In the modern world, your digital devices may as well be called mental prostheses. They help you to remember better, observe more of the world, communicate more easily…really, they’re literally nothing less than an extension of your central nervous system.
This is unbelievably convenient, a fact you’ll recognize if you’re on the older side. Can you recall the time when you had to know over a dozen phone numbers by heart or spend two hours at the library looking up information instead of just consulting Wikipedia?
This dependence also makes us vulnerable in new ways. Ransomware, identity theft, and random hacking are unfortunately all too real. Ignoring these threats and not at least installing free antivirus software makes it almost inevitable that you’ll be affected sooner or later, and the consequences can be huge.
If you’re already looking into free computer protection, you’re already on the right track. Let’s talk a little more about this subject, both overall and in terms of the best free virus protection packages out there today. If you already have a good grasp on the modern digital security scene, you can simply skip ahead to the reviews to see which companies are offering the best free antivirus packages in 2021.
Table of Contents
- 1 Do Software Companies Make Money from Free Computer Protection?
- 2 What Kinds of Threats Can Free Antivirus Software Detect?
- 3 Getting the Best Free Antivirus for PC is Essential, But What About Mac and Linux?
- 4 The Best Free Antivirus Software of 2021
- 5 Windows Defender
- 6 Kaspersky Security Cloud Free
- 7 AVG Antivirus Free
- 8 Avast Free Antivirus
- 9 Avira Free Antivirus
- 10 Panda Free Antivirus
- 11 Sophos Home Free Antivirus
- 12 BitDefender Free
- 13 Beyond the Best Free Virus Protection: Other Steps to Secure Your Computer
- 14 Be Careful About What You Post on Social Media
- 15 Update Your Router’s Firmware
- 16 Choose Strong Passwords
Do Software Companies Make Money from Free Computer Protection?
The answer is yes – it would be suspicious otherwise – but only indirectly. Some free antivirus software is supported by donations or ads but, for the most part, “free” really does mean free in this case.
What it comes down to is marketing, upselling, and the “freemium” business model. The thing about software is that it has a very low marginal cost: making and selling one extra copy costs the manufacturer essentially nothing. As their customers would like to know what they’re getting when paying as much as $100 a year, it makes sense to let them try out a stripped-down version before they order a premium package. At the same time, the company offering computer protection for free prevents a sale by its competitors.
The fact that even the best free antivirus doesn’t offer all the features of a premium version shouldn’t matter too much to the average home user. If you’re running a business that stores confidential customer information, however, you may want to spring for the additional security. In any case, many of the best free security software companies don’t allow you to use their unpaid editions for business purposes, even if this only means working from home.
What Kinds of Threats Can Free Antivirus Software Detect?
There is a whole plethora of types when it comes to malware: viruses, trojans, botnets, spyware, rootkits, worms, adware, keyloggers, ransomware… What all these words mean is actually of interest only to geeks: all of them are bad and you don’t want any of them on your hard drive. In terms of effect, some can completely ruin your day while others will only make your device run a little more slowly. Luckily, they’re mostly not that different when it comes to the way they infect your computer and the best free virus protection will defend you against all of them.
There are a couple of exceptions, though. If you click on an unknown link or deliberately download software from questionable sources (including through torrenting, you sneaky little criminal), you may end up bypassing their protection. The best free antivirus programs will, however, warn you when you’re about to visit a website known to be used for launching these types of attacks. Although modern antivirus programs do make an attempt to pick up threats like encrypted malware (which can lay dormant until activated) and polymorphic (self-mutating) viruses, there’s a chance that these will slip past. Any new malware which hasn’t yet been identified and included in a virus database, called a zero-day attack, may also not be detected based only on their behavior; this can sometimes give them as long as several days to spread. It’s important to remember that this problem isn’t unique to antivirus software free to download, but reflective of a deeper computer security issue.
There’s also little even the best antivirus for PC can do against phishing attacks, namely someone trying to convince you to supply them with sensitive information of your own free will. Most antivirus software will however try to warn you when a website is known to engage in this kind of behavior. Most of these attempts are obviously suspicious – contact the organization supposedly asking for information if in doubt. Spearphishing, however, makes it seem like a message from someone who knows you, so be careful with things like Social Security and passport numbers.
