Windows Defender


Key features:
-Bootable rescue disk available as separate download
-Built into Windows 8/8.1/10
-Available for Windows Vista/7 as Microsoft Security Essentials
-Will run on any Windows system
Microsoft’s own anti-malware tools come by default with Windows 10, giving you a modicum of protection even if you’re not able to immediately install dedicated anti-malware tools. Available for Windows Vista and 7 under the Microsoft Security Essentials name, and called Windows Defender when it accompanies Windows 8 through 10 in a slightly more up-to-date incarnation that includes extra protection against rootkits and boot sector viruses, Microsoft’s security software provides both scanning and real-time protection.

Defender was among the worst performing anti-virus products tested by AV-TEST this spring. While it did well against a reference set of recently collected malware, spotting 99.7% in March and 99.8% in April, it put in a consistently poor performance against real-world exposure tests to malware that was live online, with a detection rate of 88.9% in March and 88% in April.

It was also a little more prone to misidentifying legitimate software as malicious, although with five false positives out of a set of more than a million, it wasn’t a major problem. Defender proved to be fairly unobtrusive in terms of its effect on system performance, except when it came to installing applications for the first time, where it reduced performance by an average of 51%.

Windows Defender is by its nature a lightweight affair, which also makes it remarkably easy to use. Its main homescreen displays your protection and update status, details of when your last scan was carried out and lets you immediately run a quick, full or custom scan. Custom scans, as you’d expect, let you give any directory on a local or removable drive a quick once-over without having to scan your entire hard disk.

The Update tab lets you check and update Defender’s virus definitions database, and the History tab allows you to view the details of items on your PC that have been quarantined as malicious, manually allowed or detected in general. In an interesting privacy and security-orientated move, to view the details of these files, remove or restore them, you’ll need to click the View details button and log in as an administrator if your account doesn’t already have admin status.

Regardless of which tab you’re looking at, help and settings icons are always present at the top right of the Windows Defender client. Clicking on Help takes you straight to an online community forum in your browser of choice, while a dropdown arrow directs you to a page where you can manually upload a suspicious file for Microsoft’s malware team to analyse.

The Settings icon takes you straight to Windows’ main Update & Security settings. From here you can disable or re-enable features, including real-time and cloud-based protection and the automatic submission of potentially malicious files to Microsoft, and exclude specific folders, files, processes or file extensions from Defender’s scans.

While Windows Defender is better than having no anti-virus in place at all, we strongly advise against using it for long-term protection against malware due to its relatively poor performance in live malware exposure tests.



Key features:
-Scheduled scan support
-Dedicated email scanning module
-Bootable rescue disk available as separate download
-Windows XP SP3/Vista/7/8/8.1/10
-Requires Intel Pentium 1.5GHz or faster, 512MB RAM, 1.2GB free disk space

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AVG Free is one of the longest-established free anti-virus suites on the market, available across multiple platforms with a wealth of features and modules. Its comes with an optional Zen dashboard that provides an overview of all the devices associated with your AVG account, as well as your PC’s protection status. However, it doesn’t add anything particularly useful when it comes to protecting a single PC against malware.
Sadly, AVG hasn’t been performing particularly well in AV-TEST’s recent results. In March, AVG achieved 100% protection in live real-world threat testing and 99.9% effectiveness against a bank of reference malware samples. However, its real-world effectiveness dropped to 95.2% in April, putting it below the industry average of 97%.
Its false-positive performance was good, however, since it misdetected only a couple of benign programs as malicious from a sample set of more than a million. It also did well in most performance tests, launching and downloading software much faster than average, although its web module slowed down website load times more than many of its rivals.
Like most free anti-virus suites, AVG offers a premium version, as well as the Free version we’re looking at here. By default, a 30-day trial of AVG Pro is installed, with extra features including a firewall, encryption and secure browsing tools. This reverts to a free version after that period, but if you just want to install AVG Free from the start, you should select Custom installation after the installer launches.
Custom installation also allows you to choose where the program should be installed and whether you want AVG’s extra email protection and in-browser link-scanning features – again, both are included in a default installation.
Once AVG has installed, it will prompt you to install the Web TuneUp browser extension, which provides an extra layer of warnings about potentially malicious websites. However, it also sets AVG’s Yahoo-based Secure Search as your homepage, new tab page and default search engine. We’re not fans of anything that co-opts your own choice of search engine, so we recommend declining this offer.
The AVG client displays the protection status of AVG and its various modules, such as identity and email protection. From there, you can click on each of these status buttons to view extra screens and options, allowing you to enable or disable specific modules and schedule or run specific scans.
If you want in-depth control over AVG’s behaviour, you’ll need to visit the Advanced Settings screen, where you can control everything from the size allocated to your Virus Vault, specific settings for email servers you wish to scan, and detailed scan behaviour – such as support for scanning removable devices or excluding specific folders from your scans. The Options menu also provides quick access to your Virus Vault, scan history and other features, although we’d have preferred these to be accessible from the main interface.
AVG’s performance in AV-TEST’s real-world live malware exposure tests was relatively poor, and we weren’t particularly impressed by its impact on system performance.


