Best Cheap Antivirus Software
- Published on
- By Michael Sweet
Viruses threaten to make your computer crash or slow to a crawl, send error messages and pop-up windows, and change home pages without permission, but you can inoculate your PC against such attacks with free or cheap antivirus software. Good antivirus software also lets you remove or quarantine infections and defends against little programs that can sneak into your PC and telegraph information about you -- your web-surfing habits, for example -- to someone else.
Best Cheap Antivirus Software
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.
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.
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.
Virus and Spyware Protection
Antivirus software has one basic function: virus protection. It absolutely, without fail, must protect your system against all malicious software that can sneak its way into your PC at any moment. Fortunately, there are plenty of good, free programs that will keep your PC healthy if all you want is a shield against viruses, as well as spyware. But protecting your PC doesn't end with antivirus/antispyware capabilities. If you want a broader spectrum of protection, you'll have to pay up or choose the right free virus-protection program. For a relatively small annual outlay, though, you'll find antivirus software programs that offer valuable extra features, such as a firewall and website analysis.
Virus Protection.All of our top picks can find malware with a high rate of success (although some outperform others). New viruses appear regularly, and most antivirus programs are set for automatic updates that may occur as often as several times a day. Some antivirus programs let you update manually; if so, make sure you do this at least weekly. Downloads of the latest virus definitions form a kind of library on your PC that's used to identify an attacking virus. Once flagged, it's put into quarantine so you can determine how best to deal with it (follow the prompts). Trend Micro Titanium Antivirus (starting at $11.50 for up to three users), on the other hand, forgoes the virus library in favor of cloud technology, which is essentially a network of PCs that can share services and information through the Internet. The company's online security network continuously seeks out the latest malware menaces. When a new one is discovered, that information is added to the cloud, an approach Trend Micro says can stop malware threats before they can even get to your PC but one that hasn't won over expert reviewers, who aren't yet convinced it provides sufficient virus protection.
No matter how good the PC security experts may be in spotting and defining a new virus, it's possible (unlikely, but possible) that an unidentified virus will try to attack your PC. Some virus-protection programs can still detect such an intrusion even if they don't have a definition for it by using a problem-solving capability called "heuristics," which examines the behavior of all programs running on your system. If your PC starts to run a new program that displays suspicious, virus-like behavior, the antivirus software tags it as a potential problem and sounds the alarm. Heuristics is a pretty common feature, even in cheap virus-protection programs, including McAfee AntiVirus Plus 2011 (starting at $9 for up to three users), Kaspersky Anti-Virus 2011 (starting at $18), Norton Antivirus 2011 (starting at $17), and Bitdefender Antivirus Pro 2011 (starting at $20 for up to three users). This capability is less common in free virus-protection programs, although Ad-Aware Free is an exception -- like the paid programs, it, too, can sniff out new, unidentified viruses. Most virus-protection programs also include a scheduler so you can set up antivirus scans of your hard drive whenever convenient. A thorough scan can take a while so it's a good idea to schedule it for a time when you won't be using your PC, such as late at night. If the scan turns up a problem, you'll get a message with prompts for dealing with it.
Spyware Protection.Like antivirus software, antispyware software protects your PC against various types of malware. But it specializes in a different kind of threat: software programs and websites that try to surreptitiously install bits of software on your PC to keep tabs on your activities. Commonly referred to as "cookies," these are small files that websites install on your PC so they can recognize your system when you go to those sites. Some cookies are harmless -- they simply remember your settings or login information for sites you frequently visit, such as Yahoo or Google. Sometimes, though, a site adds information to your PC that tracks where you go online (i.e., it spies on you), or inserts a program that runs advertisements on your PC (i.e., adware). Some spyware may attempt to collect personal information about you or cause other mischief, such as resetting your home page to another website.
Antispyware software can detect this type of malware in much the same way that antivirus software detects viruses. When you run an antispyware scan on your PC, the software flags any programs or cookies that look suspicious. It used to be that virus protection and spyware protection required separate programs, but nowadays, even free and cheap antivirus programs include spyware protection.
Firewalls, Antiphishing, and Other Malware Protection
Our research found that free antivirus programs offer the same basic malware protection as the paid versions sold by the same company, but the latter include extra features that throw up more barriers against a wider assortment of threats, such as phishing websites. All the cheap antivirus programs we researched include at least some extra protections. Even Ad-Aware Free casts a wide defensive net, which snares malware such as rootkits and keyloggers.
Firewall.Having a firewall in place to protect against hackers and other attacks launched through the Internet is critical. McAfee Antivirus Plus is the one program we researched that includes a firewall as part of the package. Users must supplement the other software with a separate firewall for complete malware protection.
Antiphishing Capabilities.Another major security concern involves phishing websites. These bogus websites are designed to look just like a legitimate site, such as the site for your bank or credit card company. The phishing site tries to trick you out of your personal information, like passwords or sensitive financial details, by getting you to use the phony site. The 2011 versions of cheap antivirus programs from McAfee, Kaspersky, and Bitdefender include antiphishing capabilities.
Email Protection.Email is yet another source of PC vulnerability. All kinds of bad stuff can arrive in your inbox, including emails with tainted documents, virus-infested videos, emails with links to phishing sites, and who knows what else. Virus-protection programs, whether free or cheap, often feature at least some security measures to detect threats in your email before you open a message. The 2011 versions of Norton, Trend Micro Titanium, and Kaspersky are virus scanners that provide email protection.
