In this section of the site we are going to cover some of the best free antivirus software for the computer. This has been the debate of thousands of reviews and blogs with uncountable opinions.
Which is the best free antivirus? Do you need more than one antivirus software?
Besides backing up your computer, which is the first critical line of defense and which has been covered under the Drive Backup section of this page, the second line of defense is protection against viruses and spyware. And since no malware or antivirus software is 100% proof, and if your computer becomes plagued with a vicious virus that may be almost impossible to clean, you should always have a backup of your system and consider these best-practice security measures also listed in our main Security page:
1- Be careful visiting suspicious web sites. There are a few browser add-ons that can help you with that. One of our favorites is WOT, which will alert you of a site's poor reputation once you visit it. Many antivirus programs also offer browser plugins towards that effect.
2- Be careful opening web links and attachments in your email. Certain antivirus, such as Avast Free and AVG Free, both come with email scanners.
3- Do not give your passwords even when asked.
4- Beware of emails and offers which, for instance, tell you that you have won the lottery in say Spain or Canada--or anywhere. The same applies to that African prince who wants to split his or her wealth with you by storing their money in your bank account. Some emails may also tell you that you have been summoned to appear in court somewhere (yes, you owe the IRS money and you are deep into mud.)
5- Finally, and we cannot say it enough, backup your system.
If you are in the habit of practicing these precautions, then your choice of an antivirus software may become easier and a complimentary safety measure. You can always suffice with Windows Defender, which comes free in Windows 10 -without any ads- and activates its line of defense if you do not have another antivirus present. Updated Windows Defender, coupled with Windows's included Smart Screen Filter and a good antimalware program, may be good enough if you do not like to take risk and practice the above-mentioned habits. However, if you lean towards the contrary and desire a more sophisticated antivirus program that offers more than the basic protection of Windows Defender, then we still have the same question to answer: what is the best antivirus software, if there is such a thing? In trying to answer this question below, we are not going to consider any paid antivirus programs, only free ones. If you are looking for a top shareware antivirus, you may consider trying something like Kaspersky or Trend Micro. And for more choices, we have created links, to the right side of this page, to some of the most popular antivirus programs out there.
So, what is the "best" free antivirus software?
To answer this question, we are not going to rely on any reviews about the software we pick as most of those reviews can be biased and subjective. Rather, we are going to test these programs ourselves to form our own opinion and judgement. To that end, we picked the following free antivirus software: AVG, Panda, Bitdefender, 360 Internet Security, Avira and Avast. Our choices are based on a combination of popularity, reputation and our experience. Let's put these to the test.
Our first step in testing any software is to see how it installs and uninstalls, which can be the deal breaker. Just because a software is known and reputable does not mean it will rhyme with your system; as a matter of fact, it may mess it up, and perhaps severely. And even when you want to uninstall it, it may not want to leave and you may have to hire an exorcist. The best solution for this is to practice what we preached in our backup pages. We have already backed up our system and our browser profile. And we will shortly see why. Let's start these installs and uninstalls as well as testing in the order listed above in red.
1- AVG Free Antivirus:
When we tried to install AVG Free Antivirus 2016 we got a window prompt that it is incompatible with Comodo Internet Security, which we had already installed; and it will not go any further unless we did that. This may be a subjective decision; but Comodo, as covered in our firewall page, is more valuable to us that testing AVG, a software that has been sold. So, we never had to test the uninstallation.
AVG was out.
2- Panda Free Antivirus:
Panda did not give us many install options but it did so fine. Panda also came with Panda Safe Web and Panda URL Security Filtering, which we also installed. The former installed a Panda toolbar in our browser. We have never been fond of toolbars and that did not change here. Our installed Malwarebytes started to block our Firefox from loading the home page, saying that it blocked: pandasecurity.mystart.com. 360 Internet Security Engine said that it found: Win32/Virus.WebToolbar.de5. It was time to test Panda's uninstallation. We used iObit Uninstaller Free and removed Panda but there were leftovers, which we manually removed (the obvious ones anyway.) Malwarebytes still detected and blocked our browser home page, which when checked in Firefox, it was highjacked to this: http://pandasecurity.mystart.com/.... So, we changed it back to our original home page to no avail as Malwarebytes was still popping up. It was time to restore our Firefox profile using our data synchronization. We opened FreeFileSync, reverted the direction of our Firefox backup profile and synchronized. This restored our profile and Malwarebytes no longer came up with the threat. We did not have to do a system restore, not yet anyways. Let the testing continue.
