Recommendations for Free PC Security Software

Working at a small business, my co-workers often ask me for recommendations regarding security software on their home computers. What anti-virus should I install? Is there other software I need? Since these are questions I don’t see going away anytime soon, I figured it was time for me to write up an “official” article about my preferred software choices. Now, most home users tend to be a bit frugal when it comes to their computer. Getting them to invest in the security of their system can often be a challenge. So, for this article, I’ll be focusing on the free security solutions that I typically recommend.

A Bit About Anti-Virus

Let’s spend some time talking about what is, perhaps, the most important piece of software on your computer: anti-virus. Anti-virus software has come a long way over the years. In fact, virus recognition is now just one small part of modern security software. It’s not uncommon to find anti-virus, anti-spyware, anti-spam, network firewall functionality, web content filtering, automatic software updates, and more all in one software package. This has come about largely due to the increased difficulty in detecting viruses.

Anti-virus technology continues to rely upon the same principle it always has. Each known virus file has its own unique signature, and anti-virus companies maintain massive lists of these signatures. Their software then compares the signature of each scanned file to this list. If a match is found, then the file is flagged as a virus. This method of recognition worked for years, but has become less and less effective. Even a minor change to a virus file results in a new, unique signature. With hundreds of new viruses cropping up every day, keeping up is nearly impossible. So, anti-virus technology has begun to shift.

Instead of relying solely upon signature recognition, anti-virus software now tackles the virus problem using multiple approaches. For example, most software will analyze the behavior of installed software. By doing so, it is possible to spot potentially harmful behavior, cutting it off before any real damage is caused. This technology (usually referred to as heuristic scanning) is actually a bit old at this point, and was one of the first alternative recognition approaches to appear. Truthfully, it has never proven to be very effective. If anything, it tends to increase the chance of false positives (falsely flagging a legitimate file as a virus). It’s getting better by the day, though, and really is the future of virus detection.

The new focus is on virus prevention, instead of recognition. If the software can prevent you from coming in contact with the virus in the first place, then recognition becomes less crucial. E-mail and web content scanning are two of the more common methods of prevention. E-mails have long been a primary source of infection, so recognizing and blocking infected e-mails and e-mail attachments is absolutely critical. Web scanning relies upon a master list of bad websites. Every time you visit a website, the site’s URL is compared to this master list, blocking any sites known to carry viruses. Of course, if the URL isn’t blocked, then normal file scanning will kick in and scan the content of the web page.

My favorite virus prevention method these days has to be the inclusion of automatic software updating. In an ideal world, all software would automatically update itself, regularly patching any security flaws. Unfortunately, automating updating is something that still hasn’t spread to every piece of software. Vendors are getting better about updates, but much work still needs to be done in this area. In some cases, automatic updates have finally been put in place, but the actual update routine rarely runs and is unreliable (see Adobe Flash for an example). So, like I said, updates are getting better, but they’re far from perfect.

A few software makers have stepped up and begun including software updates in their programs. This type of functionality will check your computer for any outdated software, alert you to this fact, then offer to update the problem software. Since most malware invades users’ systems through flaws in the software they have installed, with the most common culprits being Adobe Reader, Adobe Flash, and Oracle Java, it only makes sense for security companies to see software updates as a priority. By helping a user make sure that these programs (and others) are up to date, the chance of viral infection is greatly lowered. One of the first rules of computer use has always been, “Update your software!” A reminder to do so, from a program you’re already using, can only be seen as a benefit.

Anti-Virus

Okay, let’s get down to some recommendations. For anti-virus, I usually recommend Avast Free Edition. Although Avast is my first choice, there’s a few different options out there for free anti-virus. Keep reading for a quick summary of the three most common packages.

Microsoft Security Essentials is a solid choice. It’s free to all legitimately licensed Windows users, and is installed right through Windows Update. It’s a bit lacking in features, choosing to concentrate solely on anti-virus, but recognition results are pretty good. It’s free, and simple, so I can’t call it a bad choice. Microsoft’s development of Security Essentials remains somewhat controversial. Most appreciate Microsoft’s efforts in securing their users’ systems, but anti-virus companies have seen it as a direct attack on their market. Fortunately, Microsoft has held steadfast, for the betterment of the entire Windows ecosystem.

