The best free antivirus

I’ve been re-evaluating free antivirus programs in an effort to find the best free antivirus. I think Microsoft Security Essentials is adequate if you don’t engage in risky behavior, and it doesn’t nag and doesn’t expire, both of which are good things. The best detection in the world is no good to you the day after it expires.

If you want something better, the place to look is AV-Comparative’s most recent test. In that roundup, I see four serious contenders: Bitdefender, Avira, Avast, and AVG. Those are the only four programs available for free that passed all of their tests with at least one star.
Avast no longer makes it easy to install itself as a secondary scanner, which means the best choice for a secondary scanner is Bitdefender. That takes Bitdefender out of the running for the front line. I think in an ideal world, I would run Bitdefender as my first line and Avast second. (My philosophy is that the primary should be the best and the secondary should be second-best.)

And Avast isn’t perfect. It expires after a year, requires registration, and its constant notifications get annoying. Do I really need to know each time the virus database is updated? And do I really need to know when it completes a scan? An audible alert when there’s a problem is welcome; audible alerts every time the program does something gets annoying.

That leaves Avira and AVG. Unfortunately, to get full protection from Avira, you have to install a browser toolbar that hijacks your default search engine. I can work around that, but it’s irritating. And it’s ironic, considering some AV programs advertise protecting you from unwanted browser toolbars as a feature.

Avira and Bitdefender are the only two products that scored at least two stars out of three on all of AV-Comparative’s tests, so if the best free protection you can get is paramount, that’s the combination to use.

AVG turned me off long ago because of its required registration process. That seems to be better now, from the reviews I’ve seen, but like Avira, AVG has the same problem of installing a browser toolbar and hijacking the search engine.

So if you don’t want your browser search engine hijacked and a mostly useless toolbar chewing up precious screen space, I see three choices, none perfect–but if you can’t expect perfection from paid-for products, you probably can’t expect it from free products either.

1. Settle for Microsoft Security Essentials, run Bitdefender secondary, and minimize your nags while settling for less-than-top-tier protection from your first line of defense. But this also minimizes the chances of either line of defense expiring on you, with the caveat that I don’t know how long Microsoft will provide Security Essentials for Windows XP after Windows XP’s support expires next April. (Then again, the same goes for any other antivirus protection.)

2. Install Bitdefender Free, track down a copy of Avast 7–run MD5 and SHA-1 on it to make sure it’s genuine–install and configure it as the secondary scanner, then upgrade to Avast 8, and put up with Avast’s nagging. This will give you a good one-two punch without hijacking your browser. You’ll have to re-register your secondary scanner in a year, but at least it’s your secondary. If you manage to track down a copy of Avast 7, here are the MD5 and SHA-1 hashes from my copy:

MD5: 58e75a472feb335238783be2bd7391fd

SHA-1: b677a40189162aa033d8aed9202e9c7f8664f246

3. Install Avast 8 as your primary scanner, then install Bitdefender 60-second scanner. This gives a better one-two punch than the first option, with the caveat that your primary scanner has to be re-registered every year.

Don’t discount the re-registration problem. Re-registering takes less time than paying to renew a paid program, but if there’s a gap in protection, there’s a gap.

One of my coworkers approached me earlier this year after putting off registering and living with lapsed antivirus for a couple of days. With no protection, that was more than enough time to get infected.

So on my own system, I might go ahead and go with a solution involving Avast. But for my relatives’ systems, I prefer the MSE/Bitdefender option, even though it means relying on the lowest-common denominator as the front-line option. Even low-tier protection is better than no protection. Especially when you can have a top-tier second line of defense to close the gap.

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