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Introduction

Antivirus software provides an essential layer of protection from a multitude of virus, trojan, worm, spyware, adware, dialer, keylogger and rootkit infections. Traditionally antivirus programs just detected viruses and spyware removers just detected spyware but nowadays the boundary between antivirus and spyware removers is unclear. Most current antiviruses have at least reasonably good detection rates of all forms of malware.

Malware includes viruses, trojans, worms, spyware, adware, dialers, keyloggers and rootkit threats that perform malicious activities on a computer. With the huge increase in malware, antivirus software cannot keep up with detecting all of it. But using more than one real-time antivirus uses much more system resources, can cause conflicts and even reduce protection. So I recommend you only choose one antivirus for real-time protection. Instead, you can increase your protection using other security software.

I looked at several free antivirus programs which are vital in protecting your computer from virus threats and other types of malware.

Discussion

 

Avast! Free Antivirus

Avast! Free Antivirus is my new top pick for the best free antivirus software in light of recent developments. Avast has steadily been improving its detection rates over the past few years and now ranks with the some of the best.

Avast has the most features of all the free antivirus with full real-time capabilities including web, e-mail, IM, P2P and network shields, boot-time scanning, and a behavioural blocker. The new  version 6 brings even more features including an internet site ratings plugin, script malware protection and a limited (non-configurable) sandboxing feature. Although the sandbox is a very useful semi-automated security feature, the default settings involves a pop up to ask whether a software should be sandboxed for not - for the typical average user this can be slightly confusing though it can set to sandbox the software automatically. Lastly Avast is also light on resources.

Microsoft Security Essentials

Microsoft Security Essentials is a favorite of mine with great detection rates, particularly for rootkits. Even more impressive is that Microsoft Security Essentials has very few false positives, is light on resources and is good at removal of existing malware.

MSE is a great choice for average users because of the minimal user interaction required. It automatically updates and removes threats. No registration is needed, apart from a quick validating of Windows, and there are no nag screens or advertisements.

The main downsides are the slow scan speeds and the lengthy amount of time it takes to quarantine malware, though in my opinion these are rather trivial concerns, as for example a scan just be run overnight. MSE also is not available in certain countries so users there will have to look elsewhere. Note that Microsoft Security Essentials requires a genuine copy of Windows to install.

Panda Cloud Antivirus

Panda Cloud Antivirus is Panda's successful attempt to jump on the free antivirus bandwagon. Along with MSE, it is an excellent choice for average users with a simple interface and completely automated features with automatic updating and removal of malware. The detection level is generally very high, but according to the latest test data, detection of zero day threats is slightly lower. PCA uses 'cloud' technology to provide for a much quicker release of updates as all definitions are stored in the cloud and thus the moment Panda updates their blacklist all users of PCA with an internet connection are protected from it. 

Panda Cloud Antivirus has a behavioural blocker and web protection, which will certainly increase your security. However as you can simply use one of the other free AV's with a separate behavioural blocker (for further details see our Security Wizard) to achieve possibly even better protection, this is not necessarily an advantage.

One minor reservation I have is that PCA seems to erroneously detect certain browser/system-related applications, for example VideoCacheView, and because of the automatic quarantine this made it a fraction bothersome.

Avira AntiVir Personal EditionAvira AntiVir Personal Edition is another high quality free antivirus, and formerly the Top Pick. The primary reason I removed it from its status involved the recent controversy of AntiVir including a re-branded Ask toolbar in their installer, and a temporary spate of advertisements promoting a possible 'scareware' company. In spite of the negative press though AntiVir is still a top notch antivirus scanner with outstanding detection rates of malware, higher than almost every other antivirus according to tests. AntiVir is still a good choice for a free antivirus scanner, particularly for high risk users.

However, there are some minor reservations. First, AntiVir does not include web or e-mail scanning capabilities; this is only available in the paid version. The lack of an e-mail scanner is not a disadvantage, it just means that AntiVir won't warn you of infected emails before you open them. But should you open an infected email, AntiVir will still spring into action, so it doesn't mean that you're not protected from email-based infections. Also, AntiVir contains a rather intrusive advertisement every time it updates. Although AntiVir had signature updating problems in the past, this issue seems to be fixed now.

