There are certain topics that will almost always initiate a healthy debate and free vs premium antivirus is one of those topics. It’s also a topic that is purely subjective, in much the same way as users have their favorite browser, email client, or other software, they also have a personal preference or opinion about what type of antivirus is best. So, what is the answer to the all-important question? I’m afraid the answer is not all that helpful, the answer is… it depends. There are a number of influencing factors as to which choice is best for each user but, first up, let’s take a look at the main differences between free and premium antivirus solutions.
Differences Between Free & Premium AVs
I suppose some wag is going to state the obvious– free antivirus solutions don’t cost any money whereas premium antivirus solutions do. However, there are other differences, the primary difference being that free antivirus solutions offer only basic protection whereas premium solutions generally include more components. These days, almost all antivirus solutions, free and premium, include heuristics (behavior-based) detection to protect against zero-day malware as well as detection via traditional definition databases to protect against known malware. The main difference is that premium antivirus solutions will also include additional components for enhanced protection. For example, let’s take a look at a couple of premium antivirus solutions’ feature-sets that are often bundled as trials with new PCs– Norton and McAfee:
Additional Components (over and above free solutions) include a firewall, cloud storage, password manager, full technical support, secure VPN, and SafeCam.
Additional Components (over and above free solutions) include secure VPN, performance optimization (?), home network security (blocks hackers from accessing the home network), full technical support, password manager, file shredder, and cloud storage.
McAfee also offers something called “Identity Theft Protection Essentials” with its slightly more advanced plans. It’s interesting to note that these premium products are now providing a secure VPN and password manager included with the subscription. I have no idea if these VPNs work system-wide or only in the browser. From the information provided by Norton and McAfee, it sounds as though they are limited to browsers only but I could easily stand corrected on that. Regardless, it is up to each individual user to decide if these additional components are worth the money.
Now, let’s take a look at these additional components individually:
- Firewall: Third-party firewalls have been out of vogue for many years and for a very good reason– they tend to ask more questions than they answer. That is unless you are an advanced user, third-party firewalls can be quite confusing, asking users to make decisions for which they are not qualified. In my opinion, Windows built-in firewall is adequate for most users and, of course, costs nothing
- Cloud Storage: Totally free cloud storage services include blomp (20 GB free), Degoo (100 GB free storage), Mega (50 GB free storage), Google Drive (15 GB free storage), and many more
- Password Manager: Free password managers include Bitwarden (excellent), LastPass Free
- Full Technical Support: Useful for less experienced users
- SafeCam: My particular webcam, a Logitech 600, includes a sliding lens cover for security. Even if your webcam does not include this you can always cover the lens with something, or follow Richard Pedersen’s advice via his excellent article: How To Enable/Disable Webcam Onscreen Indicator. Either way, these free and effective security measures are already available
- Home Network Security: All modern routers come with network security built-in for free via a strong, encrypted passcode which is required for anyone to access your home network
- File Shredder: I believe most would be familiar with the plethora of free secure file shredders available, including Eraser, WipeFile, Freeraser, Secure Eraser, and many, many more
- Secure VPN: As mentioned earlier, I don’t have enough information to form an opinion here one way or the other. If this is merely browser-based then there are multiple free alternatives including the free VPN built-in to Opera browser. Even if these VPNs work system-wide, I have no knowledge of their respective logging policies, numbers of servers and server locations, etc., so am unable to make an informed judgment
My point here is that most of these additional components are available for free anyway. That said, I guess it could be convenient for some users to have them all available from within a single application/interface.
Free vs Premium AVs- Main Influences
- Computer Resources: I guess most would be aware that antivirus software is among the most resource-hungry of applications, if not the most and, generally speaking, the more components included the more negative impact the software will have on computer speed and responsiveness. People who are running entry-level machines, for example, with relatively low specs may well find that a premium antivirus solution is slowing down their PC to an unacceptable level. In those cases, there is not much choice– free is the go
- Computer & Security Savvy: There can be a substantial difference in security needs between advanced (more savvy) computer users and those who are less experienced. Less experienced users tend to click where they shouldn’t and are generally far less security conscious than more advanced users and so might possibly benefit from a premium antivirus solution and, particularly, the free technical support
I would suggest that a free antivirus solution is adequate for most users. Microsoft Defender (formerly known as Windows Defender) has improved out of sight and now ranks very highly in official antivirus test results plus has the advantage of already being built into the operating system. Other free solutions of note include:
- Panda Free: Excellent free cloud-based solution, perfect for less experienced users
- Bitdefender Free: Lightweight solution with excellent AV engine
- Kaspersky Security Cloud Free: Excellent protection consistently scoring highly in independent lab tests
- Sophos Home: Industrial grade security provides excellent protection. More suited for experienced users
In the end, it all comes down to what the user either needs or wants. If you are happy with your current antivirus and its protection then I suggest you should stick with it. I should also point out that I am not a fan of Avast or AVG and that is why neither is mentioned here.
FURTHER READING: Most Effective Antivirus Products 2020