Depending on whom you ask, paying for antivirus software is either a good investment or a total ripoff. In reality, neither viewpoint is accurate. You can find plenty of good reasons to choose a paid antivirus product, and plenty of good reasons to go with a freebie.
We teamed up with security testing company AV-Test, to find out what you get--or don't get--with free antivirus, and when it makes sense to subscribe annually to a fee-based program.
Four basic levels of antivirus products exist: free, paid antivirus, suites, and "premium" suites. As you move up the ladder from free antivirus to premium suites, you typically get more features, such as identity theft protection, firewalls, parental controls, and system performance tools.
Free antivirus software usually provides a bare minimum level of protection. It will scan for malware, and often can perform automatic scans, too. Some free apps may have additional protection tools such as a browser add-on that checks for bad links--and Comodo's free Internet Security Premium has a firewall. But such features are usually limited to paid antivirus products. Some free apps offer behavioral malware detection, which finds malware based on how it acts on your PC--a good way of detecting brand-new malware outbreaks. (Behavioral detection is standard on paid products.)
Paid antivirus straddles a middle ground between the basic freebies and the feature-packed security suites: They typically offer more comprehensive security tools (such as parental controls and identity theft protection) and more flexibility than a free antivirus package, but they have fewer additional features than suites, which are intended to be one-stop security shops.
One of the biggest drawbacks to going with a free product is the lack of technical support. While most companies offer some sort of phone support for paying customers, free antivirus users usually must fend for themselves. Avast does offer e-mail support for its free customers; most others provide only a knowledge base or forum where users can go for help.
Another tradeoff is that free antivirus products often have some sort of advertisement for the company's paid product. Avast Free Antivirus has an upgrade link in the upper-right corner of the main window, and Avira AntiVir Personal will display an ad for Avira's paid antivirus software.
How about malware signature updates? The security software companies I spoke to tell me that they treat their free and paid products the same as far as signature updates are concerned, although there may be some under-the-hood differences between their free and paid products (as is the case with Panda's software, for example). And one company, Avast, says that its free product is intended for average users, and that its paid antivirus is for more advanced users.
On the other hand, free products do give you some flexibility. You can augment a free tool's basic security with countless security utilities. For instance, you can start with Avast Free Antivirus, add PCTools's Threatfire Free (which does a good job at bolstering malware detection), toss in one of the many firewalls available and a link-scanning utility to create your own custom security setup. This approach does require you to do your homework, though, and may be more complicated in the long run.
User interfaces are typically as good (or as bad) in free products as they are in their paid counterparts. Avira and Avast, for example, use the same basic interface for their free and paid versions; they just include or leave out certain features and toggles as needed. Panda Cloud Antivirus (a freebie) is not a scaled-down version of the paid Panda Antivirus Pro, but rather a completely different product with a different interface and different internals.
Most of the free products we tested put up identical or nearly identical malware detection scores to the paid varietals put out by the same company. But we did see some subtle differences. One notable example is Panda Cloud Antivirus: The free Cloud Antivirus and Panda's for-pay Antivirus Pro 2011 performed about the same on the signature-based malware detection tests, but Antivirus Pro did a better job in "real world" malware detection tests that help determine how well a product can block brand-new threats.
(Note: Panda recently released version 1.3 of Panda Cloud Antivirus. The company says that version 1.3 should improve its detection of new malware, but the new release didn't come in time for us to test for our roundup. Check back here for future updates.)
We found that, on the whole, paid antivirus products did a slightly better job at detecting malware than their freebie counterparts. In traditional signature-based detection tests, paid antivirus software that we tested found 96.2 percent of the malware samples overall. By comparison, free products' scores were ever-so-slightly worse, detecting 95.7 percent of samples.
In real-world detection tests, free products missed 15.2 percent of samples, while paid products missed 10.2 percent of samples. When it came time to remove malware infections, again, the results were close, but paid antivirus software held a slight advantage.
All the products we tested--both paid and free--detected all the test infections we threw their way, but paid products did a slightly better job overall at removing the active components of an infection, scoring a 74 percent success rate on average. The same held true when we tested how well the products removed all active and inactive components of an infection: Paid products achieved a 44 percent removal rate in this test, while free products averaged a full removal rate of 34 percent