Key features:

-Can create bootable rescue disk
-Silent detection mode
-Windows XP SP2/Vista/7/8/8.1/10
-Requires Intel Pentium 300MHz or faster, 265MB RAM, 240MB free disk space
Panda Free Antivirus 2016 promises a lightweight, partially cloud-based anti-malware solution. It’s the minimalist entry in Panda’s range, which includes three other paid-for anti-virus and protection suites offering a range of extra programs and features bundled alongside.

Panda put in a strong performance in AV-TEST’s spring results, with 99.9% detection rate in a scan of widespread recent malware samples. It performed well in real-world live exposure tests, too, with a 100% protection score in March and 98.8% in April – and it misidentified only a handful of legitimate programs as malicious.

However, its performance was poor on everything except file copying. AV-TEST found that Panda slowed program launch speeds, downloads, website loading and, in particular, installation far more than average across all anti-virus software.

Like some of its rivals, Panda Free by default wants to install some extra software and services from its sponsors. You’ll probably want to untick the option of setting Yahoo as your default search provider and Yahoo MyStart as your default browser homepage.

However, the case for the Panda Security Toolbar module is less clear-cut. It’s a browser plugin that can warn you of potentially malicious links, but it’s also adware that follows your browsing habits and suggests related promotions, which is likely to be a security concern for some and an irritant to others. It certainly doesn’t feel particularly comfortable in a piece of security software.

Panda’s Notification Area icon gives you a right-click menu where you can enable its silent Gaming and Multimedia mode, and pause the program’s monitoring capabilities. However, most of Panda’s features are to be found in its main client interface, a cheery-looking turquoise-and-white affair that follows the Windows Modern UI style.
The client’s Start page let you see how many files Panda has scanned and immediately gives your PC a full, critical area or custom scan. Panda Free anti-virus comes equipped with a Process Monitor, USB Protection tool and a Rescue Kit creator, and if you’ve signed up for a Panda account, you can view the status of other Windows, Mac OS X, Android and iOS devices associated with the same account.
Panda’s USB drive protector offers to scan any USB drive you insert by default. You can also use its Vaccinate tool to disable auto-run files on USB drives, or configure it to vaccinate any USB drive you insert. While auto-run files can be a threat, support for the feature is limited under Windows 10, so this is less useful these days. However, completely crippling a USB drive’s auto-run files could potentially affect the functionality of a tiny minority of legacy software tools that rely on such a file to work on older computers, so it’s worth keeping in mind.
The Process Monitor flags up potentially malicious processes, displays the number of HTTP connections they’re using and provides a blocking feature. However, it isn’t as easy to get a complete overview of your processes as you would via either Task Manager of Microsoft TechNet favourite Process Explorer.
Finally, the Rescue Kit screen lets you create a bootable USB disk that connects to Panda’s Cloud Scanner or immediately run it on your PC. Panda Cloud Scanner is a separate emergency-use program that Panda says “detects what traditional virus scanning can’t detect”. It’s certainly very sensitive, picking up a couple of harmless but unnecessary registry keys and cached internet files as potentially unwanted, although not malicious, content on our very clean test PC.
Panda has a few extra settings, which you can use to instruct it to scan compressed files by default, ask before neutralising a virus, add exceptions, disable some scanning features and change the default weekly deletion schedule for quarantined files.
While Panda did provide capable protection in AV-TEST’s research, it also has a rather heavy impact on system performance – and we’re not fans of its ad-laden browser plugin, so while it’s a decent performer, other products in this test are more attractive.



Key features:

Scheduled scan support
Can create bootable rescue disk
Windows XP SP2/Vista/7 SP1/8/8.1/10
Requires Intel Pentium 4 / AMD Athlon 64 or better, 256MB RAM, 1.5GB free disk space

Avast! Free Antivirus comes with real-time anti-malware protection, a password manager and a tool to clean your browser of unwanted extensions, plugins and toolbars. It also prompts you to install Chrome, in what is perhaps the first ever instance of a free software product being bundled with a vaguely useful extra; if you don’t want Chrome, you should take care to deselect this at install time.

