Which Free AntiVirus Software is Best?

Category: Anti-Virus

I'm convinced that paying for anti-virus is a waste, so I've decided to dump Norton and go with a free program. I can't decide whether to go with Avast or AVG, since I have friends that swear by both of them. Is there any hard data on which is better at protecting against viruses?

Comparing AVG, Avast, and Avira

I agree that for most users, one of the free anti-virus programs will perform just as well as Norton, McAfee or other commercial software. But which free anti-virus should you choose?

Avast! Free Antivirus and AVG Free are two of the most popular free antivirus programs of all time. Over a million copies of each are downloaded in a typical week. Another very worthy contender that you didn't mention is Avira.

So let's compare all three, and see which program gives the better overall protection against various forms of malware.
Free AntiVirus Software

AV-Comparatives.org is an independent antivirus testing service that answers exactly this type of question. Its February, 2011, report says that Avast! detected more than 98 percent of all sample malware thrown at it, Avira found 97.5 percent, while AVG detected only 91.4 percent. The difference held steady between subcategories, with Avast! and Avira outperforming AVG on backdoors/bots (98.5, 99.0, and 92.6 percent respectively), and Trojans (98.4, 97.7, 91.4 percent). AVG and Avira showed larger weaknesses in the malware/virus category, which scored the two at 80.7 and 87.7 percent, compared to Avast's score of 96.7 percent.

False positives - legitimate programs that are erroneously tagged as malware - is a third important criterion for effectiveness. False positives are more than just alarming. They can prevent a necessary program from functioning properly. All anti-malware programs produce false positives occasionally but the fewer, the better. In AV-Compartives' test on a standard set of applications, 19 false positives were reported Avast! and 15 by AVG. Avira reported just 9 false positives.

Other Factors to Consider

Impact on system performance is important when running an antimalware program constantly (as you should). AV-Comparatives tested this impact on a number of computer functions such as file copying, archiving/unarchiving, encoding/transcoding, installing/uninstalling applications, launching applications, and downloading files. Avast, AVG and Avira were all rated "very fast" in most cases, meaning they had less than a 10 percent impact on overall system performance. AVG slowed the installation/uninstallation of programs slightly more than Avast and Avira did, but was still rated as "fast". When downloading files from the Internet, Avast and AVG scored "very fast" and Avira slipped to "fast".

None of the popular free anti-virus programs, Avast, AVG, and Avira, are perfect, as you can see from the test results above. But all three programs do some parts of their jobs better than other anti-malware programs tested. It's worthwhile to take a look at the reports on AV-Comparatives.org to see how other programs such as BitDefender, ESET, F-Secure, Kaspersky, McAfee, Microsoft and Symantec/Norton stack up in the various testing categories.

It's tempting to jump to the end of the "On-Demand Detection" report and make a decision based on the award levels shown there. But if you poke around further, you'll see that each report (detection, false alarm, performance and removal) has its own award levels, and the players tend to bounce around from one round of testing to another, just months apart. My reading of the data says that both Avast and Avira are rock solid "A+" performers over the long haul, but I'd give AVG an "A" or "A-" grade.

I've used all three on various computers in my home, and it's significant that none of my machines has ever been compromised. Especially when you consider that I scour the Internet for a living, and have kids in the house. Which one is right for you also depends on the types of malware you encounter, the type of websites you visit, and personal preferences as to user interface.

What's your opinion on the effectiveness of the free anti-virus programs? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Which Free AntiVirus Software is Best?"

(See all 31 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

23 May 2011

How come Microsoft security essentals is not mentioned. I dumped avira for that Program. Does Norton protect me better again Antivirus 20XX (fake antivirus). I still get hit by it, even after getting rid of Avira and installing MSE.

Posted by:

24 May 2011

In the beginning of Anti-Virus Programs, the biggest problem was not updating the virus data base, on your PC. Back in the late 90's, AVG was one of the first to have Automatic Updates, when the data became available to AVG. I was a user of AVG for years, just for that feature alone. Was my PC attacked? Yes, but AVG caught them.

As the years ensued, AVG became a huge 'bloated' program and I began to search for another program. I tried Avira and Avast! both, decided on Avast! because it was user friendly and didn't take up a lot of my PC resources. Another reason I choose Avast! was that it was one of the first Free programs that took care of Root-kits. I had read about them and knew that they were a real problem in the Anti-Virus prevention world.

For me, Avast! works, updates throughout the day, monitors for Root-kits, scans all of my downloads and simply works. I can't tell you the last time, I have had a Virus or Trojan Horse or Worm, on my PC. Do I still get notices? Yes, but rarely. Is the threat still out there? Of course, but the FREE Anti-Virus Programs are doing a 'jam up job' of it and helps even the newbies from getting their PC messed up.

Bottom line, the FREE Anti-Virus Programs work and save you lots of money, that can be spend on other things.