And Panda was out.
3- Bitdefender Free Antivirus Edition Beta:
Bitdefender installation said that it was incompatible with Avast Free, which we had installed though with protection disabled. We said ok and Bitdefender loaded Avast's installation, removed and wanted a restart, which we did. When Bitdefender's installation came up again it said it was incompatible with Spyware Blaster, which we had installed. The same thing above happened again, and after the restart, Bitdefender finished installing. We could open the program and noticed that it offered the very basic features such as live protection, a quarantine section, logs, etc. We did not see an on-demand scanner or any other advanced options. Then, we noticed that the engine failed to update. We wanted to open Firefox for some research and it did not respond. Then we tried Chrome with the same result. We tried to restart the computer but it failed to do so. We pressed the reset button but Windows failed to load. Oops! Another beta version has gone rogue. Perhaps this was because we never validated our Bitdefender's registration that we received in our email, which we never got a chance to do. It was time to pull out our AOMEI Backupper Free CD for a system restore. About 10 minutes later, Bitdefender was gone and we never had to test its installation.
And Bitdefender was out.
4- Qihoo's 360 Internet Security Free:
Although it did not offer many installation options, 360 Internet Security also comes as an Essential version with less features like Speedup and Cleanup and can be downloaded from here. Both version downloads offer an online and offline installer. In our test, we are using not the essential version but the total one. The interface looked nice, modern, and not very hard to navigate through. Here is a screenshot of the main interface:
Here are the features we noticed that 360 offered:
It had a USB protection that none of the others tested here offered. As we had our USB drive plugged in, it detected and scanned it with a popup at the bottom right side of the screen. We opted to disable this popup from the settings and it worked.
It had a video camera protection option, disabled by default. We were not sure how to trust this feature so we never tested it, on the one hand because enabling it required a restart, and on the other, our camera is covered always, with duct tape, even for sweet-talking Cortana. Still again, this is a feature that was offered by none of the others tested here.
Another feature that Qihoo offered was its "Speedup" option, which could show total boot-up time after the system startup. It also offered, as recommended or optional, to disable certain startup items to speed up the boot. We disabled three recommended ones and that worked. We were also given the option to remove the items we wanted to keep from the list.
The "Clean" utility could remove Windows temp and log files, etc. The software installer recommended certain programs like Opera to install, but we did not try that.
The "Tool Box" offered other options like a sandbox which was already installed and a free firewall that was not installed and that was offered by GlassWire’s firewall. We installed and tried this firewall. It was good but some handy features were blocked unless you got the paid version.
The program also offered 360 TurboVPN, which we chose to install but we never tried because it asked for a registration to get a 30-day free trial. Other than this, we were not asked for our email address.
One notable feature in 360 Total Security is its offering of three antivirus engines: the first one its own, QVMII MI Engine and active by default, the second is Bitdefender, and the third Avira. 360 offered four protection modes: Performance, Balanced, Security and Custom. Each of these modes gave different options of protection levels as well as choices to activate Bitdefender or Avira or both, besides the software's own engine. Whatever protection mode you chose it may be best to activate only one of the additional engines: Bitdefender or Avira; otherwise, it may be an overkill not without repercussions on the system performance and the possibility of conflicts. Nonetheless, and for the sake of testing, we activated all the engines and ran a full system scan. After completion, 360 found ten suspicious files. This was somewhat of a surprise as neither Avast, Comodo or Windows Defender had found anything of the sort. One of these files, for instance, was:
File path: C:\ProgramData\NVIDIA\NVDisplay.ContainerLocalSystem.log
Registry path: HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\NVDisplay.ContainerLocalSystem
We knew that might affect the functionality of Nvidia operations, so after we re-started the system, NVidia Control Panel did not work. This raised the possibility that 360 may be picking up some false positives.
