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PSA: Your free antivirus solution might not be as good as you think

Before I wrote about Microsoft and the ecosystem surrounding it – I sold it at a Fortune 500 company, where I worked as a sales associate and computer repair technician; every day I interacted with people looking to purchase brand new computers and everyday people repeated the two biggest errors you can make when purchasing a new PC. First, they decided to get the cheapest piece of hardware they could spot – open box return unit, single core CPU with 2 GB of RAM, and an all-plastic body design – SOLD! Second, they passed on a security suite for their computer – who needs to spend money, when you can grab a free solution, right?

Owning a computer with the Windows operating system comes with a collection of wonderful benefits over other alternatives, including the ultimate in software compatibility and the best touch screen compatibility to date. That being said, the biggest issue plaguing Windows machines is seedy malware. The good news is that I can be easily prevented. The bad news is that many people out there, believe that a free solution can stand up to the protection offered by paid security suites. In addition, a mythical mindset that paid security suites slow down your PC continues to circulate.

Let us talk about malware.

Before we dive into why that free security option is not as good as a paid alternative, let us talk about the word “malware”. You’ve probably heard a collective of the terms we are about to mention, but we want to make sure you are fully informed in your battle against malicious software – which is exactly what “malware” is in short hand.

In general, there are two types of infectious malware, and you have probably heard of them both – viruses and worms. A virus is simply a term for a piece of malicious software that attempts to hide itself within another innocent program and activates when you run it. On the other hand, a worm is a piece of malicious software that is stand-alone and not imbedded into innocent software (no need to hide); instead of activating when you click a piece of software, a worm is more advanced than a virus and is able to burrow and transmit itself automatically within your network to infect other machines.

There are a few versions of concealment for viruses, so that they can attempt to avoid attention, these include Trojan horses, rootkits, and backdoors. Each method is unique in its own right, but we are going to point out the rootkit virus, which can actually modify your computer’s operating system in order to avoid detection as a running process in the background. Keep these in mind as we talk about various security solutions (free and paid).

Free simply lacks what paid software provides.

Now that you are all malware experts, let us talk about a couple of the most popular free antivirus solutions available for the PC – Avast Free, AVG Free, and Avira Free. As of today, AVG Free still ranks amongst the most popular selections, while Avast Free and Avira Free are still frequently mentioned.

AVG, Avira, and Avast free solutions provide basic coverage, but fails to provide the full well-rounded solution that the average consumer should seek. A common feature many free solutions lack is the ability to scan a piece of software before it is downloaded to your PC. Imagine letting a complete stranger into your house, then asking for their identification – it is a more secure idea to reverse that order. In addition, many free antivirus solutions will allow malicious scripts to load within your browser, before issuing a warning against them. Also, remember those rootkits we spoke about before? Companies such as Symantec provide special tools to remove them - free software just does not.

The weaker level of protection of viruses is not the only offense made by many free solutions; most do not include protection against spam and spyware. We are all familiar with spam we receive in our inboxes; with most paid solutions these spam emails are scanned and ruled out before you can even get to them. When it comes to spyware, bits of software that attempt to steal your personal data without you knowing, free antivirus solutions will not snag that either. If you are interested in preventing spyware, you have to download an additional piece of software to do so, such as Spybot for Windows.

Hackers Movie

Lastly, let us not forget about a firewall that protects hackers from gaining access to our PC’s traffic and content. As you can guess from the name, antivirus solutions do not provide protection against such malicious hackers – that would be another different piece of software.

Now, I know what some of you might be saying – “Well, then I will just download three pieces of software. I will grab a free antivirus program, free spyware program, and free firewall,” This idea is not the worst idea (it actually may provide as a decent solution for many), as you can mull through and pick what you feel is best, but you will still lack advanced firewall features, advanced anti-spyware features, and the more active real time antivirus protection we mentioned above. In addition, different security software will sometimes conflict with each other causing issues.

In the end, free security will usually recommend that you upgrade to the premium version of software that they offer. In fact, AVG, Avira, and Avast, all have premium versions of their free software that act as a complete security suite. Free security suites are usually offered for one of two reasons – 1) they attempt to real consumers into the premium versions, or 2) they serve as an extension of the company’s resources to keep an eye out for new viruses and spyware.

Here are our recommendations to stay safe.

So what is a consumer to do? Instead of downloading a collection of free software or/and leaving your PC partially exposed, we recommend downloading a paid security suite. When downloading these suites, it is important to choose one that bundles great antivirus protection with equally great spyware protection and an active firewall. For example, AVG’s premium security suite provides excellent antivirus protection, but the firewall could be improved.

Our top personal recommendation is downloading Symantec Norton’s Internet Security Suite, which can be picked up on Amazon at $19.99 for a 1-year subscription. We do not recommend buying security software from the developer’s site, as they tend to charge the full price at most times ($79.99 in this example). We know that Norton received criticism in the past for slowing down PCs, but that is no longer an issue today. Do not want to believe us and think Norton is the devil? You can download a free trial and see that we are not lying. Our friends over at PC Mag agree with us – Norton’s Internet Security suite received an Editor’s Choice for 2014.

If you still have a bad taste from Norton (and are not willing to believe our claim), you can also check out Bitdefender Total Security and Kaspersky Internet Security as alternative options. We strongly advise against downloading MacAfee software, it continues to act as a terrible slow down – stay away.

Go out there with your new knowledge and protect your PC! We are not being paid for any of the above recommendations, and we truly want to deliver the best experience for your Windows PC.

UPDATE: Quite a few readers brought up Microsoft's Security Essentials as an excellent solution for free antivirus, but unfortunately the software is nowhere up to par with other free solutions such as AVG and AVAST, less close to Norton or Kaspersky paid editions. Our friends at PC Mag, whom use in-house and third party labs had this to say about the software:

"Unusually slow scan. Failed to run on one test system. Low detection rate in malware cleanup test. Failed to thoroughly clean up threats it did detect. Microsoft Security Essentials 4.0 does a decent job protecting a clean PC, but in testing its cleanup of already-infested systems wasn't thorough. You can get better protection for the same price (FREE)."

Due to these facts, and the additional reminder that Microsoft Security Essentials does not provide ample coverage against Spyware - it remains as non-recommended solution from your friends here at WinBeta.

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