Most free antivirus software will also not search the Dark Web to see if illegal information brokers are selling your data. Finally, even the best free virus protection may not be able to defend against an old-fashioned, highly sophisticated hacking attempt, where a remote computer pretends to be an authorized user through a “port” on your computer (basically a number in an internet message that tells your operating system which software to give that message to). Antivirus will make accomplishing this much more difficult and less harmful, though. To avoid this kind of hack, the best policy is to install all the patches and updates your operating system and firewall needs
Getting the Best Free Antivirus for PC is Essential, But What About Mac and Linux?
One of the reasons Windows needs antivirus software is simply that it’s the most popular operating system: with millions of users, developing malware targeting Microsoft products is a better use of a hacker’s time. Unlike Linux, it’s also very uniform across the board, so a vulnerability found on one computer is likely to exist on many other machines. Apple, for its part, includes security measures in its operating systems from the ground up. At least in older versions of Windows, the same can’t be said for Microsoft: in long-ago Windows NT, the “trusted computing base” actually included everything from the kernel to freaking printer drivers.
In short, an internet-connected Windows PC without antivirus is a disaster waiting to happen. With Mac, you don’t really and truly need it. There’s still plenty of software free of charge for the platform, though, and it doesn’t use that many system resources (we will note which operating systems each of our best free antiviruses supports in the reviews below).
There are very few viruses that can affect Linux desktops; though servers are to some extent another matter. Unless you’re very concerned about security, you don’t really need to look for the best free virus protection, but as with MacOS, why not toss it into the mix? New computer security problems emerge all the time, so this kind of futureproofing may just give you a little extra peace of mind.
The Best Free Antivirus Software of 2021
So, are free computer protection programs really worth only what you pay for them? The consensus among IT professionals is a definite no. In many cases, you can now find free software that performs nearly as well as that you need to pay for, possibly only lacking a couple of features you’ll never use anyway.
Several of the best free virus protection programs absolutely tick all the important boxes. If any particular one sparks your interest, you may also want to check how they score on AV Comparatives and AV Test: two organizations that run detailed, professional and independent tests on a number of security apps and devices.
Best Free Security Software for Non-Techies – (Windows Only)
Microsoft’s own antivirus product, Defender, used to have a pretty bad reputation a while back. With the version included in Windows 10, however, this is very much a thing of the past.
Its detection ability is comparable to the best free antivirus for PC. Moreover, it’s compatible with a lot of other free antivirus software, even if you have to set it to passive mode.
It comes pre-installed on all devices running (legal) copies of Windows 10, so you don’t even have to install anything to have a decent level of protection right out of the box. It also basically configures and maintains itself without you having to do a thing, a major advantage for the less tech-savvy users who often prefer to use the Windows platform. Defender’s one major weakness is that it will only warn you about unsafe websites if you’re using the Microsoft Edge browser, though products like Chrome and Firefox include this feature themselves anyway.
Kaspersky Security Cloud Free
Best Bang for No Bucks – (Available for Windows, iOS and Android)
This Kaspersky product really is just a stripped-down version of their premium line (costing from $30 per year up to $54, for three devices). This means that you’ll have to do without a couple of advanced features, including parental controls over what your kids see on the internet, enhanced privacy tools, and – most importantly – a cloud-based scanner. The latter, if you have it, means that a lot of the processing work involved in running a virus scan takes place on a remote computer, freeing up your device for user tasks.
The nuts and bolts of the basic antivirus engine are pretty much exactly the same, though. This means that Security Cloud Free excels at blocking harmful websites as well as detecting and blocking all kinds of malware. The main negatives to choosing the best free antivirus protection Kaspersky has to offer is that there’s no tech support available unless you upgrade to a paid product, and you’re not allowed to use it for anything other than non-commercial purposes.
AVG Antivirus Free
Good Computer Protection for Older Devices – (Available for Windows, iOS, Mac and Android)
AVG is owned by Avast (covered just below), yet its free antivirus software continues to be marketed and to some extent developed separately. One of AVG’s definite strong points is that it’s very sparing with your computer’s resources: even if you don’t have much RAM or processing power to spare, it won’t slow your device down too much. Scanning your entire hard drive will take a good long while, though, so it’s best to schedule these for when you’re not using your computer.
