Free anti-virus software does the job!
To buy or not to buy? That is the question. When it comes to anti-virus software for your computer, most experts agree you need it if you have the Windows operating system and often go online, where dangers lurk.
But name-brand software could set you back $40 to $70 or more a year. Alternatively, some excellent products are available for free. What's a prudent consumer to do?
The short answer is that if you refuse to pay for computer protection software, at least use a free product in lieu of nothing. On that, experts agree. Beyond that, it's difficult to generalize with so many products available. But the difference basically comes down to this: Free software will help you discover a problem, such as a virus, and deal with it.
Paid software has more features that might help keep you from getting a problem in the first place, especially if you're inexperienced online or visit risky websites. Here are some considerations.
Popular free products include Avira AntiVir Personal, AVG Anti-virus Free Edition, Avast! Free Antivirus and Microsoft's own Security Essentials. Be aware that the many free products, while good at what they do, are essentially a marketing tool to persuade you to buy the same brand's paid version. Microsoft is an exception. It has no upsell.
Some reviewers claim the free anti-virus software might be all you need. Consumer Reports, for example, says that free products are "fine for most people."
Experts are quick to point out that you are likely to get broader protection and functionality using security software that you pay for. The free-versus-paid discussion is "an artificial wall," said Dan Nadir, senior director of product management for Norton security software, a paid product. "There is this perception you can get an apples-to-apples free version with a free product; it's not true," he said. "I think the way users should think about this is that if you're going online, you should get a paid product - even the free guys have paid products."
On their websites, many of the free products have charts showing how their paid products have more features that keep you safe online, while banking and shopping, for example.
Nadir conceded that free products do an excellent job of detecting viruses and removing them. "Everyone can do well on these static virus-scanning tests," he said. The value of a paid product is the "real world" protection offered by smarter software that can sniff out a threat even if it's never been told specifically about the threat - all without falsely alarming users, Nadir said.
Examples of features you might get with a paid product that you don't get with a free one are a firewall, parental controls, spam controls and browser toolbars to prevent phishing, scams meant to lure people into releasing sensitive information. Individual free products do many of those things, but a paid software suite gives you a common program to control everything.
Paid software also gives you technical support by phone, which free products generally won't offer. And some paid suites offer a backup function for your files. "Those are extras that are not critical, but are minor to moderate pluses," Reynolds said.
PCWorld magazine, using a recognized security testing company, recently rated highly Symantec Norton Internet Security 2011, which got top billing in many other reviews too. Kaspersky Internet Security 2011 and BitDefender Internet Security 2011 also rated highly.
For technical comparisons, check online at av-test.org and av-comparatives.org.
So, paid or free? PCWorld puts it this way: "With some exceptions, you get better customer support and more comprehensive security features with a paid product, but if you're willing to forgo these, it's definitely worth considering going free."