By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Using Windows has traditionally required paying a tax of sorts. Not to Microsoft but to the vendor of the antivirus program you install to protect your PC.
This tax has come not just in the form of purchase prices and annual subscription fees but also in the time needed to maintain increasingly complicated security tools.
But you don't have to pay all those bills: A few antivirus programs are free for home, non-commercial use. And thanks to their relative simplicity, they also demand less care and feeding than the security suites sold by McAfee, Symantec and others.
Consider this option an economic stimulus package you can implement by uninstalling one program and loading another -- subject to some issues. With few exceptions, these programs screen only for viruses, not other threats (although both Windows XP and Vista already include firewall software, the most important line of defense). Two of the three leading contenders run only on Windows 2000, XP and Vista. They also provide minimal or no tech support.
You may, however, have trouble distinguishing among the three. Even their names sound alike.
Avast Antivirus Home Edition, AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition and Avira AntiVir Personal operate in about the same way, scanning files either as they arrive or when you try to do anything with them and downloading updates automatically every day. Most of their functional differences surface at the margins.
Of the three, Alwil Software's Avast (http://avast.com) is the sole option for people still using pre-2000 versions of Windows; it supports everything from Windows 95 on. Unfortunately, large parts of its interface look like they haven't had an update since Windows 95. Its primary screen appears to have been modeled after a car stereo, and it has the odd habit of informing you of everyday events with spoken-word recordings. ("Virus database has been updated.")
You'll hear the same recorded voice, plus a siren, whenever Avast finds a virus -- such as when I downloaded a few test viruses off the Web. But it ignored a flash drive with a folder full of viruses until I opened that folder, so this program may not stop you from unintentionally passing along viruses on those cheap devices.
Avast's bigger issue, however, may be its requirement that you register with the Czech company through e-mail, then renew that registration once a year. That's just enough of a chore that distracted users may let their updates lapse.
AVG Technologies' free edition (http://free.avg.com) requires no extra registration work, but it may tax your tolerance of pushy salesmanship. The Dutch company's regular home page makes no mention of the free version's existence, and downloading it from http://free.avg.com requires clicking past two screens urging you to opt for AVG's paid version.
This program's installer, in turn, prompts you to change your browser's search engine to Yahoo and install a browser toolbar. This Firefox and Internet Explorer add-on helps you adjust a "LinkScanner" that warns you of dangerous sites in search results but also promotes the paid release.
AVG users should also read the company's pop-up notifications of major new releases carefully. Twice in recent years, readers have complained that these upgrade-now alerts either ignored or barely mentioned the free version in favor of advertising the paid edition.
AVG worked and looked better than Avast, with two exceptions. It needed almost an hour longer than Avast to complete a full scan of a Windows Vista system, then incorrectly labeled "tracking cookies" -- tiny text files left on the computer by some online ads -- as a security issue. (They're a privacy issue, and a minor one at most.) Like Avast, AVG ignored a flash drive loaded with viruses until I navigated to the right folder.
Unlike Avast and Avira, AVG won't check for "rootkits" -- malicious code buried deeper in Windows than normal viruses.
Avira's AntiVir Personal (http://free-av.com) exhibits some of the same obnoxious "upselling" habits as AVG's software. Its installation features a full-screen window pushing the German firm's paid software, and every time it updates itself, it treats you to yet another pop-up urging you to pay up. (Run a Web search for "Avira pop-ups" for help disabling that nag.)
But aside from that, Avira seemed to do its job quietly and effectively. It was even faster at scanning the Vista system than Avast, taking just 44 minutes to inspect its contents. It jumped all over the virus-infected flash drive a moment after I'd plugged it in, offering to quarantine the offending files. And it was free of goofy spoken-word prompts or gimmicky interfaces.
All of these programs could be improved -- and they'll have to later this year, when Microsoft plans to introduce its own free antivirus program. This influx of free antivirus choices may make life even less pleasant for developers of "payware" security tools. But for people looking to trim their computing costs in any way possible, it can't happen fast enough.