Though not far behind the best free security software in terms of its main function, it doesn’t come with a lot of extra features, lacking stuff like a password manager, webcam protection, and performance monitor. It does, however, contain a file shredder to permanently erase files. Simply pressing “delete” doesn’t make the file unrecoverable to specialized software, so a shredder program comes in handy if you want to sell outdated electronics without exposing personal information. It remains a good choice for older, slower devices, but be prepared to see plenty of ads for other AVG products.
Avast Free Antivirus
Free Antivirus Software, Plus a Little Bit of Nearly Everything Else – (Available for Windows, iOS, Mac and Android)
Avast uses nearly the same malware detection algorithms as AVG, meaning that it doesn’t offer the absolute best free virus protection but does everything you really need it to. Its real charm lies in the extra functionality it offers.
With only one download, you’ll also score a decent-but-not-great password manager, a malicious URL detector as well as an online security browser extension (which only works with Chrome and Firefox), a network security monitor, and (optionally) a browser they claim is uniquely secure. In a way, it gives you a taste of what to expect from a more comprehensive computer protection suite.
Like Kaspersky Security Cloud Free and indeed most free computer protection software, you can install the unpaid version of Avast only on computers not used for business purposes. Avast Premium Security normally costs $69.99 per year for a single computer but is often discounted or available as a free trial.
Avira Free Antivirus
One of the Best Free Virus Protection Packages, But Involves a Slight Learning Curve – (Available for Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android)
You can find Avira in one of the top spots on nearly any list covering the best free security software. Aside from its consistently high detection ratio, it aims at being a total, all-in-one internet security solution.
To this end, it comes with an impressive array of bonus extras: a password manager, a limited VPN, a cookie cleaner, a file shredder, ad blocker, performance optimizer, and a bunch of other stuff. With everything in one place, each is easy to find. On the other hand, some features are displayed in the free version but actually only take you to an ad for the full package.
Even with all of Avira’s add-on utilities, Kaspersky Security Cloud Free is still a more comprehensive computer protection suite. However, as a bonus that will no doubt appeal greatly to Star Wars fans, Avira’s hard drive scanning engine is called “Luke Filewalker”.
Panda Free Antivirus
Friendly to Users But Still Reasonably Effective – (Available for Windows and Android)
Many young and older users really need free antivirus software that doesn’t require you to think too much about computer protection. Windows Defender is one good option in this case; Panda Free Antivirus is another. Without any doubt, Panda looks a lot cooler.
It includes a few really cool features other best free security software doesn’t, especially a cloud-based engine that minimizes the strain on your own computer and the ability to prevent malware from jumping from a USB memory stick to your computer. These virtues are unfortunately balanced by a relatively poor detection rate and a lack of protection against fraudulent or insecure websites. In short, if all you’re protecting is a fifth grader’s history essays, Panda should work fine. Computers used for more sensitive tasks and information will benefit from installing something else.
Sophos Home Free Antivirus
One of the Best Free Antivirus for Mac Users – (Available for Mac and Windows)
It’s always nice when free antivirus software, like Sophos, includes a trial for the full version. This allows you to run a thorough check on a new system or one that previously had another kind of computer protection installed and just maybe discover malware that was previously missed.
After the one-month trial period expires, unfortunately, you’ll be much less protected, with no dedicated ransomware detection, weaker defenses against brand-new viruses, and a greater risk of suspicious web addresses not being blocked. This is of course understandable with software free up to a point: they really want you to end up paying $60 per year for the full version. You’ll have to, anyway, if you plan to use Sophos on a work computer.
You may not actually need to, though: free Sophos excels at detecting all kinds of malware and preventing you from visiting dangerous websites. If enhanced network, ransomware and privacy protection are important to you, you may find it worth paying for it, but most home users only need the free version.
Not for Geeks, But a Great Choice for Vulnerable Systems – (Available for Windows, Mac, Android and iOS)
BitDefender actually has two free computer protection tools available for download: an antivirus app and what they call Scanner. The latter, in a corporate network, would be called a low-budget IDS (Intrusion Detection System): software that scans your network for weak points and suspicious activity. This can, for instance, prevent your security cameras or home automation gadgets from being taken over.
We’re talking mainly about BitDefender Antivirus Free Edition here, though: it is the most bare-bones software you’ll ever see that isn’t available only on websites like SourceForge. It’s interface is completely automatic and doesn’t really allow you to adjust anything of importance. You can’t even schedule your own scans in the free version! This seems downright mean compared to the optional shopping assistant/price checker that helps fund the free versions of Panda and Avast.
