When you get a new PC the first thing you should do is install some decent antivirus software. The good news is that top quality protection can be completely free, but with so much choice, picking the right one can be difficult. So we've updated our guide to getting the best software in exchange for your data and personal information.
Windows has come a long way in terms of security, but it's still fair to suggest that Windows 10's built-in antivirus solution, Windows Defender, is the last free AV app you should trust to keep your system clean.
Not that it's overtly bad – although it does tail behind just about every third-party antivirus solution – but because its widespread adoption has a big target painted on it for attackers.
Windows users who haven't installed something hardier are the perfect hosts for viruses; attack the weak links, attack through the chinks in the one piece of software armour these weak links have by default, and you're in.
That's why we've dropped Defender from our list of free antivirus apps in this latest update of our free AV roundup. You need more than it can offer. If you're not running advanced virus detection, zero-day virus protection, anti-malware, anti-ransomware and other security essentials, you're not doing it right and leave yourself open to infections and identity theft.
Once again we've consulted the experts at the AV-TEST virus lab to find the most effective virus protection, and we've listened to your comments regarding usability, too. Free AV does come with a cost though. It serves as an advert for many vendors' more premium offers and the data collected helps them to boost security for all of their products.
So we understand that for many of you the constant hassle presented by free AV popups can be a bit much to take – so if you're willing to sacrifice a minuscule amount of antivirus protection in favour of a cleaner experience, we're with you.
- Want something better? Then check out the best paid-for antivirus software
Essentially consisting of the AV section of the full product, Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition's clean, light, well constructed scanning mechanisms – which are almost universally faster than the industry average – and unrivalled virus definitions mean it's pushing back towards the top of the tree. AV-TEST's December testing round did pick out a few flaws in its handling of zero-day threats, however.
The free version's insistence on running in autopilot mode is a double-edged sword, making the process of virus management easy but taking it out of the user's hands; while we're inclined to trust it, there have been cases in the past of automatic systems going slightly rogue, such as the incident a few years back when Panda Antivirus identified itself as a virus and locked up a large number of Windows systems.
While Bitdefender isn't exactly popup-free, it's clean, clever, and efficient enough to take our top spot this time.
Review and where to download: Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition
Avast and AVG haven't yet fully merged, despite the former formally acquiring the latter in mid-2016. The newly combined company says the two free antivirus products will remain separate, although there's apparently a joint AV package on the way soon. Obviously, though, Avast now has a lot more data to work with, having expanded its effective userbase (and, therefore, its threat detection network) to a whopping 400 million users.
The latest edition of Avast Free Antivirus adds an automatic gaming mode to mute popups and reduce system load when you're firing up a processor-hungry game, which is very handy indeed, and the interface has been given a clean new overhaul. There's a password manager, too, which is an undeniably good addition to your security portfolio.
It scores well on AV-TEST's widespread malware benchmark and continues a clean sweep against 0-day attacks – presumably that expanded detection network is really helping. Less impressive is the slight negative effect Avast has on software launch times, and its slightly popup-heavy attitude.
Review and where to download: Avast Free Antivirus
Marketing itself as "business-grade security", Sophos Home does a little more than most free antivirus software, and actually seems better suited to families.
You get standard antivirus and anti-malware protection, along with browser tools like anti-phishing and, most importantly, content control. Combined with central management of up to 10 PCs, this means you can effectively lock down your kids' browsing options.
Although AV-TEST hasn't formally assessed Sophos' skills, fellow lab AV-Comparatives offers a decent rating of its antivirus abilities.
Although Sophos Home has always had desktop notifications, there was no premium version of the software for it to encourage an upgrade to. That changed in February with the launch of Sophos Home Premium.
Review and where to download: Sophos Home
The paid-for version of Kaspersky's Windows security software frequently tops charts of best antivirus solutions and AV-TEST once again gave it full marks across the board in its latest round of testing.
As you would expect, Kaspersky Free is a scaled down version of the full program, ditching additional features such as privacy protection and safe payment sandboxes to concentrate on powerful, no-frills and – most importantly – free protection for your PC. The result is a tremendously easy to use and navigate bit of software that does an effective job of keeping you protected from viruses.
Using the nuts and bolts real-world scanning engine of the paid-for suite, Kaspersky Free is fiendishly hard for viruses and trojan horses to break down. And we love that it doesn't constantly pester you with nudges to upgrade to the full version.
Review and where to download: Kaspersky Free
Avira Free Antivirus for Windows continues to score highly on AV-TEST's stringent testing program, quashing 99.7% of tested threats, and it generally doesn't put too big a burden on your hardware.
It has a clean, friendly interface – with a swish redesign ready for 2018 – and throws up minimal false positives. The introduction of a free security suite to optionally run alongside it – with ransomware and phishing protection, a 500MB/month VPN and various speedup promises – just sweetens the deal. This is one of the best free antivirus packages of 2017.