After we tested 360 for a few days we noticed that all its functions seemed to perform well except for this glitch which we could not fix. The 360-browser plug in worked well in Chrome but not in Firefox. The plugin would show under the extensions manager but the feature icon was nowhere to be found as it was in Chrome. We believe this was caused by the fact that our Firefox profile is not stored in the default directory as explained in our Firefox backup page. But neither is Chrome's. And Avast, for instance, does not have this issue regardless of where our browser profiles are stored. Save for this small glitch, 360 performed well in our test. Now we had to try its uninstallation. This went smoothly. We do recommend, however, as with uninstalling any other program, to use a more sophisticated uninstaller program than the one included in Windows to clean up any leftovers. Two such good programs are: Revo Uninstaller and IObit Uninstaller.
In sum, we were impressed with 360's design, functionality and detection. This software has a lot of potential and we will see how it stacks up against Avast and Avira in our comparison and conclusion at the end of this page.
4- Avira Free Antivirus:
Like 360 Internet Security, Free Avira comes as Avira Free Antivirus or as Avira Free Security Suite. The main difference is that the latter installs a system tune-up utility as well as a VPN service, both of which we will try later.
Through the installation of Avira Free Antivirus, we were still shown a step-by-step screen to install the additional features though we did not select to install the Security Suite. For the sake of testing, we chose not to skip a screen and install every feature. After restarting our system, we noticed that there were many services added to the startup and that wanted to connect to the internet. So, we took a screenshot of these services as shown to the right, which make 11 in total and used about 250MB of our system memory. Our system now took longer to start, though we did not notice a major slowdown in our system performance.
We checked the installed programs and they added up to six as shown here:
This installation approach was different from any of the others we tested. Of course, our main concern here is Avira Antivirus, which we will cover last. We will discuss the others in the chronological order they are listed above.
Avira Connect: The system tray icon opened with Avira Connect as shown here:
Avira Quick Connect is the window to open other programs including our main object: Free Antivirus, which gave us two open windows. We found this design to be tedious and less seamless than is the case with Avast or 360 Internet Security. Our first instinct was to uninstall Avira Quick Connect. We will do this later to see what happens, but we first wanted to open and test the other features.
System Speedup: We were impressed with this addition as it offered many advanced features that far surpassed those of Avast or 360 Internet Security. But unlike the latter, this came with a price and was a free trial only. Therefore, we uninstalled it. Revo Uninstaller found one registry leftover and one user-data entry, and we were not prompted to restart.
Avira Phantom VPN: Clicking Phantom VPN from Quick Connect opens a side window at the bottom right of the screen, as shown in the smaller illustration to the right of here. Avira Phantom VPN came with 500MB of free trial. We chose to test it and clicked on "Secure my connection." Shortly after, we noticed that our IP address had changed. We started to surf the web and the secured traffic counter percentage started to increase. We did not notice any major slowdown in our browsing. We connected to and disconnected from Avira's Phantom VPN several times and everything seemed to work fine. However, in one instance, and after we disconnected from the VPN, we lost our internet connection. We checked its settings and all looked normal. We ran the Windows network troubleshooter, which did not fix the issue. We reset our modem in vain. We had to restore our system to see if the issue went away. And it did. We reinstalled Avira again following the same method above, but this time we skipped installing the VPN.
Avira Scout: This is Avira's security browser. It came with HTTPS Everywhere, Secure Browsing, Secure WI-FI, Safe Shopping and Anonymous statistics. The browser itself looked and was designed almost identical to Google Chrome. Although Avira Scout surfed the web fine we did not feel the need to add another browser to our repertoire. We already had one chrome installed. Therefore, we uninstalled it, which went quickly and Revo found one registry leftover.
Avira Software Updater: This said it monitored four of our programs: Adobe Reader, Flash, Java and Firefox. The rest of our programs were listed as "Unmonitored Software." We did not see the purpose of this. Therefore, we uninstalled it but with a lot of leftovers both in the registry and the programs installation folder.
Avira Safe Search Plus: This asked us for registration and took as to the Avira Online Dashboard. It turned our default search engine to Avira Safe Search Plus, the results of which we were not too crazy about.
