To mangle Shakespeare, this is often the question when it comes to antivirus software. There are lots of free antivirus software suites available. But are they any good? Some people say you don’t need anything else to protect your computer, but then they don’t mention the downside either. So just how good is free antivirus? Read on to find out.
Every so often waves of articles arise questioning whether anybody ever needs to pay for antivirus protection ever again. For the Sherlock Holmes among us, the stories can often be traced to a comment from someone who has a vested interest in pushing a new type of security as more and more data is stored in the cloud or someone who is keen to stand out in the IT crowd.
Windows Free Antivirus
But of course there is logic to these claims too. Free antivirus is definitely getting better and more effective. Take Windows Defender, Microsoft’s free antivirus software that comes with its Windows 8.1 and Windows 10 operating systems.
Defender used to be so awful it was widely viewed in the industry as a baseline for mediocrity. But today its ranking is climbing up the antivirus test charts, but that said it’s not near the top, rather it sits somewhere around the middle.
One of the arguments for free antivirus says that because so much free software is available online why not use free antivirus? The only problem is, and it is a bit of an issue for most people unless you love tinkering with your computer applications, is that if you use free antivirus then you also need free anti-spyware, anti-spam and a free firewall. These components, which are included in paid-for software, aren’t part of free antivirus software.
And you’ve got to manage all these applications separately and ensure they are updated regularly and sort out any conflicts that happen by figuring out what’s causing the problem, uninstall the offending application and then find an alternative that doesn’t conflict with your free applications.
As you can see, it’s going to require a bit of dedicated attention and quite regularly too.
What does antivirus do?
The basic approach of antivirus software is to analyse incoming data such as online downloads, removable media such as memory sticks and other sources such as websites, for patterns of characters called signatures and which indicate a malicious file.
When identified, any such files are quarantined to prevent a computer being compromised. A database of known signatures is updated frequently to account for new signatures, or new viruses. It’s a bit like identifying fingerprints.
Critics, however, say two major factors have greatly diminished the effectiveness of this traditional signature-based antivirus technology. First, malware travels so fast it can infect thousands of computers on the internet before antivirus vendors even know it exists.
Second, virus authors deliberately make changes in virus signatures to evade antivirus software. To give you some sense of scale, independent testing laboratory, the AV-TEST Institute claims to register over 390,000 new malicious programmes every day.
But if you didn’t have antivirus protection on your computer you would literally be vulnerable to millions of viruses every time you logged onto the internet.
Antivirus rankings are important
Antivirus software is ranked according to its virus detection rates. Recall Windows Defender mentioned above. It typically didn’t score very high in virus detection which is why it had such a bad reputation.
As a general rule free antivirus doesn’t score as highly as paid-for antivirus but if you don’t mind taking a few risks it could be alright for you. But, and it’s an important but, even a small risk could cause serious problems.
Take ransomware as an example. This type of malware has reached epidemic proportions over the last 18 months. In 2016, ransomware was estimated to have accounted for $1 billion in losses
around the world according to the FBI
and also a cybersecurity company called Herjavec Group.
Ransomware is so dangerous it’s threatened to take entire businesses offline for extended periods of time and has penetrated many major organisations such as NHS hospitals, healthcare providers in the US, millions of individuals and thousands of UK businesses.
Today much malware is now distributed in kit form to cyber fraudsters. They essentially hire the kit and even botnets to distribute the malware, which has largely contributed to the massive surge in ransomware. In practise this means that even a novice can produce a ransomware variant and get it out on the internet very quickly and certainly exploit antivirus that doesn’t have top detection rates, such as some free software.
Best defences against ransomware
Paid for antivirus is the best defence against this ransomware tide, especially if it has good behavioural based protection layered on top of signature-based detection. Behavioural based protection stops zero-day threats such as new ransomware just released.
A zero day threat is an exploit or bug for which there is no known immediate security fix because software or hardware manufacturers have just learnt of the vulnerability and have had zero days to address and patch the vulnerability. They are the most dangerous types of threats and much of the recent ransomware wave was classified as zero day threats. It’s like discovering a new species in the wild. It’s brand new and might not even have a name yet. And as many organisations and individuals will testify to, zero day can cause immense damage.
Paid for antivirus with layered behavioural and signature-based protection provides tough defences against both traditional signature and new zero day threats. This protection is wrapped up with protection against spyware and spam and also comes with a firewall. It can also be used across many devices and updates regularly and automatically so you don’t have to manage it.
Raft of further features
Paid-for security software such as BullGuard
also come with a raft of extra features such as parental controls and tools for maintenance, backup and recovery that can help you restore your computer in the event of a disaster. Performance tools also ensure your computer runs at top performance levels.
Importantly, paid for antivirus also comes with customer service and technical support that you can call on when you need it. This is an important point and something that free antivirus doesn’t provide. BullGuard, for instance, provides 24/7 free multi-lingual support for its antivirus protection as well as regularly introducing new features.
In summary, free antivirus can be useful if you’re prepared to accept a level of risk and also manage the application. When making a decision to use free or paid for antivirus it’s also helpful to keep in mind that antivirus is free for a reason. Put simply, free antivirus is usually offered as a hook to draw people into buying the much better and much more robust paid for version.
Try BullGuard products with powerful virus scan and removal feature now.