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Debunking Free Antivirus Myths

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Do you really need to pay for Internet security? There are many negative myths about free antivirus and anti-malware programs. Eric Geier sheds some light on free antivirus programs and whether or not they can adequately protect your computer and data.
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There are many negative myths about free antivirus and anti-malware programs. You might think they don't include as many features or don't keep you protected (at least not as well as the programs you pay for). Or that they aren't updated often enough to catch the new viruses.

Here we'll look at these common myths to see whether there's any truth to them.

Myth #1: Free Programs Lack Features

Though some free anti-malware programs only offer basic antivirus protection, some offer just as many or more security features than those you pay for.For example, check out these two feature-packed programs that don't cost a cent:

  • avast! Antivirus: In addition to basic antivirus protection, avast! can monitor connections to detect malicious activity before the file system becomes infected. The auto sandboxing feature automatically runs suspicious programs in an isolated environment, so if they are harmful no damage can be done.
  • The boot-time scanner can run a scan before entering Windows, which can help to remove rootkits and other stubborn infections.The alerting feature can send alerts via email, printer, or network message when an infection is found. The password feature can password-protect the program settings so others can't disable the protection.

  • Comodo Internet Security: Unlike most other free anti-malware programs, this one also includes an integrated firewall.The DNS service also helps to block dangerous and infected websites at the browser before they infect your system. Like avast! Antivirus, it has a sandboxing feature, but with Comodo you can also manually run programs in the isolated environment in addition to the automatic protection. It also features advanced customizable polices and configuration management so you can fine-tune the functionality and deploy on multiple computers. Like avast! Antivirus, it features password-protection to lock down the settings.

As you see, not all free anti-malware programs are simple. Of course, when an antivirus company offers a premium and free edition of a product, the premium edition gives you something more. However, a premium product doesn't always offer more features than other free antivirus programs. For instance, the paid edition of AVG Antivirus offers fewer features than the two free programs listed above.

Some features commonly lacking in free anti-malware programs are a firewall to protect against hackers and a SPAM filter to control your junk email.

However, as mentioned earlier, the Comodo Internet Security suite includes a firewall—one of the only free programs that do. Nevertheless, the Windows Firewall provides enough protection for most home and small business PCs. If you prefer a third-party firewall, there are also free alternatives, too, such as from Comodo or ZoneAlarm.

Regarding the SPAM filtering, most programs only work with email client programs. So you can't use the filtering feature if you check your email in the web browser. Additionally, most email providers and client applications provide some type of filtering anyway. Again, there are free solutions, such as ComodoAntiSpam, Spam Pal, or SpamBytes.

Some paid products also offer bonus tools to help with PC cleanup, performance, and maintenance. For instance, McAfee Internet Security 2011 offers QuickClean to remove temporary files, Shredder to permanently delete files, Disk Defragmenter to clean up fragments, and Online Backup.

Again, there are free alternatives to these bonus tools as well. CCleaner can help remove temporary files and clean up Windows Registry. Glary Utilities can do the same and also offers numerous other tools to help clean up, such as Uninstall Manager with batch uninstall support, Start Up Manager to disable unneeded programs from running when Windows starts, File Shredder to permanently delete files, and Disk Analysis so you can where your large folders/files are.

There are also free online backup options as well, such as from Mozy or iDrive.

Myth #2: Free Programs Are Less Secure

You might think that paying for anti-malware protection gives you better security and virus protection over using a free product. However, this isn't always the case. As discussed, some free products can offer just as many (or more) security features than some you pay for.

Additionally, when you review product tests, there's no noticeable link between the price and the effectiveness of virus detection and protection. Testing organizations include AV-Comparatives, Proactive Security Challenge, Virus Bulletin, and AV-Test. Remember to consider their testing methodology and the exact editions tested.

Myth #3: Free Programs Have Infrequent Updates

One common myth I hear is that free antivirus programs don't update their virus definitions often, thus they're not secure from the latest infections. However, most free anti-malware programs update often enough, usually checking every couple hours.

And if you choose a free product that includes additional security features, they may catch even brand-new viruses and infections that the antivirus company hasn't yet released an update for—commonly referred to as zero-day attacks.

Myth #4: Free Programs Can't Be Used for Commercial Purposes

Most anti-malware programs only offer their free edition for personal use within homes. However, there are exceptions. The free Comodo Internet Security and Microsoft Security Essentials, for example, can be used by businesses and organizations in addition to homes.

Microsoft Security Essentials can be used by up to 10 business PCs, but there isn't a limitation on the Comodo Internet Security.

Summary

Now you can see there is some truth to some of the negative myths of free antivirus and anti-malware programs. However, some programs serve as an exception.

As you see now, you don't have to pay each and every year for virus protection. Paying for an antivirus suite might give you a better sense of protection, but it isn't always the case. Free programs can still adequately protect your computer and data.

On the other hand, paying for protection might be the way to go for some people. For example, if you prefer a central program or vendor for all your Internet security (virus and firewall) and PC cleanup, performance, and maintenance tools.

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