Posted by:

24 May 2011

The best antivirus out there is "your common sense" .Learn to detect fakes and avoid sites that are of the "less desirable" to navigate too.

Install a few good browser add-ons that will help identify bad sites (Web of Trust comes to mind as does AdBlockPlus).

I've used all of the above mentioned A/Vs, (BTW, they are not anti-malware but, truly antivirus thus, you will have to run , in real time, a antimalware program to supplement)and by far Avira is the lightest and best at dislodging viruses if you are unlucky.

If you really want to pay for a A/V then, Eset Nod32 is the one to pay for.

Posted by:

24 May 2011

Someone told me that one of the differences between free and pay anti-virus programs is that paid programs have much faster updates and virus identifications. for example that the free programs get their info from the "big boys". Otherwise how do the free program companies pay for their research? I don't know if it is true but it makes some sense. personally I don't mind paying $30 per year to protect my 3 computers. (Norton Internet Security 2011 now online sales).

Posted by:

24 May 2011

After trying various AVs over the years with varying success, I moved to paid Avast which updates daily. When Avast was telling me I was virus-free, my comp was locked solid by System Tool. I eventually shifted it with Stopzilla (paid). So it`s still a case of being alert and trying what works for you.

Posted by:

24 May 2011

Well for my 2 cents worth, i have found that for me, (windows 7 64bit, Ie8 and Ie9 and Avant browser) the best combo is Microsoft security essentials (MSE) and avira TOGETHER work just fine. Nothing has gotten tru both of them in about 7 months, sometimes one catches something, sometimes the other one, and sometimes both. Oh I take them off once a week and install another 3 different ones to run full system scans with all system and hidden files showing so i can make sure i am clean. (I have sensitive info) and so far so good. Have a nice day.

Posted by:

24 May 2011

I have used most of the free and pro versions.

For me Avast free has been as good as any of them and takes less computer resources than most as well.
I uninstall everything with revo uninstaller,and have never had a single problem uninstalling it.
I like Avira as well. AVG not so much.
Kapersky and Eset were the best pro versions for me.

Posted by:

24 May 2011

WOT is helpful but you can pay to get a listed green. As for Free AV's. I'm trying MSE on XP. A year ago I got a ton of false positives from Avast and started to delete some dll files before I realized I was just panicking.
All that Bob recommends are fine just user preference for most. Common sense does rule.

Posted by:

Bob Greene
24 May 2011

An enthusiastic Avast! (free) user for years (since version 4.x), I recently decided to give other players a second look.

My reason? Although Avast! detection and removal scores are excellent, and Avast! even answers email from its users, my broadband speed dropped considerably when all Avast! 5.x shields were up-- sometimes as much as two or even three Mbps.

For somebody running broadband at a best effort max of 12 Mbps, that is a crisis. When many browser tabs are loaded-- and who doesn't keep many open?-- video begins to stutter, and system response suffers.

So, I went back to the basics and "rebuilt" my system, using Windows firewall as a baseline for average bandwidth readings. I first reinstalled Avast!, believing that Avast! code updates may not have occurred properly, but found no performance change.

Next, I loaded Comodo Internet Services (CIS), whose free version is equally comprehensive-- firewall, AV and rootkit scanner. Yet, Comodo's firewall was difficult to manage and I suffered a slight slowdown from Comodo on my test runs when all of its shields were loaded.

While I expected some overhead, I found both Avast! free and Comodo CIS free versions simply too heavy for my rather slow 2005 system. Here, it should be noted performance depends on CPU, RAM and other factors, and will vary-- those with newer systems may find Avast! free and Comodo CIS free impose no significant load at all.

But with my 2005 system running unacceptably under both Avast! and Comodo Internet Services, I decided to return to an ultra-stripped-down old favorite, Tiny Personal Firewall 2.0, whose speeds matched those under Windows firewall. Next, I added SuperAntiSpyware (free), which does not feature a real-time shield (its paid "Pro" version does), and my speeds were still near 11.x Mbps-- very acceptable.

Since I understand the importance of real-time protection, but also its burden on performance as well, I have reserved judgment of SAS until a test of SuperAntiSpyware Pro is complete. (My problem at the moment is once I uninstalled the free SAS version, I cannot install the SAS Pro trial-- the SAS Pro installer indicates my "trial has expired".)

(To be continued after SAS Pro test results are in.)

Posted by:

Digital Artist
24 May 2011

I hesitate to say how far back my love affair with AVGFree goes, because I will probably give a date that pre-dates the program. A long time, anyway. I love the way it works in the background, without any attention from me. Every once in a while a pop-up says "Your computer may be at risk!" pointing to outdated anti-virus software. But AVGFree is always up-to-date when I check it. (Which is seldom) Bottom line, no viruses on my computers. A to A- is good enough for me, better than I ever did at any level of school.

