Which Free Antivirus is Best?


This topic always has and almost always will elicit a healthy debate. However, in my opinion, there ain’t no such animal. Why? Because, as well as choices being entirely subjective, it also depends largely on each each individual user’s level of computer competency – horses for courses.

You Got a Virus!

old lady-computerA 76 year old female client recently brought me her HP Compaq desktop tower running Windows 7 to fix. She’d been surfing the web when a popup appeared on the screen accompanied by an audio warning screaming “You got a virus” over and over. In a state of panic she clicked the Fix Now button and was duly presented with a phone number to call. Thankfully, she balked at the stage where payment was due to change hands, switched off the computer and brought it to me.

Of course, this is a typical scareware tactic where the only malware present is likely to be whatever has been installed by the rogue antivirus program itself. It wasn’t difficult to fix, several scans later and all was well again. But then I noticed she didn’t have any active antivirus installed. Another of those cases where the machine originally came with a free antivirus trial which had long expired and the user is totally oblivious. So the next step was to install a suitable antivirus program, something which is suitable for her that is.

Bearing in mind that this lady’s level of computer competence is entirely minimal (you have no idea just how minimal) it got me to thinking; what can I install that is simple and lightweight, updates definitions automatically and regularly, won’t ask her questions she’s unable to answer, won’t display upgrade popups which she is very likely to click (simply because it asked her to), doesn’t involve an account or renewable registration, and generally requires as little user interaction as is humanly possible? I might add that her machine is very much of the entry level variety so resource usage definitely came into the equation.


I started going through the options in my head and the only free antivirus I could come up with which passes all the required criterion was Microsoft Security Essentials.

mse and defender

This then is the conundrum; for novice users – is it preferable to install something which is just going to work without requiring any user interaction, or do we choose a product which perhaps offers more in the way of protection but potentially involves an even greater element of risk due to the user’s lack of computer competency? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve come across clients’ machines running Avast Free with the registration period long expired leaving the machine totally unprotected, simply because they had not realized or did not know how to renew it.

I have little doubt that no matter what free antivirus product I chose for her, with the exception of MSE, this lady would end up with its Premium version inadvertently installed. And I knew from experience that anything involving setting up an account or renewable registration would end up only causing more trouble. So, in the end, I decided that installing MSE was most likely the lesser of two evils – possibly not the best protection available but, in my mind, definitely the best option to keep her safe from herself.

As additional layers of protection, I also installed WOT in both her browsers (IE and Chrome) – I really like WOT (Web Of Trust) for novice users because it automatically prevents visiting risky sites – and Malwarebytes AntiExploit free.


In all honesty, I reckon that combination will provide the best balance of simplicity and protection for this particular user while, hopefully, keeping her out of trouble.

For the record: I don’t believe there is much to pick between the top half dozen free antivirus programs. Any one of the reputable names will provide around the same level of protection, in the end it usually comes down to each individual user’s preferences, likes and dislikes.

 

About the Author

Jim Hillier

Jim is the resident freeware aficionado at DCT. A computer veteran with 30+ years experience who first started writing about computers and tech back in the days when freeware was actually free. His first computer was a TRS-80 in the 1980s, he progressed through the Commodore series of computers before moving to PCs in the 1990s. Now retired (aka an old geezer), Jim retains his passion for all things tech and still enjoys building and repairing computers for a select clientele... as well as writing for DCT, of course.

28 Comments

  1. For my low-end laptop, the MSE(Windows Defender) and avast! seem to be too heavy and dwindle the computer to a crawl.
    Aside from the darn “System and Compressed Memory” service that runs on Windows 10.
    I hope upgrading to an SSD, in the future, would help the laptop. ­čÖé

  2. I have access to free McAfee provided by our ISP. I have only installed it on my machine, and not my wifes. It keeps popping up with warnings all the time, and generally being a pain. Plus it slows down the computer a lot. I have MSE on her’s, and she hasn’t had any problems with viruses getting through, plus it works seamlessly in the background.
    So if I change ISPs, and lose the free McAfee, I will switch to MSE for my machine.

    • Lucky you!! I’ve worked on three new computers for relatives recently and they all came with a 30 day trial of McAfee. When it expires, it seems there’s NO free version, so I had to find something else. At this point Microsoft seems to be packing Windows Defender free with Windows 10. In some cases McAfee disables the Windows Defender, and it can’t be switched back on until McAfee is completely removed.

  3. For other PC’s running Windows 7 or less I used Panda Free Antivirus because it has great protection combined with the lightness it shows similar to MSE. Though now since I’m updating to Windows 8.1 (possibly 10 later this year) I use Microsoft’s/Windows own AV, which is now MSE in disguise of Windows Defender, but with great improvements to malware detection and protection such as zero day attacks.

  4. Hey Leo! I was surprised to see you on daves.computer.tips.

    I have just one question for Jim. When I tried to download Malwarebytes AntiExploit free all I could find were the premium and a 14 day free trial. Did I miss something?

    • Hi Bonnie – Yes, I saw that too. Not sure why they’ve changed the wording, makes it rather confusing. The 14 day free trial IS the free version. During installation you’ll be presented with an option to “Enable the free trial”. Just deselect that option and then continue on to install the free version. Or, you can leave the free trial enabled and it will revert to the free version after the 14 days are up. Either way, you’ll end up with the free version installed.

      BTW: You shouldn’t be at all surprised to see Leo on DCT. Leo is all class and, as you would be aware, class follows class.

  5. In my opinion, the best antivirus tools are all free. Common sense is free. AVG Free is free. If anything gets past that combination, there are plenty of free clean up tools. Malwarebytes is free, AdwCleaner is free, Revo Uninstaller is free, and Rogue Killer is free.