Avira Browser Safety: This also asked us for registration and took as to the Avira Online Dashboard. It installed a browser extension, which options are illustrated in the smaller sample to the right of here. We tried the extension in both Firefox and Chrome:
Avira Price Comparison showed us a bar at the top of our page. Hovering over this bar also showed a drop-down price comparison of the item we were looking at. This happened only when we were visiting certain shopping sites like Amazon and Newegg.
Show safety indicator was disabled by default. We enabled it but it kept resorting to default.
Block tracking by default showed the number of trackers at the bottom of the extension icon. We tested this by going to Cnet Downloads and Avira's Browser Safety icon showed 16 trackers and revealed this message in the bar that popped at the top of the page:
After we tinkered with this feature in different scenarios, we noticed that its functionality, in whether this bar appeared or not and the number of trackers found, varied from one browser to another depending on where the browser profile was stored by default and the other security extensions that were installed. In the case of CNet above, our installed extension, uBlock Origin, utterly blocked the site from loading.
Send Do Not Track header we believe is the same feature available in many browsers nowadays.
Identity Safeguard: This is also a feature offered for free through Avira's Online Dashboard. We did not test it but, per to Avira, it can scan your emails and detect if they have been compromised.
Free Antivirus: As mentioned before this is the main object of our testing and we wanted to see if we could run it from our task tray without going through Quick Connect, which we then tried to uninstall. However, we got this message:
No such luck. If we decided that we only wanted to use Avira Free Antivirus we still had to live with Quick Connect. This did not make us very happy.
Important note: In a previous installation of Avira about two weeks ago, using the same installation file and the same options as above, we could uninstall Avira Quick Connect, which was then replaced with Avira Quick Launcher that opens from the task bar with the following screen at the bottom right of the desktop. The main difference from Quick Connect was that this was a popup and not a separate window:
This is the main reason why we have never been fond of online installers as the they would always give us the latest version of a software even if we did not want it. Therefore, we prefer offline installers as we get to choose which version to install and keep if we like it. Avira did offer an offline installer, which we also tried and which gave us the same Quick Lunch above, instead of Quick Connect. And as with the latter, Avira did not allow us to uninstall Quick Launcher.
These installation options of Avira may sound confusing; and they were so to us, in comparison with the ease and straightforwardness of others like 360 Internet Security and Avast.
However, we still wanted to test the real antivirus portion of the software, and here is a screen of it:
This is the main antivirus interface, which has not changed over the years; hence, it lacks in modernity and still looks like the old Windows 98 style. But we thought that the settings and features were better laid out and easier to navigate than Avast's. The Quarantine, Scheduler, Reports and Events are right there in Avira, while in Avast, the Virus Chest, etc. take some getting used to.
The FireWall feature, which in Avast comes only with the paid suite, is enabled and free in Avira but it nothing more than a tool to use Windows's own firewall.
The Web and Mail Protections are greyed-out as they belong to the paid version only.
The update feature was not as fast and less frequent.
We performed the same system scan as we did above with 360 Internet Security above and Avira found four suspicious files, which were not severe and we thought were false positive. The system scan did take a while.
The most impressive feature that we thought Avira had is the ability of its engine, Luke Filewalker, to block viruses in the background with its active protection, even if the virus was shrouded in an archive. We will discuss this more in our engine and protection comparison later in this page among Avira, Avast and 360 Internet Security, and we will cover how they interacted with our virus tests.
The uninstallation of Avira went smooth with minor leftovers which were easily removed.
Overall our test of Avira has proven worthy of contention and will be included in our final comparison and conclusion towards the end of the page, which brings us to to our last antivirus experience:
4- Avast Free Antivirus:
Avast and Avira are very similar in so many ways; and because of their rivalry as perhaps the biggest in free antivirus, act like copy cats; they both offer their own browser, software updater, system utility, browser plugin, etc. But they are also different in many other ways.
As compared here, Avast comes in three packages: Free Antivirus, Internet Security and Premier. Our interest here is in the Free Antivirus, which is also offered us an online and offline installer. We downloaded the latter. Out of all the installations Avast's was our favorite. It offered us the option to click on the "customize" button, which then gave us this screen:
Here, we could uncheck what we did not want to install and we were also given the option to select, form the dropdown menu, three modes of protection: Recommended, Minimal and Custom. For the sake of our testing, we selected the "Custom" mode and chose to install all features.