Posted by:

24 May 2011

@ Bob...I have an older system, an ECS NForce3-A Motherboard, made in 2005, with a Sempron 3300+ CPU (2.0GB) and 1GB of memory and use Avast!. I also, have DSL Broadband at 6 Mbps. I have never found that my broadband speed was affected by any of my FREE Anti-Virus programs., that I have used

My broadband speeds are usually affected by the 'traffic of the trunks and/or pathways' of the Internet or the availability of the bandwith at any given web site, itself. Plus, since I use a DSL router, I use their Firewall and it works better than any software Firewall program. Why? Because, it is a hardware program, meaning that it is part of the router, itself.

I also, use an extremely strong encryption as my password, since I was 'invaded' by one of my neighbors, who was 'stealing' my bandwith. That can easily happen with a Wireless Router.

I have never paid for any Anti-Virus Programs and have always been pleased with the FREE programs available. Plus, I 'clean' my PC with CCleaner, Malwarebytes, Glary Utilities and Disk SpeedUp, to keep it as 'clean' as possible, along with weekly Anti-Virus scans. For me, doing all of the 'cleaning' is simply part of routine PC maintenance, much like oil changes, checking the tires, brakes and etc., on your car.

Posted by:

24 May 2011

Microsoft Security Essentials seems to work just fine for me. It does sometimes slowdown my system a lot, but it seems to catch anything I bring in from other computers.

Posted by:

25 May 2011

I used to run AVG free, until an update completely locked my system.
I thought the hard drive had died, but when I installed a new hard drive, and restored a backup, all worked well, until AVG was updated. All died again. Eventually I re-installed operating system and switched to Avast. I have had no problems since.
I have actually seen this exact problem on another system.

Posted by:

Bob Greene
25 May 2011

UPdate on Bob Greene post of 24 May-- SUPERAntiSpyware evaluation--

1. The full Bob Rankin article above is about FREE anti-malware, so the following information is included to show my anecdotal, single-user experience with FREE vs. CHEAP anti-malware. CHEAP software entered the picture when certain FREE packages did not meet my requirements, and this limitation may be of interest to readers.

2. The FREE anti-malware tested was Avast!5.x-- (malware scanner only, just before release of Avast! 6)--
http://www.avast.com/free-antivirus-download (Avast 5.x is no longer distributed)

and FREE Comodo CIS (a full range of protection, from firewall to real-time malware scanner)--

3. My main concern was not product quality or features, but the burden of several real-time anti-malware shields on broadband performance.

After trying both Avast!5.x and Comodo CIS in free versions, I found the two products reduced bandwidth to a critical degree-- my streaming video (nominally 12Mbps max) began to stutter. This effect, I should add in all fairness, occurred when I had multiple browser tabs open, but only one tab ran video.

4. As a final test of FREE anti-malware products, I tested SuperAntiSpyware (SAS) 4.5, which does not provide real-time shields-- http://www.superantispyware.com/index.html

SAS FREE performed well, reaching 11.x of a 12.0 Mbps nominal max bandwidth. Yet, I realized that to compare a product having no real-time shields with two products issued with shields is not an accurate test of performance, so I installed (paid for) a license to SuperAntiSpyware Pro 4.52.1000, which does provide real-time shields.

To my surprise, I found SAS Pro real-time shields did not burden bandwidth like those on Avast!5.x and CIS. In fact, there was no discernible reduction in bandwidth under a normal browser with multiple tabs open.

Posted by:

26 May 2011

After reading your last article about free anti-virus software I downloaded the free version of AVG. My computer immediately slowed down drastically.

Posted by:

26 May 2011

A combination of MSE and Malwarebytes and keep them updated every day. I have learned that if I keep a clean system and scan with both at least once a week I don't have any system slow downs or problems.
Also, I try to stay away from IE and ActiveX and run Firefox and Thunderbird email. I only have email program on ONE of my computers. That way I can limit my risk.

Posted by:

28 May 2011

just had the most horrendous trojan horse , scammers after my card details and pc unusable for days. I finally got rid of all problems with STOPZILLA, another free prog. Excellent, worked where all others failed.

Posted by:

22 Dec 2011

Your opinion of MS Security Essentials. So far I am satisfied with this product, but I don't make my living with a computer either.Former One Care subscriber, this was offered when MS discontinued One Care.

Posted by:

06 Mar 2012

I have tried to use your free anti virus program and pc cleaners and found after loading them so called free program it will not allow me to use it until you pay for the prgram. Why is these program called free when you need to pay for them before you can use them.

Posted by:

12 Nov 2012

I have tried to use your free anti virus program and pc cleaners and found after loading them so called free program it will not allow me to use it until you pay for the prgram. Why is these program called free when you need to pay for them before you can use them?

EDITOR'S NOTE: You've made a wrong turn somewhere if that's what you see. Which program did you download? All the ones I listed are 100% free, no strings attached.

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