It’s a free world out there. Free maps, free navigation, free calls on the Internet, free email, free apps for smartphones — but should you trust your digital security to a free program?
For Windows users, some measure of security is needed on every computer. Malware, botnets, keyloggers and viruses are daily nuisances and constant threats.
Antivirus software companies have certainly profited from this fact, but there are also plenty of free options, including free basic programs from the same developers that also offer for-pay packages.
Microsoft itself even offers Microsoft Security Essentials for Windows Vista and Windows 7. Like the rest, it will scan your system for bad actors and keep a constant vigil on downloaded files. (On Windows 8, it’s rebranded as Windows Defender and built into the system.)
There are many more paid anti-virus programs from such well-known names as Bitdefender, McAfee, Norton/Symantec and Kaspersky Lab. Paid programs generally offer a slew of additional features, which can be helpful or overkill, depending on what kind of computer owner you are — cautious or geeky.
The same, but different
In terms of basic performance in catching infections, anecdotal testing shows that the free and for-pay products were about the same. Some were faster than others, but more expensive software wasn’t as a rule faster than the free options.
The only noticeable difference between the gratis and the paid programs was when it came to detecting some new threats, such as a website laced with newly created malware. Paid products, with their more elaborate system behavior monitors, are more likely to pick those up and to warn you about other possible dangers.
The primary differences between the free and pay products comes down to features – some of which can be extremely important – and ease of use.
Free programs generally offer no telephone technical support. This can be a deal-breaker for any small business, or a family with multiple computer users.
Free programs don’t, as a rule, offer parental controls that can keep kids off inappropriate sites or warn them about cyberstalking and bullying.
Free programs often also include advertising. This can be negligible, but ceaseless pop-up boxes pestering you to sign up for the paid version of whatever you’re using can be quite distracting.
In the you-get-what-you-pay-for category, the paid programs are usually easier to install and run, and have fewer conflicts with other applications.