Compared to Avira, Avast's installation was fast and seamless and no restart was necessary. And because we had other antivirus software present for our testing (Avira and comodo,) Avast installed itself in passive mode to avoid conflict and performance issues:
We thought this was a smart strategy on the part of Avast in its willingness to co-exist. We clicked on "turn off Passive Mode." Avast then gave us another prompt to uninstall the other antivirus present or continue with turning off passive mode anyway. We clicked "yes" to choose the latter. Avast turned on its active protection. It is important to note here that both 360 Internet Security, Avast and Avira all allowed us to disable active protection through their system tray icon. Avast even gave us the option to choose how long we wanted to have the active protection disabled, for 10 minutes, 1 hour, till system restart, or permanently. Avira, however, always enabled its active protection each time after we restarted our system i.e. it did not allow this permanently as the others did. It is also worth mentioning here that, compared to the other two, Avast was the only one that installed itself as a 64-bit program in "C:\Program Files" instead of "C:\Program Files (x86)." Nonetheless, the startup processes that Avast was running, as shown here to the right, showed 32 bit. This was confusing! Compared to Avira, the number of Avast startup processes was much less of a clutter on our task manager and totaled about 25MB of our memory usage. We did eventually test the Uninstallation of Avast and we were given almost the same screen above to either "change" features or utterly remove Avast. After we did, using Revo Uninstaller, it found two leftover entries in the registry and many in the program folder. Revo removed all save for a few files and folders, which were removed after restart. Furthermore, a feature that we liked in Avast, is that it also gave us a simple option to disable or uninstall its components from within Avast itself. Here is a snapshot of the components screen in the options menu:
By default, this screen was smaller and required scrolling to see all the components. But Avast allowed us to change the default size of the window to our liking. 360 Internet security and Avira did not allow such a thing. And we believe this contributes to one of the secrets why Avast is perhaps the most popular among free antivirus software: its tendency to give the user more freedom of choice as we have seen in the options available on how to disable active protection, use Avast in passive mode, and in the installation options themselves. In the above screen, for instance, we could either toggle a component on or off, or click on the arrow to the far right, which showed us a description of the component and gave us the choice if we wanted to remove it altogether. Avast's superiority in this area of interface and design did not go unnoticed. And the "Customize" option by some of the components above opens a whole array of user preferences unparalleled by the other antivirus software we tested here. Although this may make Avast's configurations more difficult for the average user, they are far outweighed by the benefit of the choices, as we shall see in some of the components below.
Let's cover these components as they are listed above.
File System Shield: Toggling this off is the same as disabling active protection from the task tray icon, which we discussed above. And one of the "Customize" options we liked here is the different choices available on how to interact with a virus; and clicking each choice gave us its description to the right of it:
Mail Shield: This scans incoming and outgoing messages for viruses in email clients like Outlook and Thunderbird. We will test the protection strength of this feature later. Some users may be unhappy with the fact that, with this feature enabled, Avast includes its add with sent emails. We did test this by sending our self an email, which, once received, included this message:
However, Avast allowed us to remove this from our sent emails, by using the rich, above-mentioned "Customize" feature. In there, and under "Behavior," we unchecked this: "Insert note into clean messages (outgoing.)" We sent our self another email and the add was gone.
Web Shield: Customizing this feature allowed us to enable or disable web, HTTPS and script scanning, skipping trusted sites, and blocking malware URLs, among other options like the shields above.
Software Updater: This can be enabled or disabled. When we ran its scan, it found minimal software like Flash, Java, Adobe, Firefox and 7-Zip. All of them were updated and we never tested the updating part of it. This feature is like what Avira and 360 Internet Security offered us, but they all left a lot to be desired. We believe that this feature could be removed from the software altogether. Not only is it weak but also not something we look for in an antivirus, particularly when there are much better tools out there that can do a better job, are free and specialize in the field. The same can be said of the next feature.
