subscription fees.

These three antivirus freebies may lack some of the costly bells and whistles (and associated system slowdowns) of commercial alternatives, but they stop malware unobtrusively.

No frills but first-rate virus detection

As a long-standing tightwad, I’ve gone years — decades even — without paying an antivirus-software subscription. First off, my browsing and e-mail behavior reduce the threat of attacks: I avoid using Internet Explorer and recently switched from Outlook to Gmail. Also, my home network uses a hardware router that blocks access to my PCs from the Internet.

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Unfortunately, these steps alone won’t prevent every Internet-borne threat. Venturing onto the Web with no virus protection feels like that bad dream where you realize you’ve gone out in public dressed only in your underwear.

To avoid this overexposed sensation, I use a free antivirus program. Until recently, my favorite antivirus freeware was Grisoft’s AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition. Grisoft recently introduced version 8 of the program and discontinued virus-definition updates for the previous version 7.5.

Instead of downloading and installing the new version of AVG, I took another look at two other free antivirus utilities that I had used prior to switching to Grisoft’s offering: AntiVir Personal from Avira and Alwil’s Avast! Antivirus Home Edition.

I don’t need instant-message scans, spyware detection, or other extra features in my free antivirus program. I just want the utility to prevent all viruses, trojans, and worms from infecting my system without reporting time-wasting false positives. I also expect the program to do its job without getting in my face any more than necessary.

I use Virus Bulletin’s VB100 tests to find AV tools that meet these requirements. I was happy to read in Mark Edwards’ May 1, 2008, PC Tune-Up column that AntiVir Personal achieved a perfect score in the most recent test. On further investigation, I discovered that AVG Anti-Virus also passed the April VB100 test, which was conducted on a PC running Windows Vista Business Edition with Service Pack 1.

Mark’s June 12 column contained a further twist by citing complaints by some antivirus experts that the VB100 tests rely too heavily on the WildList. Mark also noted other independent AV tests that compete with those conducted by Virus Bulletin. It’s only common sense that one lab’s assessment of a product may not always be perfect.

For my review, I supplemented the VB100 results with test scores from two other third-party antivirus labs: AV-Comparatives and Westcoast Labs. Note that in many cases, all three organizations test the commercial versions of the antivirus programs. Since the commercial and free versions of antivirus utilities from a single vendor use the same AV engine, that shouldn’t affect my assessment.

The best free antivirus tool also traps rootkits

As Mark noted in his May 1 column, Avira AntiVir Personal is the only free antivirus program that also detects and removes rootkits, which is malware that takes control of your system without your knowledge.

Avira is a top performer in a range of independent antivirus tests. Not only did the program pass the VB100 test with flying colors, it also gets AV-Comparatives’ highest Advanced+ rating in May 2008 testing for its virus detection, speed, and low rate of false positives.

Avira antivir personal
Figure 1. Get first-rate virus protection for free with Avira’s AntiVir Personal.

One important thing to note is that the free version of AntiVir is for personal use only. Avira uses the honor system — naturally — but during installation you must agree not to use the utility for “any kind of commercial or business purpose.”

The commercial version, Avira AntiVir Premium (19.95 euros for a one-year subscription) adds spyware and adware protection, e-mail scanning, and phishing alerts. The fee-based version also updates faster, and upgrading to the paid release eliminates the free version’s irritating nag screen.

AntiVir keeps virus protection simple: the program performs daily scheduled system scans, updates its virus definitions automatically, and constantly scans your system’s memory for malware. Like AVG, AntiVir lets you schedule updates and system scans but doesn’t scan e-mail.

Free AV that works well with Microsoft Outlook

Grisoft’s AVG Anti-Virus Free has long fit my criteria for a free antivirus tool: the program is effective yet inconspicuous. I set AVG to download updates and scan for viruses in the middle of the night, and the utility has never reported a false positive. However, the program has never detected an actual virus, either, probably because of my cautious online behavior, as noted above.

It’s reassuring that AVG Anti-Virus passed the April 2008 VB100 test, but AV-Comparatives gave version 7.5 (the most recent version it tested) a less-than-stellar Advanced rating because the program scanned slower and detected fewer viruses than Avira AntiVir.

Nevertheless, Westcoast Labs’ tests from April and May give version 8 of AVG its thumbs-up Checkmark certification; the tests used both Windows XP and Windows Vista. I’ll be watching to see how AVG 8 performs in AV-Comparatives’ upcoming tests.

Like earlier versions, AVG comes with mail-scanning plug-ins for Outlook and other e-mail programs. It also features an optional Internet Explorer security toolbar that alerts you to risky Web sites. The $34.95 paid version adds Grisoft’s formerly free rootkit scanner, file-download scanner, and instant messaging and phishing protection.

Avast! is the only other memory-resident antivirus application I’m aware of that’s free for non-commercial use. Though the program has scored well on the VB100 and other antivirus tests in the past, its poor performance on the most recent VB100 tests and relatively low Standard rating by AV-Comparatives moves Avast! down a few notches on my list. I look forward to reviewing a future version of the program, however.

Scott Spanbauer frequently writes for PC World, Business 2.0, CIO, Forbes ASAP, and Fortune Small Business. He has contributed to several books and was technical reviewer of PC Hacks.
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2008-06-26: