Is free antivirus software worth it?

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Is free antivirus software worth it?

Kevin R. Smith

That may sound like a funny question, but it's one worth asking.

I'll avoid the cliche of, "you get what you pay for," because all too often in life that's just not true. Often you end up with something wonderful and inexpensive or something that's mediocre and expensive.

Instead I'll quote David Hall, Symantec's Asia-Pacific Customer Manager, who said in speaking to BLORGE (a self-described "team of experienced writers from around the world") recently about free antivirus software,

"'Imagine what it must be like for somebody who is not actually charging to be able to pay their security researchers to be able to keep up.

'We’ve made more virus definitions last year than we have in the last 10 years.'"

This is only half the battle as far as we're concerned.

We've discussed the topic of free antivirus software reviews on our site before, and now that Symantec's exec has also shined some light on the subject, I felt it was a good time to add some other considerations to the subject.

Another significant thing about free antivirus software is: what's missing from free antivirus software?

As we've shown in our reviews and our new head-to-head antivirus comparisons, there is a huge difference in support from one antivirus vendor to the next.

And, it's not even a case of you-get-what-you-pay-for, as the software we've rated the 2012 best antivirus software, VIPRE, is also one of the cheapest antivirus software applications made and it has the best support, too.

That said, back to the question: what is missing from free A/V programs?

Some free antivirus programs are lesser offerings from commercial vendors. The biggest "gotchyas" with such offerings are:

  consideration what it means to you
1. Are you getting the maximum protection from the free version of a company's software? Free antivirus software from commercial vendors are "stripped down" versions of their commercial software offerings.

What protection are you missing with these stripped down versions?
    1. rootkit detection
    2. IM/chat client protection
    3. firewall software
    4. antispam
    5. identity protection
  2. Commonly, things like:
2. Where do you turn for support? Commonly, there is little, if any, real support for free antivirus software.

You're at the mercy of: the search engines, forums, newsgroups

If you can't get the answer there, you have no alternative short of taking your computer in to your local computer repair center, i.e. Best Buy, etc. or calling your geek friend/relative/neighbor.

[With the former, you're always going to be paying *far* more for the support from a repair center than you would have paid for commercial antivirus software to begin with.

With the latter, the geek friend/relative/neighbor, we're (almost) always happy to help the first time or two that it happens, but after that, believe me, offering free tech support to friends/family gets old. Fast.]

You're also at the mercy of their relative skill levels, too, and as good as they may advertise themselves as or seem to be in speaking with them, do you really want to trust the removal of a virus to someone who isn't an antivirus technician?
3. What about licensing? With many free antivirus programs, you can only use the free versions in home and non-commercial environments.

This means if you work from home, many free A/V programs cannot legally be used.

[Sure, maybe you're "fine" using this software as long as you don't get caught, you justify to yourself, but that's not the point.

If your livelihood depends on the software, and it's not to be used in a commercial environment for free, you should pay for it. Otherwise you're stealing.]

Microsoft Security Essentials / Morro

What about Morro / Microsoft Security Essentials, the new free antivirus software from Microsoft?

In the same article at, Symantec's Hall says,

"'Microsoft’s free product is basically a stripped down version of the OneCare product Microsoft pulled from retail shelves.'

'Consumers don’t need less protection, they need more.'"

Agreed. In 2009, the threats to consumers' and business' computers from viruses, worms, trojans, and such are only getting smarter, more prevalent, and harder-to-detect.

There are so many important considerations with antivirus software, but here are just a few:

  1. prevention / detection of:
    • viruses
    • rootkits
    • spyware
    • worms
    • trojans
    • keyloggers
  2. Fast antivirus updates
  3. (and updates to all of the above, too)
  4. Tech support in ways you need it
    • Phone
    • Chat
    • Email
    • Knowledge base
  5. Ongoing development

  6. (Microsoft, for instance, abandoned OneCare, their previous A/V offering. What will happen with Morro / Microsoft Security Essentials given that it's free? Microsoft is definitely in business to make money, but how can they with a completely free product? Or will they start charging for it? Or will it, too, get abandoned and see no ongoing development?)

The bottom line is this: is protecting your computer from viruses and other security threats worth $20 or $30 a year?

This might just be a case of "you-get-what-you-pay-for" after all.


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