AVG Anti-Virus Free EditionAVG Anti-Virus Free Edition is also a decent choice for a free antivirus. Although this venerable antivirus has had some shaky results in detection in the recent past, it now offers a high level of protection. This is probably due to the inclusion of a fully-fledged behavioural blocker that is the "Identity Protection" protection. This provides a very important additional layer of protection, on the other hand though a similar protection level can be achieved by using one of the free antivirus above alongside a separate behavioural blocker. Unfortunately AVG free has grown considerably in size, has very slow scan speeds and also advertisements (but they can be disabled).

 These free antivirus programs are excellent software that provide a real alternative to the major commerical antivirus products.

I'll just give a quick mention of several excellent on-demand antivirus scanners:

I'll also mention several popular free antivirus programs which I considered but did not include in the review because of low detection rates.

You can increase your protection if you run on-demand scans with another antivirus. On-demand scans can be run regularly to check for viruses, trojans, worms, spyware, adware, keyloggers, rootkits and other malware that may have been missed by your main antivirus scanner. If you have a good preventive security strategy in place, however, the extra protection an on-demand antivirus scanner offers is minimal.

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Quick Selection Guide

Comodo Antivirus

5
 
Gizmo's Freeware award as the best product in its class!

Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
This has full real-time protection capability, including real-time antivirus, behavioral blocking features, cloud-based protection, and an automatic sandboxing function which protects users from nearly all malware.
The automatic sandboxing function, although not very intrusive, may be too talkative for some users. Also, by default non-intrusive advertising is enabled (although it can easily be turned off). Also, Comodo Secure DNS, which is offered with Comodo Antivirus during installation, tends to have many false positives. Thus, I would suggest that you untick the option to Enable Comodo Secure DNS during installation.
Version 6.x
32 and 64 bit versions available
Unrestricted freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Take care to avoid the installation of unwanted software during installation. To do this use the customized installer button, which is on the lower left-corner of the screen during installation. Additional software, including a browser, an ad-blocking addon, and an option paid service which would allow Comodo technicians to help you with computer problems, are all included by default. Also, I would suggest that you untick the option to Enable Comodo Secure DNS during installation. It tends to falsely block many safe pages. Also, note that although the download page linked to above does not list Windows XP as being supported, Windows XP x32 is fully supported, although Windows XP x64 has significant limitations.

Avast! Free Antivirus

5
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
This has full real-time capabilities, behavioral blocking features, script malware protection, and a low rate of false positives.
Default settings require certain user interaction. It is bundled with Chrome browser by default, and if not carefully avoided during installation the user may accidentally install OpenCandy (see discussion for clarification).
Version 9.x
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Feature limited freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Take care to avoid the default inclusion of the Chrome browser and OpenCandy during the install process by using the custom install option. The attempt to install these will also be repeated at the program update if the automatic option is chosen. Quick Start Guide: http://www.avast.com/download-documentation Forum: https://forum.avast.com/
Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8.x, Mac OS

Panda Cloud Antivirus

5
 
Combines a web service with a stand-alone program
High detection rate of malware, web protection, some behavioural blocker features
Detection rates of real-world malware is slightly lower
Version 2.x
32 and 64 bit versions available
Free for private use only
There is no portable version of this product available.
Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8.x

AVG Anti-Virus Free

4
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Behavioural blocker
Slightly lower signature detection rates
Version 2013.x
32 and 64 bit versions available
Free for private use only
There is no portable version of this product available.
Forum for support
Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8.x

360 Total Security

4
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Contains many engines for malware detection.
Avira and Bitdefender engines are not enabled by default.
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Unrestricted freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.

Avira AntiVir Personal Edition

3
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Outstanding detection of malware
Not the most user friendly
Version 14.x
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Free for private use only
There is no portable version of this product available.
Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8.x

Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition

3
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
High detection rates, very user friendly
Lack of customization, no offline installer, requires registration after first 30 days
Version 1.x
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Free for private or educational use only
There is no portable version of this product available.
 

This category is maintained by volunteer editor JonathanT.

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