IM Protection.A handful of malware-protection programs can scan your IM/chat messages to make sure you don't receive a virus or bad links via your instant messaging software. This is not a common feature in antivirus software, and if you don't use an instant messaging program, it's one you can overlook. Regardless whether your virus-protection software scans your instant messages or not, always regard any files, downloads, or web links in an instant message with a great deal of suspicion, especially if an IM comes from someone you don't know. Norton Antivirus, AVG Anti-Virus (starting at $20 for up to three licenses), and Panda Antivirus Pro (starting at $40) can protect your PC while you chat or use IM programs.
Keylogger Protection.Keyloggers are another potential threat to PC security. A keylogger records the keystrokes you make on the keyboard and sends that information to the person who planted the keylogger. Keyloggers can snag sensitive information, such as passwords, bank login information, and other data, even as you type it. They aren't as common as other types of malware, and many virus-scanning programs don't guard against such attacks even though they're a legitimate security concern. Two of the malware-protection programs on our list, however, do; Ad-Aware Free is one. Kaspersky Lab Anti-Virus is the other; it features a "virtual keyboard" that appears onscreen (click on the appropriate letters and symbols with your mouse) and prevents keyloggers from snagging your keyboard keystrokes -- and you.
Rootkit Detection.Are we out of the woods yet? Not quite. A few security threats remain that you may decide to defend against. One of the most potentially dangerous is a rootkit. This is a program lurking in your PC that can give an intruder complete access to your system, letting the attacker steal passwords or personal data, or simply take control of your PC. Rootkits can be very hard to detect and remove, but some internet protection programs include software that can sniff them out. Ad-Aware Free, Norton Antivirus, and Kaspersky Lab Anti-Virus include rootkit detection.
Antivirus Software Reviews
In antivirus software reviews, one criterion towers above all others: The software must protect the user's system with a very high degree of success. A program that doesn't meet that standard isn't worth buying or downloading, even if it's free. Experts and consumers have other expectations, as well. The software must be fast and shouldn't noticeably slow down the user's computer. It should also be very user-friendly and practically run itself.
General Performance.Most people choose virus-protection software based on how well it shields their PC, not on how slick it is or how many non-virus-related bonus features it includes (such as file shredding). Based on this benchmark, antivirus software reviews assert that Norton Antivirus is one of the best antivirus programs. PC World rates it No. 1 for its excellence at detecting malware and viruses. Norton also scored very high in lab tests by PC Magazine; it didn't beat the competition in every contest but logged the best scores overall. For the best free antivirus scanning, Ad-Aware Free is the program for you. PC Magazine grants it an Editors' Choice award and tests by experts at Softpedia found that Ad-Aware Free detected more than 90 percent of malware threats. Users posting antivirus software reviews on CNET also applaud Ad-Aware Free's efficacy, noting that it blocks threats and wipes out cookies.
The two programs we identified as good antivirus protectors also exhibit muscle. McAfee has long been one of the most popular security software makers, and its AntiVirus Plus draws praise in antivirus software reviews on Amazon for basic functionalities that keep viruses and malware at bay and for signaling unsafe websites. An antivirus software review by PC Magazine hedges a bit, noting that McAfee's protective prowess in lab testing was about average -- it missed some malware threats and didn't clean up existing malware as thoroughly as it should have -- but the reviewers like the extra features, including antiphishing capabilities and a firewall (users agree). Regarding Kaspersky Lab Anti-Virus, an expert antivirus software review on PC World extols its ability to sniff out malware, particularly when blocking live attacks, as well as its cleanup efforts. On the other hand, the review site Antivirus Ware points out that updates to the virus definition database occur less frequently than is the rule with other well-regarded antivirus shields.
Some antivirus programs just don't seem to provide adequate protection. Bitdefender Antivirus Pro does a fine job defending against phishing attacks and detecting rootkits, according to PC Magazine's review, although it can't seem to completely remove them or stand tall against other malware, either in terms of blocking attacks or removing infestations. Users offer up harsher assessments, with one reporting on PC Magazine that viruses have multiplied on his computer and others commenting in reviews on Amazon that the program sent messages indicating the computer was vulnerable and removed a backup program that it misidentified as a virus. A few reviews on Amazon, however, champion Bitdefender for its reliability. Trend Micro Titanium Antivirus also attracts strong criticism from expert and user reviewers. Antivirus Ware, for example, says this latest version of the software is disappointing, partly because it's so bare-boned and automated but largely because it's not very effective. The site's review further notes that independent testing labs found that Trend Micro Titanium didn't adequately detect viruses or malware, an assessment likewise stated by PC Magazine, which adds that it's particularly weak in the face of older threats and already-present infections.
Antivirus Software Speed.
Most programs on our list earn a passing grade in antivirus software reviews for relatively speedy performance. But they accumulate demerits here and there for slow scanning and hindering overall system performance. Several antivirus software reviews on Buy.com, for example, say McAfee AntiVirus Plus takes its time scanning, and one user comments on Amazon that deep scans impact the computer's speed. Some user posts on CNET say scans can be slow with Ad-Aware Free, especially on large hard drives, as well as resource-intensive. Trend Micro Titanium Antivirus takes a few hits in antivirus program reviews on CNET and Amazon for slowing the browser. PC World reports that Norton Antivirus's scans are slower than competing products but users posting comments about the top antivirus programs on Antivirus Ware and Newegg argue otherwise, saying it doesn't drag down a PC's performance and can fix problems without having to reboot. Among the top antivirus programs we looked at, Kaspersky Lab Anti-Virus takes the most heat for slow scans and sluggish PC performance in antivirus software reviews on sites such as PC World and Amazon. On CNET, users of Bitdefender Antivirus Pro groan about irritating pop-ups, system crashes, and browser freeze-ups. In a review of a competing product on Amazon, one user writes that the computer froze up while Bitdefender went about its virus-scanning business.