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Cheap Antivirus Software Buying Guide

Unfortunately, the dangers don't stop at viruses and spyware. Other threats include hackers, rootkits (programs that creep their way deep into your operating system and can take control of your PC), keyloggers (programs that record your keystrokes, thereby snatching your passwords and other personal data), and phishing sites (phony websites that pose as legitimate sites in the hopes of tricking you out of your personal data).

In one collective pile, all these varied threats are called "malware." Sounds scary, huh?

When considering what kind of defensive action to take, the first thing to know is that even free virus-protection software will shield your PC against viruses and spyware, and some free antivirus programs also defend against other threats. Antivirus software that costs money usually offers more tools and protection than freeware. However, a good, free antivirus program paired with a firewall (designed to keep hackers and programs from breaking into your PC through your internet connection) will keep your system secure against most threats.

Still, some users prefer the extra safeguards that only purchased virus-protection programs can provide. Most antivirus-software producers offer several versions of their virus-protection products. The basic package is either very cheap or free, and typically includes simple antivirus/antispyware protection and perhaps a small handful of bonus features. Pricier packages, often labeled "Internet protection" or something similar, include more features, such as antiphishing, advanced web links scanners, perhaps even a firewall. Some companies offer even more comprehensive antivirus programs that include advanced protection against just about every type of threat imaginable, and may include extra PC utilities, such as a file shredder, hard drive cleanup, and backup.

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Having said all that, let's be clear about something: No virus-protection software or Internet security suite can provide 100% guaranteed protection against malware. But if you choose one of the best cheap antivirus software programs, you won't spend more than $25 and the chances of your PC being compromised will be very small indeed.

A few other things worth knowing: When you buy a new antivirus program, you're actually subscribing to a security service. The program provides protection for one year, after which you'll either have to re-subscribe or buy an updated version. Also, some antivirus software packages include a license that allows you to install the program on more than one PC. Make sure you choose a version that provides for the number of users/computers you need to protect.

Almost all antivirus software draws on a database of known viruses that detect malware trying to run on your PC. These databases are constantly updated and downloads of the latest "virus definitions" keep your PC safe. Some programs download these updates behind the scenes, whereas others let you update whenever you like; even free antivirus programs make available the latest updates. The better antivirus programs also use "heuristics" (or a similar technique) that identify malware by how it behaves on your PC instead of comparing it to a virus in the program's database. If the unknown malware tries to do something devious, the software automatically flags and shuts it down. This is a compelling functionality because new malware threats appear every day and there are no instant fixes.

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We looked at several factors to determine the best cheap antivirus software programs. For starters, any good product should include antivirus and antispyware capabilities. It should also offer some extra protection, against rootkits, keyloggers, and/or phishing sites, for instance. Good antivirus software should run scans quickly without sucking up a lot of computer resources, which can slow down system performance. The software should be easy enough for novices to use but still offer options for more experienced users. A top antivirus program should also be unobtrusive. In short, you don't want to think too much about your virus-protection software -- you simply want to launch it and let it do its thing without getting in your way.

There's no shortage of inexpensive antivirus software programs to choose from. Familiar names include McAfee, Norton, AVG, Kaspersky, Ad-Aware, Bitdefender, Trend Micro, Panda, ESET, Webroot -- and the list goes on. Some antivirus programs, such as AVG, offer a free version, whereas others, such as Norton, do not. We don't have room to discuss them all here, so we made our picks for best cheap antivirus software from among the best-known and best-performing programs. We also identified a couple of virus-protection programs that don't live up to expectations.

Ad-Aware Free outperforms the free competition and even rivals some paid programs in terms of features and performance. Norton Antivirus (starting at $17) proves to be a stout anti-malware program and impresses experts and users alike with its excellent PC fortifications. As runners-up we chose Kaspersky Anti-Virus (starting at $18), which protects PCs effectively but takes some heat from experts who complain that it bogs down their system more than other antivirus products, and McAfee AntiVirus Plus (starting at $9 for up to three users), which is a good guard against malicious viruses on a clean PC but strains to fully clean an already infected PC. We've got caution signs around two cheap virus-protection programs: Bitdefender Antivirus Pro (starting at $20 for up to three users), which struggles to provide adequate protection and can be a hassle to load, and Trend Micro Titanium Antivirus (starting at $11.50 for up to three users), which differs from most virus-protection programs by focusing almost entirely on threats that are currently "in the wild" rather than on a library of virus definitions, an approach that some experts doubt as sufficient.

And finally: You might think that if one virus-protection program is good, two would be better and three would prove impregnable because each can cover what the others miss. Sounds good in theory, but in practice antivirus programs usually don't play well together when running on the same PC. They may identify each other as malware and try to disable each other, and you'll almost certainly run into conflicts and performance problems. Such is not the case with separate antivirus and antispyware programs, which can be safely run at the same time, although these days they're wrapped into one program.

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