If you can live with this drawback and the complete absence of any functionality beyond stopping malware, you’ll be happy to know that BitDefender Free is extremely good at its one job. In tests that pit the best free virus protection packages against simulated real-world threats, BitDefender and Kaspersky’s free offerings are often neck-and-neck and significantly ahead of the rest. If you demand the highest level of computer protection for free and want to tinker with your antivirus, choose Kaspersky. If you want to set it and forget it, BitDefender is your guy.
Beyond the Best Free Virus Protection: Other Steps to Secure Your Computer
Truth be told, the only way to really keep your data safe is to “air-gap” your devices: don’t allow them to connect to the internet or any other network at all. A version of this is sometimes done with, for example, corporate servers storing hundreds of thousands of credit card numbers – malware can’t do any harm if it can’t get in in the first place.
If you’re an ordinary computer user looking for antivirus software free of charge, this would probably be taking paranoia way too far. “They” really are after you, though, and believing that bad things won’t happen to you and your computer is the very easiest way to get caught. Be a little suspicious, therefore, and follow some commonsense guidelines that may save you a ton of hurt.
Be Careful About What You Post on Social Media
Online oversharing has become a pretty common phenomenon – many wannabe celebrities are trying to make a career out of it. Many of them become famous for all the wrong reasons, and this is usually all their fault.
The thing to remember is that a hacker doesn’t have to install malware on your computer to get access to your personal information if you post it online yourself, and even the best free security software won’t help you in this case. Some people have lost jobs or failed to get them due to complaints against their employers or clients, off-color jokes, or even taking a moderately controversial stance on some topic.
Information shared online can have further consequences in the real world. According to some sources, at least three-quarters of burglars trawl social media platforms to see when people will be away from home and what they have to steal. If you have a job that has the potential to get people upset – lawyer, politician, business executive, journalist, etc. – you may want to take special care to keep your online and real-world life separate. Harassment can easily move offline; do you really want someone who’s borderline unstable to know where your kids go to school? At the very least, you should learn how to use your social media platform’s privacy settings.
Update Your Router’s Firmware
Wireless local area networks are a great invention, but the routers that make them possible are notorious security risks. There are two main reasons for this: wi-fi hardware is a super-competitive market, so these products are often rushed into production as soon as they basically work, without much in the way of security testing. The other reason is that people don’t realize that they should (or even can) update the software embedded inside the router.
Many internet service providers won’t allow this, at least if they own the endpoint equipment. If you can, though, make sure to keep it up to date by installing the latest performance and security patches. On a related note, there really is no software free of bugs. Any apps running on your computer, phone and tablet should also receive frequent updates. The best free antivirus programs can automate this process for you, or at least alert you to apps that have become vulnerable.
Choose Strong Passwords
Passwords are no longer the only thing protecting access to your online accounts, but that hardly means that their importance has decreased. A short, uncomplicated password such as a single word or name is child’s play to crack using a dictionary or even brute-force attack. You should really opt for long passwords, especially those that include random numbers or symbols – or a string of unrelated words, as this cartoon illustrates.
The major reason many people refuse to do so is that complex passwords are difficult to remember, especially if you use a different password for each service and device. (Which you really should, it’s a lot better if a hacker gains access to one instead of the keys to the kingdom). There is a simple solution, though: simply download a password manager – many of the best free virus protection apps include one as standard. This creates passwords that are difficult to hack without you having to do a thing, stores them in an encrypted, inaccessible format, and allows you to get the whole list by entering one single password.
* * *
Crafting malware used to be the province of bored, antisocial techies. Today, however, this landscape is dominated by governments and well-funded criminal gangs. The former probably aren’t interested in you, so that’s a relief. At the same time, however, several organized crime syndicates and their freelance helpers will do anything they can to get their hands on your information. Anything from the contents of your email address book to your credit card number is potentially valuable to them.
In the end, this ends up being a numbers game. Institutions like banks face a much higher risk than you do but can also afford top-notch IT departments and infrastructure. Still, everyone who uses the internet regularly is almost certain to experience a number of attempts to install malware on their computers and mobile devices over the course of each year. Free antivirus software will block almost all of them, leaving you much more secure. As long as you’re reasonably careful – back up important information, don’t share your login details, keep your operating system updated, and so on – the risk of anything major going wrong is actually pretty low. You can get your software free in this case: paid computer protection may be just a waste of money.