Cleanup: Again, this feature is weak and asked for money to clean up our system. Avira's System Speedup was more advanced but it was also paid; however, this feature was free in 360 Internet Security and did more than Avast. It is worth noting here how all this antivirus software is mimicking one another in many of the features they offer, especially Avira and Avast, which are perhaps the biggest free antivirus rivals. Just because one has a software update, is it necessary that they all have? We do not think so. We rather believe that some of these features are mere bloatware and are not necessary in an antivirus software that people turn to mainly for protection.
SafeZone Browser: Unlike Avira Scout, SafeZone Browser is not chromium based and its design may not be as appealing. It is supposed to protect your activities online, such as shopping and banking. However, these browsers are new additions and have not gained much endorsing use. Rather, there are articles online that claim that Avast SafeZone Browser underwent a major security flaw, which has been acknowledged and fixed by Avast. Here are some of those articles at PCWorld and Softpedia. Although these browser additions fall under security and protection, unlike the bloatware mentioned above, we do not see them make a big impression on the other major browsers any time soon. Unlike Avast and Avira, 360 Internet Security above did not bundle a "security" browser; however, Qihoo does offer its 360 Browser as a separate download. It is mainly used in China. The most recent version here is chinese, but we downloaded the English version, and like Avira Scout, it was Chromium based and utterly portable, which we liked as we tested it in multiple computers. Please note that though we tested this browser, APW does not recommend using this browser and we removed it from our system because of safety concerns that we will address later in this page about Qihoo.
Browser Cleanup: We completed a scan using this feature and we got this message: "Your browsers appear to be free from add-ons that have a poor reputation." This sums up the purpose of this option and can be valuable if you are a fan of add-ons.
Home Network Security: We also performed this scan and Avast checked all the devices connected to our network, such as printer, TV, other PCs, etc. While doing so, it showed the name of each device being scanned as well as its IP address. A detail link by each device opened more of its information details. We thought this was a uniquely separate scanning option that the other software above did not offer.
Rescue Disk: This feature allows the creation of bootable media where Avast scan your computer without starting Windows. We were given the option to create a USB or a CD as the boot device. The former can be more fruitful as it allows re-writing data, especially when it should be done every so often to get the newest virus definitions. However, you need to have a blank USB reserved solely for this. We tried a USB that had data in it and Avast gave us this message:
We chose to use a blank CD as a bootable device for the test. Avast created an ISO image file, which we then burned on the blank CD using ImgBurn. We restarted the computer and chose to boot from the CD. Avast came up with the following screen:
We scanned all hard disks, which completed successfully, though it took a while. Again, the USB option was better as it was faster and allowed more frequent updates with the latest definitions. Regardless of this, we thought this was another bonus feature from Avast that could turn out to be useful.
Security Browser Extension: This feature installed a plug-in icon in our browser that could be customized to block ads, tracking, phishing, etc. It also gave the option to mark the reputation of sites in search results. It is like what 360 Internet Security and Avira offered. It worked well for us in Chrome; however, in Firefox, it only worked if cookies were not blocked by default. Otherwise, the plug-in icon disappeared altogether.
Safe Price Browser Extension: This worked similarly to Avira's Price Comparison. We do not think this is an important safety feature; but these two copycats think we may need it.
SecureLine VPN: When we tried to connect to Avast's VPN, we got the following screen, which sums it up:
This takes away from the window's title "Avast Free Antivirus," and was not in our interest. However, we chose to test the Free 7-day Trial. Avast did give us a different IP address in all our browsers: Firefox, Chrome and Explorer, unless there was another VPN browser plug-in present, which then kept its own IP address as was the case with Opera's free VPN. We did not notice any slowdowns using Avast's VPN.
This concludes all of Avast's features as they are listed in its components screen above.
If you are careful browsing the web and opening unknown files, etc., and if you backup your drives on a regular basis, you may not need to bloat your system with an antivirus other than the one built in Windows. But if you have to chose and use a free antivirus alongside Windows Defender, Avast may be your best bet. And though its interface has changed and actually improved from the version illustrated above, Avast has been consistently reputable. It is not as effective as some of the shareware like Bitdefender, but it will not annoy you with many false positives. And while it's never a good idea to run two live-protection antivirus programs in one system, Avast works well with other antispyware and firewall programs, such as Malwarebytes and Comodo, both of which are covered in this site.
360 Total Security used about 145 MB of memory with all the default features installed as shown in the main screen left.