(Mostly) Free Security Software- A Primer

Why This Website?

Nobody would deny that you need a multi-layered approach to PC security these days- it's a jungle out there!! An entire industry of commercial security programs would try to persuade you that you need to spend a lot to protect your PC. This is simply not true! Major PC vendors also pre-install time-limited trial versions of these commercial programs, which may not be in your best interest to ultimately purchase. I suggest reading below before buying any such programs.

The fact is there are numerous free and reputable applications available for download which will meet most of your security needs. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of "free" programs, which are essentially junkware or bloatware at best, and malware at worst (more on this later). I created this website as a primer on how to protect your PC, with an emphasis on reputable free security software. This website is geared towards the novice user, using Windows XP/Vista/Windows 7.

My Credentials

None, to be honest! I'm just a user with a long-time interest in PC security. I use (or have used) all the applications I recommend below. I chose them for their ease of use, their effectiveness, and because all come highly recommended by trusted security experts, by independent testing at reputable sites, and by frequent posters at Dell's security forums. They have kept me free of malware for years.

I have no affiliation with any PC or security company. Wherever possible, I've tried to separate my ***personal opinion*** from fact.

Essential Components for Complete PC Security

You should never, ever connect to the internet, without an active software firewall enabled. Period! To do so will almost certainly guarantee infection of your PC in a very short time. I also strongly recommend you install a hardware firewall, such as is typically included with a NAT router. Although not free, this modest one-time expense is well worth the price. More info on NAT routers and hardware firewalls is here.

Fortunately, Windows XP/SP2 and later comes with a software Windows Firewall that is installed/enabled by default. For many, this is all you will need. It is free, has the advantage of simplicity, ease of activation, and guaranteed compatibility. You access it via Control Panel>Security Center. See Firewall: frequently asked questions for more info on its use and capabilities.

One often sees recommendations for 3rd party (non-Microsoft) firewalls, some free and some paid, touting various advantages.

***In my opinion, if your PC is adequately protected with the other layers of protection mentioned here, there is little need for a 3rd party software firewall. They require a degree of knowledge on the part of the user, add complexity, and I don't recommend them for novice users.***

The value of 3rd party firewalls has been seriously challenged by experts. See:
The value of leak-testing of personal firewalls

Free Firewall Recommendations/downloads:

1) Never connect to the internet without a software firewall enabled in Security Center.
2) Never enable or run more than one software firewall at a time.
3) Windows Firewall (and a NAT router) provides adequate FW protection for most users.

First- a caveat: viruses are no longer the major threat out there, and an anti-virus program by itself can no longer be considered sufficient protection. But an AV is still a necessity. There are good paid AVs out there, (Kaspersky and BitDefender e.g.) if you want the very best.

That said, there are reputable and effective free AV apps which are more than adequate for most home PC users. Generally they are stripped-down versions of their paid counterpart, (and thus lack a few bells and whistles) but will use the same virus definitions, and thus are just as effective as the paid version at detecting viruses. The advantages of the ones I recommend include their small footprint (less use of memory, less likely to slow down your PC) and their ease of use and of uninstallation.

Currently recommended free AV programs available include Alwil's avast! Free, Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE) , and Panda Cloud Antivirus Free. A good comparison/review of these and other free AVs and their features can be found here.

If you want simplicity, then MSE is for you. This is the successor to Microsoft's paid version of Windows Live OneCare 2.5, and it has proven itself in numerous independent tests. It is a superset of Window's Defender (see below). As well as the advantage of simplicity, MSE has considerable antimalware activity, and guaranteed compatibility with all versions of Windows currently available. If you choose MSE, you will not need Windows Defender, since it is already included in MSE.

For those more knowledgeable, who like to tweak their AV, avast! Free has additional options and shields, and also anti-malware protection. (With avast!, registration is required, and must be renewed yearly).

Panda Cloud Antivirus is another simple lightweight AV, which has excellent detection rates in recent tests.

When choosing an antivirus, be aware that most of the comparisons available on the internet involve only the paid products, and may be subject to bias if they come from websites/magazines that depend on advertising from the makers of the products they review. Most of the "testing" in these comparisons only evaluate detection rates of known viruses under very controlled conditions, and do not look at other factors (ease of use, compatibility, memory usage, ease of uninstallation etc) which are also important.

Hire a "Hitman":

No AV detects everything, and it is advisable to have access to a "second opinion" AV scanner, for those times when your system doesn't seem quite right, yet your AV scan is clean. You don't want to have more than one real-time AV running on your PC (to avoid conflicts), but fortunately there is a free "cloud-based" AV that can rapidly scan your system for just such a 2nd opinion: HitmanPro.

HitmanPro (HMP) is designed to supplement (not replace) your AV, and it will not conflict with any of your security programs. It uses several engines from reputable AV vendors to scan only areas of your PC that are targeted by malware. The free version provides no real-time protection, nor any malware removal capability. It is designed to detect only, and scans take only a minute or two. More info on HMP here. The download includes a 30 day free trial of the paid version, that does include full removal capability. Thereafter, it reverts to the free version.

Free Anti-virus Recommendations/downloads:

1) Alwil's avast! Free
2) Microsoft's Security Essentials
3) Panda Cloud Antivirus Free
4) Consider adding HitmanPro to supplement your real-time AV.

As well as real-time AV protection, I strongly recommend installing a real-time anti-spyware program. No A/S program, when tested individually, performs well at detecting everything. Thus the standard advice is to have 2 or more such programs, of which only one should be running in real-time ("resident"), to maximize your protection. Running more than one resident A/S can lead to conflicts, depending on the programs. Most (but not all) resident A/S programs will cost you, but unlike paid AVs, generally involve a one-time expense, good for all free subsequent updates/versions. In other words, no yearly subscription!

***Take this for what it is worth, but I now recommend purchasing Malwarebytes Anti-Malware (MBAM) Pro for real- time protection. It is a one-time expense of about $25, and well worth the cost. It is compatible with each of the free AVs mentioned above. You can download a free time-limited full trial here. A free version is also available as an on-demand scanner (see next section).***

Alternatively, there is one free resident anti-spyware I have used and can recommend, which co-exists nicely with all my security programs: Microsoft's Windows Defender. This is a much under-appreciated program. As MS MVP Bill Castner says:
"Windows Defender is free, offers many advanced features, provides fast scans, is light on system resources, and includes two free technical support calls. It does not conflict with your antivirus software or other anti-malware utilities. Leave it enabled under Vista. Install it under Windows XP."

Great advice that I never regretted taking. Read Castner's full summary of WD here.
More info is here.

Note that if you have Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE) installed as your AV, it already includes Windows Defender. Just to confuse matters a bit, be aware that MS also includes a full AV installed by default on all Win 8 systems, which is also called Windows Defender. It is basically a re-badged version of MSE for Win 8.

Free Resident Anti-Spyware Recommendations/downloads:

1) Windows Defender

Last updated Oct. 26/2013

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