    • I used to recommend AVG but it seems to have went downhill in the last few years. I could be wrong but was it bought out?

      Also Google has been unhappy after one of AVG’s products caused chrome to become unsecure, the fault with avg and not chrome. Think there where some other similar incidents to.

  6. Interestingly this was something I was thinking about the other day. I’ve noticed a lot of security suites are going down the automatic route, bitdefender for example having an automatic pilot mode.

    However I use eset smart security and like it to alert me, for example when new programs try to connect to the Internet. That way if something suspicious does get downloaded and possibly passed the antivirus I can at least block it from sending anything across the net.

    Automatic obviously takes the hassle out of regular pop up alerts but it could always block something good or allow something bad.

    It’s a tricky decision. I set some security programs on my parents and grandparents computers and set it to automatic as I knew they would get confused at alerts but I’ve sometimes noticed warnings that they haven’t realised and just ignored.

  7. I’m not an IT but, I got about 16 years as a professional PC rookie in training.
    I’ve helped a lot of people fix their computers could help from online computer groups and never charged. Although, I did accept great foods and small cash donations when offered.
    I installed AVG Free on my computer and all computers I worked on. Then every time AVG got a new version, my phone would ring off the wall; but everyone wanting to know what to do.?
    Some I could talk through the process of downloading the new version, removing the old version and installing a new version. For most of them it was just easier to drive to their house and do it for the period
    Then I found Avast Free Antivirus which also updates the engine as well as the virus files. For one year, then you have to reregister for another year.
    That’s when my phone slowed down for a year until, everyone got a popup saying their Avast will expire unless they reregister.

    • Glad to meet a like-minded individual. I love to help friends and family on their issues.
      The problem also applies but differently, I get called when they get a virus because they don’t listen to my tips. I’m just called so that they can go to that site or those sites that give them viruses without feeling the guilt if they get a virus, very depressing.

    • I used AVG Free some years ago on my first computer. My grouse with them was that it still had to be “renewed” annually although it was free. Every year they made that renewal exercise into an opportunity for upgrading to a paid version, and it was often difficult to see exactly where to go to continue free.

  8. I use Avast Free, however I would certainly not recommend it to a person such as your senior user.

    I need to second-guess it all the time, trying to separate genuine alerts from scare-mongering warnings, which only try to trick you into “upgrading” to the paying version. Not to mention deliberately confusing user-interface designs.

    Even free “updates” are sometimes detrimental. I finally gave in to the alerts urging me to download the new version of the program (“You’re at risk !”), and that was a mistake.

    Not only the promised, “simpler” interface was not there, not only the new features were absent (a password manager which I wouldn’t have used anyway), but Avast broke my Outlook 2003 by installing again, no questions asked, its anti-spam toolbar that I had so much trouble taking off when I first installed it.

    Outlook’s own anti-spam works very well, thank you very much, and besides, my email address management is such that I get very little spam anyway.

    This wretched toolbar needs a register hack to disappear, however the trick I used for the previous version of Avast does not work anymore on the new version.

    So I had to re-image my whole system disk, just to go back to the previous version of Avast and get rid of that blasted Outlook add-in.

    This is an anti-virus software which uses tactics taken straight out of the book of virus developers.

    • Yeah a lot of antivirus software tends to be bloated now with unneeded stuff. A lot of security suites seem to be trying to do everything such as computer tune up. The problem is a lot of people tend to choose by features I suppose in a similar way to how people choose phones and so people pick the one with the most features presuming it means it’s the best regardless of if they will even use some of the included features.

      A lot of of yearly new versions seem to include design changes too. It sometimes feels like it’s done to make it seem like there’s a lot of new features. However sometimes newer versions include important changes and improvements e.g. such as improved techniques, fixes for bugs etc. A good example is a lot of antivirus software are getting updated to help against ransome ware but the updates are in the program and not the definitions.

      • In Avast, just enable Gaming Mode and it will end the useless popups and only show important ones, I rarely see any after doing this. I like Avast free alot, has many good features including running a boot scan if needed.

        • The Boot-Time scan is why I highly rated avast! as my favorite, it would find stuff that even Kaspersky(Best of all, at that time(2007)) couldn’t find.

          Avira took the crown on freeware that would do desktop scanning, but avast! would still find things on Boot-Time.

          9 years and still my recommended, despite the fact that it keeps asking me to install Chrome upon every update, but beside that case, it’s amazing.

  9. On both my Lenovo laptop (about 3 years old) and the new desktop that I built from scratch (250gb ssd, 1tb hd, 2 dvd optical rw’s, 16 gb ram, GeForce GTX 950 2gb video card, i7 4th gen processor) I run Panda Free + Sandboxie. They play very well together.

    Lastly, I use Clonezilla to do an image backup. I like Clonezilla’s “live CD” concept and not having to install an imaging program on my computers. I know Sandboxie and Clonezilla are technically not defined as “antivirus”. But, I mention them since they are another layer of protection.

  10. Hello Mate! a good article that comes at a great time for me – time to choose another AV. I will give these a thought and also follow what Midwest guy does grab Sandboxie.

  11. I became disenchanted with free antivirus programs years ago because of their changing policies and updates. It seemed to me that when you don’t pay for their product, those companies justifiably treat you like a second-class freeloader.

    I switched to Norton years ago, and am now running Norton 360 Premier. The cost for protecting several computers is really minimal, considering the amount of protection you get, and all the other programs included besides antivirus (firewall, defragger, registry checker, lots of others). It’s a one-stop solution for total protection, and hasn’t failed me yet.

  12. Can MS Security Essentials run alongside Avast? If so, what is the rule of thumb when they cannot run simultaneously?
    Thanks,
    Dan