AVG was one of of the first free anti-virus programs, so they have a pretty loyal user base. I was once one of those loyal users, but have drifted away from them over the years. I’ve found that their software has become too bloated, slow, and confusing. Their detection rates have faltered, as well. At this point, I just can’t recommend AVG. Not when Avast offers everything they do, and then some, and does it all better.

Avast came around shortly after AVG, and the two have competed over the free anti-virus market ever since. Both have the same goal: get you hooked on their program, then up-sell you on their “pro” version. Avast has done much in recent years to up their feature count, while still managing to speed up and optimize their program. They also do decently in the recognition ratings. Take a look at the ratings on av-comparatives.org, and you’ll find that Avast manages to hold their own.

Recommendation: Avast.

If you’re going to pay for anti-virus, I’d recommend Kaspersky right now. They seem to be on top of their game, with a great overall package.

Anti-Spyware

Spyware is a slightly less harmful version of a virus. Spyware tends to focus on stealing your info or scamming you into paying for something you don’t need. Viruses may be the most destructive malware out there, but spyware is the most annoying. When a user brings me a computer full of annoying pop-ups and alerts, spyware is usually the culprit. Most spyware continues to go undetected by anti-virus programs, so I recommend the regular use of spyware scanners. Since spyware went ignored by the big anti-virus programs for so long, smaller companies cropped up to handle the task of removing this unwanted software. Instead of focusing on prevention, they focused on the removal of the spyware after it was already installed. The free versions of spyware scanners remain reactionary, but you can now pay for automatic detection and prevention functionality. I don’t pay for such functionality, myself, but wouldn’t be surprised by anyone else’s desire to do so. Careful use of the Internet keeps me safe, but I know that doesn’t work for everyone. So, an additional level of protection may be a wise choice. Instead of paying for automatic protection, I simply run manual scans at regular intervals.

Note that the programs I’m recommending here are not substitutes for a full anti-virus program. They’re good at detecting spyware, but not at detecting threats from the rest of the virus world (despite any claims they make to the contrary). I’d stick to using anti-spyware programs as a supplement to a more-complete anti-virus program.

My first choice in scanning for spyware is always¬†MalwareBytes. They’ve dominated the spyware recognition game ever since they came on the scene. They now offer automatic spyware detection, for a fee, but I’ve yet to try it out. As I stated before, I simply practice safe computer use and perform regular manual scans.

My second choice is Spybot. They were one of the first to recognize the spyware threat, and have been a regular staple of my scanning routines ever since. They’ve been eclipsed by MalwareBytes, but continue to find some spyware that MalwareBytes misses. They also offer a pay version, but again, I’ve never found a need for it.

If your computer is acting up, run a full anti-virus scan, followed by full scans using MalwareBytes and Spybot. Let all three programs do their thing, and 90% of the time your problems will be solved.

Recommendation: Regular manual scanning using both MalwareBytes and Spybot.

Automatic Software Updates

Secunia PSI. It’s as simple as that. I’m very happy to find that Avast has added automatic software updates to their anti-virus package, but they don’t cover every base. Secunia has been the main player in the software updates game for awhile now. Version 3 of their software has proven to be a disappointment, but it still gets the job done. My main complaint regarding version 3 is the slowness of opening the program and performing scans. Version 2 was much, much quicker. I believe this is due to a change in the way the software uses their servers (the program requires a live connection to their servers so that it can retrieve up-to-date recognition routines). Version 3 was designed to be a bit easier to use for the average consumer, so may remain your best choice. For those more technically inclined, version 2 can still be downloaded here. You’ll find the link listed below the green download button, on the right side of the page.

Once you’ve installed Secunia PSI, it will regularly scan your system for outdated software. Then, depending upon how you’ve configured it, either automatically update your software, or alert you to the need to update your software yourself. This is a big help in making sure the more troublesome software on your computer is up-to-date.

Recommendation: Secunia PSI.

So There You Have It

Keep an eye out for future articles detailing the installation, configuration, and use of the software programs I’ve recommended here. For now, I’ll just leave you with my suggestions.