We are constantly being told that malware is a threat to our computers, laptops, smartphones, and tablets. Daily reports tell us that we have plenty to worry about. Under the umbrella of malicious software you’ll find all sorts of nasties sheltered away, including viruses, Trojans, adware, exploits, worms, monitoring tools, and spyware. Part of the problem is that the people talking up the threat are the very security companies trying to sell us their software.
The fact that there were 82,000 new malware strains per day in 2013, as reported by Panda Security, or that Sophos Labs found 650,000 Android malware instances isn’t all that meaningful for the average user. We’re mostly convinced of the need for security software on our computers and laptops at least. According to Microsoft’s latest Security Intelligence Report Volume 17, more than three-quarters of the world’s Internet-connected PCs have real-time security software. That percentage is much higher in the U.S. and Europe.
Paid vs free
We accept there’s a threat to our devices, and we need a solution. Most of us just want to know that we’re protected, but do we need to pay to stay safe? Is an expensive package or a monthly subscription the only way to be sure?
No, it’s not. Many free solutions are just as effective as premium products. Sometimes you’re paying for a raft of extra security-related features, but the basic free versions offer the safety you really need.
In some cases, the premium products do offer extra value, but it’s not an assumption that’s safe to make without checking first. You need to do some due diligence on your prospective security app before you decide which one to choose.
How to find the best free anti-malware
Your first port of call should be AV-Test. It’s an independent organization that tests security software for Windows, Mac, and mobile platforms. The testers at AV-Test bombard the apps with real-world threats and rank them based on how well they cope. You’ll get a high-level overview that shows you how each security app rates for protection, performance, and usability.
You’ll generally find that there are free security apps that caught 100 percent of the malware they tested. They may not score as highly in terms of performance or usability, but the protection column should always be given the most weight. Reject anything that doesn’t have a 100-percent record. You can use the performance and usability results in the report to filter your list down further.
Select a handful of potential security apps, then cross check the pricing to find the best free options.
Narrowing it down
Now it’s time to read some detailed reviews. Try to find reviews on reputable sites and watch out for sponsored reviews. A detailed review will give you a closer look at the product with some screenshots and it should raise any additional issues you might be concerned about that the AV-Test reports didn’t examine. The more sources you find that recommend your chosen product, the more confident you can be about using it.
It can also be a good idea to take a look at the support forum for your chosen product. You can get a quick overview of the problems that users may be having and see how the company deals with them.
Test it out yourself
You’ve probably honed it down to one or two products by now. It’s time to install one of them and test it. There’s no substitute for trying a piece of software out. Make sure you’ve got it configured correctly and run a full scan straight after installation. You should also consider setting up a regular scan schedule and allow the software to update itself frequently.
New malware threats are evolving all the time, so you must allow your anti-virus software to update its database of known threats frequently. If you don’t, then you’re not properly protected. A scheduled scan once a week makes sense and most apps will do this automatically. Strictly speaking, since they run in real-time and check all new files on your device as they are installed or downloaded, you shouldn’t need to run another full manual scan after the first one.
Our top picks right now
To save you the legwork, here are the free products we recommend for different platforms right now (January 2015). These products all scored highly in the most recent AV-Test results and they’re easy to use.
- 360 Security – complete real-time protection with anti-theft and privacy tools.
- AVL – lightweight and effective malware protection without superfluous extras.
- ESET – a well-designed security app offering free virus protection, also has a tablet-optimized interface.
- Sophos – simple, easy to use, and mercifully free of ads for the premium version.
- Avira Free Antivirus – great detection rates make this a good choice for real-time protection.
- Bitdefender Antivirus Free – a light touch, no ads, and effective, silent performance.
- Malwarebytes Anti-Malware – if you have a problem and want to remove malware, then this is great, unfortunately the real-time protection requires a subscription, so install another option after successful removal.
- Panda Free Antivirus – complete protection, simple interface, and a light system footprint.
Don’t rest on your laurels
We know you don’t really want to hear this, but the truth is that you need to reassess your chosen security software every few months, once a year at the very least. The steady stream of new malware means security is a constant battle. If you take a look at the AV-Test reports over the months and years you’ll see how much fluctuation there is at the top of the security software chart. Just because your app is good now, doesn’t mean it will continue to provide the best coverage in the future.
Related: Android app security basics
It’s worth remembering that your actual exposure to risk on any device, regardless of platform, is most influenced by how you use it. The vast majority of malware on Android can be dodged quite easily by only ever downloading and installing apps with high numbers of downloads and reviews from the Play Store.
Clicking on links in emails from untrusted or unknown sources, downloading files from dodgy websites, and overriding or ignoring security warnings on any device is apt cause you problems. Common sense goes a long way toward combating threats and it doesn’t cost money either. Combine it with a high-rated, free anti-virus app and you can relax and enjoy your devices without fear of malware.