If you are using a Windows PC, do you really need third-party antivirus software? Besides, do you have to pay for this protection? The answer was easy ten years ago. Today, the security features built into Windows 10, including the Microsoft Defender antivirus engine, prove to be quite honorable, making the choice less obvious.
But for some picky PC users, replacing the basic built-in virus protection with third-party software is a natural step when setting up a new Windows PC. Even if the difference is minimal, it is still an improvement. In a world where ransomware is an existential threat to businesses and where Trojans and banking-related phishing attacks can drain your account in minutes, you may want to step up the odds in your favor.
The most well-known commercial antivirus programs for Windows usually require a paid annual subscription, but some perfectly respectable names also distribute free versions of their software, generally reserved for non-commercial use. Typically, these programs include the exact same scan engines and malware signatures, without the more sophisticated features, and with minimal support options. You can also expect frequent advertisements for the paid offer, which can be annoying at times as the developers try to convince you to open your wallet.
All of the programs we list here are completely free and can be used at home by non-expert users. We do not recommend any programs for businesses, which need quick access to technical support and, in large businesses, centralized management and monitoring dashboards. These are especially good choices if you’re the unofficial IT administrator of friends or family who can’t always spot a scam or phishing attempt.
If you don’t mind ads
After nearly a quarter of a century in the US market, AVG has forged a solid identity in the free antivirus industry. Indeed, the AVG brand has remained, even after the takeover of the parent company of AVG by Avast Software in 2016. Today, Avast and AVG both offer free antivirus offers that use the same engine and have a almost identical appearance. Everything we say about the AVG Free Tier therefore also applies to Avast Free Antivirus.
Both products score well in independent tests, but they are particularly aggressive in monetizing their customers. When you install the free product, you sign up for a barrage of offers aimed at convincing you to upgrade to a paid offer. The installer offers for example the installation of Google Chrome, which gives rise to a premium paid by Google to Avast / AVG. We found this torrent of upselling annoying and at times downright manipulative, so be warned.
The basic virus scanning tools for both products work exactly as advertised. If you can ignore the frequent upgrade offers, this is a perfectly smart choice.
Antivirus and much more (maybe too much)
Avira Free Security offers basic virus scanning, as expected, but it also includes additional modules to improve performance and protect privacy. The Performance tab of the Avira Console includes options to clean the registry, uninstall obsolete applications, and delete unnecessary files. The options on the Privacy tab allow you to disable telemetry-related settings and adjust other settings.
If you’re the kind of Windows user who approves of these kinds of tweaks, go for it. On the other hand, we recommend that you be careful if you install this software on a PC owned by a user who is not technically comfortable, as in our experience such changes can have unintended consequences.
The minimalist antivirus alternative
Bitdefender, a privately held company based in Romania, has a solid reputation for its paid security products. Its free plan offers a minimalist interface, with no frills or extras, which is refreshing in its lack of ad offerings.
Bitdefender Antivirus Free promises “basic virus protection for Windows PCs”, and that’s exactly what you get. It carries over the malware scanning and removal functions normally performed by Microsoft Defender Antivirus, but does not include additional features such as ransomware protection, system optimization or VPN, which are part of the package. paid offer from the company.
If this basic level of protection is what you are looking for, this product is perfect.
From Russia, with a few extras
Eugène Kaspersky, who founded Kaspersky Lab, says providing free protection to his customers is part of his core mission. Yes, you will see advertising offers in Kaspersky products (notably a must-have red “Upgrade package” button on the Kaspersky management console), but they are, on the whole, much less aggressive than those of their competitors. Overall, installing the free product from Kaspersky does not change your daily experience.
Kaspersky’s free product includes two of the most useful extras we’ve seen in this category: a free password manager and a VPN that offers 300MB of daily usage. For someone not already using a third-party password manager, this is a good option, and the VPN features are invaluable for anyone who wants occasional access to a protected network without much effort.
Like many security software companies, Kaspersky’s headquarters are in the former USSR. If this bothers you, good luck finding an alternative that doesn’t have some Eastern European connections.
Manage up to three PCs from the web
Although Sophos Home offers a free tier, you cannot install it directly. Instead, you first get a free 30-day trial of Sophos Home Premium (no credit card required). After 30 days, your installation is downgraded to the free edition and you lose ransomware protection, privacy controls, and other features exclusive to the paid plan.
Using the web console allows you to monitor activity and even initiate a scan remotely. (The paid version lets you track 10 PCs, but the free version is limited to three devices). This feature is useful if you are trying to keep an eye on PCs owned by other family members. The free version also includes web filtering tools that let you issue warnings or block access to websites that fall into more than two dozen categories, with the ability to enter exceptions for false positives.
Is the Microsoft Defender Antivirus included in Windows 10 effective enough?
For most people, the security features built into Windows 10 are indeed sufficient. The operating system includes Microsoft Defender Antivirus, which is activated automatically and is constantly updating. It also includes a built-in firewall (enabled by default) and Microsoft Defender SmartScreen technology, which blocks malicious or unknown applications and files on the web, even when downloaded from a browser other than Microsoft Edge. . If you choose to install third-party security software, Windows automatically disables the corresponding features of Microsoft Defender.
Are the results of independent antivirus tests important?
Security software makers pay for the privilege of participating in these tests, which use a mix of samples of known malware, suspicious website behavior, and other metrics to measure their effectiveness. The difference between a 98.4% rating and a 100% rating is insignificant, especially when you consider the number of other layers of security that can prevent an executable or script from landing on your desktop.
Also, a 100% rating only means that the software was successful in meeting all the challenges it faced during this month’s testing cycle. This does not mean that you will be 100% protected against a malicious download or attachment.
How much does effective antivirus software cost?
By researching the prices of commercial security software intended for use on home PCs, we could see that there is no fixed price. If you check the price of a product and try to look elsewhere, chances are you will be offered a lower price. You can also find coupons and “time-limited” offers that significantly reduce the cost of an annual subscription to any of these packages.
The problem, of course, is that the discount is only valid for the first year and at the time of renewal those discounts are much harder to find.
Overall prices vary widely, depending on the features included and the number of devices supported by the subscription.
How we selected the antivirus
We took a look at the security software currently available for PCs running Windows 10, focusing on those with established reputations and tested update delivery infrastructure. We did not take into account software designed for use on other platforms, including MacOS and mobile devices.
We installed each program in a virtual machine to get a feel for its user experience, but we didn’t do any additional testing. Rather, we emphasized the robustness of test results from two major software testing labs: AV-Comparatives and AV-Test.org.
More importantly, as the title says, the software and accompanying services should be completely free for long-term use with no expiration dates or hidden costs. This filter eliminates some well-known and even iconic names in security software from the list, including McAfee, Norton, and Trend Micro.
How to choose
Every security software involves a tradeoff between protection and convenience. The free packs we describe here add an extra layer to that equation, with varying degrees of publicity meant to convince you to switch from your free program to a paid membership. Each pack also offers a set of additional features, which may or may not be of use to you.
In terms of effectiveness against online threats, we don’t think there is much difference between these different packs. This means that the best way to choose is to install a pack and try it out long enough to decide if the interface and the additional offers are acceptable. If you find a package that is too intrusive, uninstall it and move on to the next candidate on the list.