Which free antivirus suite should you trust with your data and your privacy?
Protect your PC from the latest threats
It’s fair to suggest that Windows’ built-in AV solution, Windows Defender, is the last free AV app you should trust to keep your system clean. Not that it’s overtly bad – although it does tail behind just about every third-party antivirus solution – but because it has a big target painted on it for attackers. Windows users who’ve been too lazy or foolish to install something hardier are the perfect hosts for viruses; attack the weak links, attack through the chinks in the one piece of software armour these weak links have by default, and you’re in.
That’s why we’ve dropped Defender from our list of free antivirus apps in this latest update of our free AV roundup. You need more than it can offer. If you’re not running advanced virus detection, zero-day virus protection, anti-malware, anti-ransomware and other Windows security essentials, you’re not doing it right.
Once again we’ve consulted the experts at the AV-TEST virus lab to find the most effective virus protection, and we’ve listened to your comments regarding usability, too. Free antivirus without popups, or at least some sort of seedy side, is a bit of a pipe dream – free AV is more of an advert than an altruistic gift. But we understand that for many of you the constant hassle presented by free AV popups can be a bit much to take – so if you’re willing to sacrifice a minuscule amount of antivirus protection in favour of a cleaner experience, we’re with you.
1. Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition
Given a new lease of life, with fast, effective virus-busting and a clean interface, BitDefender is the best antivirus for Windows
As if, in our previous roundup, the folks at BitDefender heard us moaning about the fact that its free product hadn’t had its engine updated since 2013, along comes a brand new version at last. Essentially consisting of the AV section of the full product, BitDefender Antivirus Free Edition‘s clean, light, well constructed scanning mechanisms – which are almost universally faster than the industry average – and unrivalled virus definitions mean it’s pushing back towards the top of the tree. AV-TEST’s December testing round did pick out a few flaws in its handling of zero-day threats, however.
The free version’s insistence on running in autopilot mode is a double-edged sword, making the process of virus management easy but taking it out of the user’s hands; while we’re inclined to trust it, there have been cases in the past of automatic systems going slightly rogue, such as the incident a few years back when Panda Antivirus identified itself as a virus and locked up a large number of Windows systems.
While Bitdefender isn’t exactly popup free – it can be quite annoying, in fact – it’s clean, clever, and efficient enough to take our top spot this time.
Download here: BitDefender Antivirus Free Edition
2. Avast Free Antivirus
A much-improved free antivirus suite, bolstered by a new, expanded userbase
Avast and AVG haven’t yet fully merged, despite the former formally acquiring the latter in mid-2016. The company says the two products will remain separate, although there’s apparently a joint AV package on the way soon. Obviously, though, Avast now has a lot more data to work with, having expanded its effective userbase (and, therefore, its threat detection network) to a whopping 400 million users.
The latest edition of Avast Free Antivirus adds an automatic gaming mode to mute popups and reduce system load when you’re firing up a processor-hungry game, which is very handy indeed, and the interface has been given a clean new overhaul. There’s a password manager, too, which is an undeniably good addition to your security portfolio.
It scores well on AV-TEST’s widespread malware benchamark and continues a clean sweep against 0-day attacks – presumably that expanded detection network is really helping. Less impressive is the slight negative effect Avast has on software launch times, and its slightly popup-heavy attitude.
Download here: Avast Free Antivirus
3. Sophos Home
A new entry on our list – but the perfect choice for a home full of PCs
Marketing itself as ‘business-grade security’, Sophos Home does a little more than most free antivirus software, and actually seems better suited to families.
You get standard antivirus and anti-malware protection, along with browser tools like anti-phishing and, most importantly, content control. Combined with central management of up to 10 PCs, this means you can effectively lock down your kids’ browsing options.
Although AV-TEST hasn’t formally assessed Sophos’ skills, fellow lab AV-Comparatives offers up a decent rating of its antivirus abilities. Desktop notifications can be a bit heavy, though since Sophos Home isn’t a direct advert for another user-level product (the company mainly deals with business software) you’re not constantly badgered to upgrade.
Download here: Sophos Home
4. Avira Free Antivirus
Great antivirus, but a little noisy for our liking
Avira Free Antivirus continues to score highly on AV-TEST’s stringent testing program, quashing 99.7% of tested threats, and it generally doesn’t put too big a burden on your hardware. It has a clean, friendly interface, and throws up minimal false positives. The introduction of a free security suite to optionally run alongside it – with ransomware and phishing protection, a 500MB/month VPN and various speedup promises – just sweetens the deal. This is one of the best free antivirus packages of 2017.
So why, then, have we dropped it from the top spot on our list, a position it’s held for the past two years? It’s the constant badgering. There’s a certain level of popups and advertisements that’s acceptable for a free product, and Avira has begun to cross the line. It’s not as onerous as some – Comodo’s over-enthusiastic interface comes to mind – but booting up your PC to see Avira shouting at you once again is jarring.
Download here: Avira Free Antivirus
5. AVG Antivirus Free
Free, nice looking antivirus, but lacking in a couple of areas
There’s a growing trend amongst some online pundits to label antivirus apps like AVG – and, indeed, AVG specifically – as ‘crapware’. We don’t subscribe to that definition; if that term is supposed to mean that these apps are ineffective or pointless, it’s simply not true. AVG offers (reasonably) effective virus protection for free, and it does so with minimal system impact. If, on the other hand, the derogatory term refers to products which go a little heavy on the advertising and features that don’t matter – AVG Antivirus Free‘s ‘tune up’ portion, for instance – perhaps the shoe fits here.
