UPDATE – Since doing this article, I’ve added another one about commercial security solutions – “Internet Security Solutions – A Commercial Look” – CLICK HERE to read it.

This past September, Microsoft released a free Internet security suite called Microsoft Security Essentials (you can download it from here). The free download replaced a pay-for subscription-based antivirus service called Windows Live OneCare and another free anti-spyware program called Windows Defender, giving PC users a combination of antivirus and antimalware in one package.  All that Microsoft required was that your copy of Windows be legitimate.

Other commercial antivirus companies, like Norton, McAfee, and Kaspersky waved off the free security program as inferior. But soon after it was released, favorable reviews from such sources as PC World and PC Magazine began surfacing, and now Microsoft’s program has been accepted as another viable, free, solution, along with the likes of AVG (free.avg.com), avast!(www.avast.com/free-antivirus-download), PCTools Free Antivirus (www.pctools.com/free-antivirus), and AdAware Free (www.lavasoft.com).

But this raises a big question, especially with many of our students. Are the free Internet security programs as good as the commercial ones? What’s the catch? Do I dare entrust the protection of my computer to a free program?

The companies that provide free solutions (except for Microsoft), also provide pay-for Internet security programs that they hope you will upgrade to. If you take the time to carefully look at their “comparison” charts, you’ll see that in most cases, the free programs give you what THEY call “basic anti-virus and anti-malware protection“. This seems to mean that the programs will in fact protect you from the main threats, viruses and malware, but do not include such things as:

  • technical support (which you probably won’t contact anyway)
  • fast definition updates (do we really care how long updates take to download?)
  • a firewall (Windows XP, Vista, and 7 already give you that)
  • parental control (why do we need that?)
  • backup and recovery services (from an Internet security program? I thought backup programs did that.)
  • antispam (that’s an email thing, isn’t it?)
  • antiphising (another email thing)

You may have noticed that I was being a big cynical in the above list. But please don’t get me wrong. Some of those features are actually useful to some Internet users. But to be totally  honest, for most of the folks we work with, the free Internet protection is all they need. That’s why we recommend programs like AVG, and now Microsoft Securiity Essentials to many of our students, and why a good number of them have been using those services for years.

So, to come back to the original question, “Are the free Internet security programs as good as the commercial ones?”, I’d have to say “No, BUT for most normal Internet users, they are plenty good enough”.

Now, before I kick the commercial programs clear out the window, let me be totally transparent with you. I don’t use the free programs on my own computers. Instead, I use a geeky antivirus/antispyware program called EST NOD32 (www.eset.com). But keep in mind that part of what I do for a living is download and test tons of software so that I can pass along the information to my students, and that most of my computers are used for video production work, a very computer resource intensive thing. I use NOD32 because it has a very small footprint (i.e. does not take much in the way of computer resources) and it has a great reputation for catching viruses in the wild.

So ultimately, the choice of using a free or commercial security solution is up to you. But as you make your decision, keep in mind that there’s no reason to be hesitant about the free programs. For most folks, they’ll do the job just fine.

BTW, leave a comment below and let us know what antivirus program you use, and what you think of it. We would love to hear what you think!


ANOTHER UPDATE – Last week, with my NOD32 Antivirus subscription running out, I  installed a copy of Norton 360 v. 4.0 on three of my computers at home.

Why you might ask? Well, on Black Friday this past fall, I picked up a 3-user copy of the software for just $19.95 at Office Max. Couldn’t pass up that deal. And although I STILL believe that for a lot of regular computer users, the free anti-virus solutions will work just fine, I’d also say that if you can find a great deal like this on a commercial program, $20 is worth paying.

Now, as far as Norton 360 goes… to be honest, it as way too much “stuff” for my tastes. As a Norton user from way back in the DOS days (I even met Peter Norton at a conference back in the mid 1980’s), I’ve used their antivirus solutions off and on for years. In the early 2000’s, I stopped using their Internet programs because they had become bloated and resource intensive. Then in 2008, I began hearing good things about them again after Symantec (the company that owns Norton) did a complete re-write of the software. Still, at this point I already had NOD32 and could see no reason to make a change.

But now that I have I’ll have to say that I’m happy with the anti-virus and anti-spyware protection the program affords, but really don’t have much use for all the other stuff (online backup, firewall, identity theft protection, pc tuneup).

Now, that’s not to say that a typical computer user wouldn’t find all these extras helpful. It’s just that I handle all of the other tasks beyond basic anti-virus and anti-spyware by myself, using other software.

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