So why, then, have we dropped it from the top spot on our list, a position it's held for the past two years? It's the constant badgering. There's a certain level of popups and advertisements that's acceptable for a free product, and Avira has begun to cross the line. It's not as onerous as some – Comodo's over-enthusiastic interface comes to mind – but booting up your PC to see Avira shouting at you once again is jarring.
Review and where to download: Avira Free Antivirus
There's a growing trend amongst some online pundits to label antivirus apps like AVG – and, indeed, AVG specifically – as 'crapware'. We don't subscribe to that definition; if that term is supposed to mean that these apps are ineffective or pointless, it's simply not true.
AVG offers (reasonably) effective virus protection for free, and it does so with minimal system impact. If, on the other hand, the derogatory term refers to products which go a little heavy on the advertising and features that don't matter – AVG AntiVirus Free's 'tune up' portion, for instance – perhaps the shoe fits here.
Popups or not, it's the antivirus we're most interested in. Looking at AV-TEST's figures, and considering AVG shares the same expanded userbase as Avast, we were a little surprised that its strength doesn't quite match up to its new parent, and anti-phishing tools could use some improvement, too. It also doesn't have some of the same benefits, either, such as extensions.
Speculatively, this could mean AVG's engine is not getting the same love it once did, or that Avast's is slightly stronger. Regardless, keep your eyes open for the combined Avast-AVG antivirus that's on the cards for later this year, because the two products running in tandem might be hard to beat.
But until then, you needn't fear too much about AVG's credentials. It's just been given a perfect score of 12 out of 12 by AV-TEST.
Review and where to download: AVG AntiVirus Free
The eternal battle against popups doesn't exactly start well, with Panda's site throwing a huge banner up shouting about a discount on the full version before you're even allowed to download the free one.
Put that aside, however, to look at the software itself: Panda's entirely cloud-based antivirus solution goes about as lightly on system resources as is possible, at least when it's quietly running in the background. But you'll probably find, as AV-TEST's lab did, that Panda Free Antivirus has a bigger impact on many common system tasks – installation, copying files, downloading apps – than most of the opposing AV apps. We also experienced heavy CPU peaks both at random times and when Panda was updating itself.
That said, Panda's overall look – which offers calming vistas where other go for plain white or grey – is refreshing, it's incredibly well laid out, and it comes bundled with a bunch of extra features that don't just seem like fluff. It dials itself down even further with a game mode when you need extra CPU speed, offers to immunise USB sticks (handy if you're worried about preinstalled spyware), has a bootable rescue kit in case a malicious program cripples your Windows install, and includes a threat-weighted process monitor.
Review and where to download: Panda Free Antivirus
The specter of developer Qihoo's VW-esque cheating of AV tests seems to be lifting a little these days, and it's hard not to recommend it when you consider exactly what it's offering up for free: AV protection from several concurrent engines (Bitdefender, Avira, and Qihoo's own engines) along with reasonable extras like anti-phishing and a mobile app to help manage multiple systems.
We're also not hugely impressed by its interface. You'll need to do some fiddling to get several antivirus engines running at once, and doing so with the rather messy UI is not easy.
The most recent significant update released in January claims to have improved the UI, along with the speed and intelligence of the software.
But lot of the bundled tools seem extraneous, and we hit a couple of false positives in testing too. So if you want quiet, strong protection this is a fine option – but you'll need to do some work, and you may have to pay a high price.
Review and where to download: 360 Total Security
ZoneAlarm's reputation in the firewall world precedes it, and while that particular aspect of this all-in-one package isn't what we're really concerned with here, it's a solid extra if you don't trust your router or Windows' built-in firewall.
The antivirus engine on offer here is actually licensed from Kaspersky, so although we were unable to find any results from independent testing labs – hence its position this low on our list – it's safe to have at least a small amount of confidence in its abilities. It's well laid out, easy to use, and is your only real option if you want to use the ZoneAlarm firewall alongside any anti-malware app other than Windows Defender.
That said, ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus + Firewall isn't a quiet program, alerting you of every little thing that's been blocked or deflected – some people like that, others will quickly become infuriated.
Review and where to download: ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus
A new name for what was once Ad-Aware Free Antivirus+, to celebrate its company's rebranding from LavaSoft to Adaware.
As another antivirus package with a licensed engine – this time from Bitdefender – and the benefit of Adaware's history in anti-spyware, you'd expect its results to be good. But things aren't so rosy.
This new Adaware Antivirus Free 12 drops the Web Companion from version 11, which blocked malicious and fraudulent URLs; it now acts only on iffy downloads. There are a host of other promised features, but they're not actually there – placed, tantalisingly, on an interface which very much shouts 'adware' more than it does 'adaware'. Better to go for one of the other downloads on this list rather than be dazzled by its slick, shiny interface.
Review and where to download: Adaware Antivirus Free