Popups or not, it’s the antivirus we’re most interested in. Looking at AV-TEST’s figures, and considering AVG shares the same expanded userbase as Avast, we were a little surprised that its strength doesn’t quite match up to its new parent. Speculatively, this could mean AVG’s engine is not getting the same love it once did, or that Avast’s is slightly stronger – whatever the case, keep your eyes open for the combined Avast/AVG antivirus that’s on the roadmap for this year, because both products running in tandem will be just about unbeatable.
Download here: AVG Antivirus Free
6. Panda Free Antivirus
Feature-rich PC security, but not as light as it promises
The eternal battle against popups doesn’t exactly start well, with Panda’s site throwing a huge banner up shouting about a discount on the full version before you’re even allowed to download the free one. Put that aside, however, to look at the software itself: Panda’s entirely cloud-based antivirus solution goes about as lightly on system resources as is possible, at least when it’s quietly running in the background. But you’ll probably find, as AV-TEST’s lab did, that Panda Free Antivirus has a bigger impact on many common system tasks – installation, copying files, downloading apps – than most of the opposing AV apps. We also experienced heavy CPU peaks both at random times and when Panda was updating itself.
That said, Panda’s overall look – which offers calming vistas where other go for plain white or grey – is refreshing, it’s incredibly well laid out, and it comes bundled with a bunch of extra features that don’t just seem like fluff. It dials itself down even further with a game mode when you need extra CPU speed, offers to immunise USB sticks (handy if you’re worried about preinstalled spyware), has a bootable rescue kit in case a malicious program cripples your Windows install, and includes a threat-weighted process monitor.
Download here: Panda Free Antivirus
7. 360 Total Security
Feature overload, with a potential sting in the tail
The specter of developer Qihoo’s VW-esque cheating of AV tests seems to be lifting a little these days, and it’s hard not to recommend it when you consider exactly what it’s offering up for free: AV protection from several concurrent engines (BitDefender, Avira, and Qihoo’s own engines) along with reasonable extras like anti-phishing and a mobile app which helps you manage multiple systems.
We’re also not hugely impressed by its interface. You’ll need to do some fiddling to get several anti-virus engines running at once, and doing so with the rather messy UI is not easy. A lot of the bundled tools seem extraneous, and we hit a couple of false positives in testing too. So if you want quiet, strong protection this is a fine option – but you’ll need to do some work, and you may have to pay a high price.
Download here: 360 Total Security
8. ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus + Firewall
Licensed antivirus and noisy alerts, tacked on to a solid firewall
ZoneAlarm’s reputation in the firewall world precedes it, and while that particular aspect of this all-in-one package isn’t what we’re really concerned with here, it’s a solid extra if you don’t trust your router or Windows’ own built-in firewall.
The antivirus engine on offer here is actually licensed from Kaspersky, so although we were unable to find any results from independent testing labs – hence its position this low on our list – it’s safe to have at least a small amount of confidence in its abilities. It’s well laid out, easy to use, and is your only real option if you want to use the ZoneAlarm firewall alongside any anti-malware app other than Windows Defender.
That said, ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus + Firewall isn’t a quiet app, alerting you of every little thing that’s been blocked or deflected – some people like that, others will quickly become infuriated.
Download here: ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus + Firewall
9. adaware antivirus free 12
Rebranded but cut down, with a large amount of advertising on board
A new, capital-letter free name for what was once Ad-Aware Free Antivirus+, to celebrate its company’s rebranding from LavaSoft to plain old lower-case adaware. Another antivirus with a licensed engine – this time from BitDefender – and one which has the benefit of adaware’s history in anti-spyware, you’d expect its results to be good. But things aren’t so rosy.
This new adaware antivirus free 12 drops the Web Companion from version 11, which blocked malicious and fraudulent URLs; it now acts only on iffy downloads. There are a host of other promised features, but they’re not actually there – placed, tantalisingly, on an interface which very much shouts ‘adware’ more than it does ‘adaware’.
Download here: adaware antivirus free 12
10. Comodo Free Antivirus
Free AV that needs a little work before it’s ready for widespread use
Credit to Comodo for updating the look of its free antivirus package for version 10 (although older appearance options are still there if you look for them), and for its strong showing against AV-TEST’s zero-day threat assault. Bad news, though on just about every other front: Comodo Free Antivirus flunked the widespread malware test, coming way below the industry average – far, in fact, behind Windows Defender – and it’s rather heavy on the system, too.
If you’re worried about popups and ads, you’re also in a bad place. Some of Comodo’s tricks are pretty insidious. If you manage to install it without a host of Yahoo branding making its way onto your PC, good for you. Then there’s the ‘Geekbuddy’ popups to deal with – a paid-for consultation service, though that’s not made clear. We completely understand the need to make something back from free products, but we’d rather the assault weren’t quite so violent.
There are positives, though: its ability to sandbox off your browsers is handy, but not enough that we’d recommend an install.
Download here: Comodo Free Antivirus