Unlike most free anti-virus suites, Avast requires you to register every year if you want to continue using it. This doesn’t cost you a penny and can easily be done from inside the Avast client. However, the annual renewal can confuse less technical users, so if you’re installing the software for a family member who can’t handle their own technical problems, this potential issue is worth bearing in mind.

Avast also takes this opportunity try to encourage users to switch to its paid-for version – something you’ll see time and again, since its client is peppered with Upgrade Now prompts.

The free version is a perfectly effective anti-virus tool, however, and proved to be one of the most capable free anti-virus suites in AV-TEST’s latest results. It performed with consistent 99.9% accuracy in scans against reference sets of malware and, in live exposure tests, 100% accuracy in March and 98.8% accuracy in April.

It also produced only one false-positive block of legitimate software from more than a million samples. However, it had a greater impact on system performance than many of its rivals, particularly when it came to downloading and launching applications.

Avast’s current interface is brighter and more streamlined than previous incarnations. Your protection status, indicating that Avast is working as it should be, is front and centre, along with a button to run an instant SmartScan. This checks for both malware and potential vulnerabilities, such as outdated software.

A bar at the top provides access to Avast’s other tools and settings. These include specific scans for performance issues or network threats and a free SecureLine VPN service that’s designed to provide an extra layer of protection when connecting to important services via poorly secured internet connections.

You also get the SafeZone secure browser; a TeamViewer or LogMeIn-like Remote Assistance tool that lets you invite a friend to remotely access your PC to help you resolve an issue; a bootable Rescue Disk creator that you can use to scan PCs that aren’t booting into their operating system properly; and a password manager. That’s a generous selection for a free product.

There are also options for a firewall and for running applications in a sandbox, but these just take you to an upgrade page encouraging you to subscribe to a paid-for version of Avast. Elsewhere in Avast’s settings, you can configure the program’s inbound and outbound email scanning, live detection and blocking of potentially malicious content in your web browser, plus access extra options such as a pop-up-free Gaming mode, an ultra-paranoid Hardened mode and the option of scanning for potentially unwanted programs such as non-malicious adware.

Avast’s Free anti-virus put in a solid performance in AV-TEST’s trials of both reference malware scanning and real-world live exposure protection. However, the company’s somewhat obtrusive registration system is confusing to inexperienced internet users and it has more of an impact on system performance than some of its rivals.



Key features:

Scheduled scan support
Can create bootable rescue disk
Windows 7/8/8.1/10
Requires 1GHz Intel Pentium 4 or later, 1GB RAM, 800MB free disk space
Avira’s Free Antivirus software is ad-supported and provides effective malware protection, but with a few additional bells and whistles. By comparison, the paid-for Avira Antivirus Pro dispenses with the free version’s occasional pop-up ads and offers some bonus tools for secure banking, local network threat scanning, and proper customer support.

Avira put in a strong performance in AV-TEST’s spring 2016 tests, consistently spotting and blocking 98.8% of all malware in real-world online exposure tests and 99.9% of malicious files introduced as part of a large reference set of recently captured malware. It only threw up one false-positive detection among millions of files, and its impact on system load was conspicuously lighter than average when compared to other free anti-virus software. There was less of a performance impact than most on file copying, installation, download and launching of applications and websites.

During installation, you’re prompted to optionally install some of Avira’s other utilities, including Phantom VPN, the System Speedup optimisation tool, the SafeSearch Plus browser plugin and the Online Essentials Dashboard to view the status of other devices associated with your account. While you have to manually skip through these, we prefer this option to having unnecessary extra features installed by default along with our anti-virus.

Although Avira’s browser extensions can offer up plenty of information about adverts, tracking and potentially malicious websites, they also include advertising and price comparison pop-ups on shopping sites – which we’d really rather not have.

Avira has a launcher that pops up from the Notification Area icon to show your protection status and which of the company’s extra software modules (if any) you’ve installed. From there you can open its main Protection interface: a no-frills affair that nonetheless manages to be clearer and more useful than many of its rivals.

All the options you need are right in front of you, either in the main status pane or arrayed along the left-hand tab bar. The result can be a little dense for users who’d prefer a simple interface, but we really appreciated having all the options where we could see them. The main status screen displays whether or not you’re protected and up-to-date, allows you to run manual scans and updates, and shows you which protection modules are installed.

Avira Free doesn’t include the web and email protection modules or the notification-free Game mode of the paid-for version, but it’s nonetheless a very capable anti-virus solution. Additional features included a scan scheduler, reporting, and quarantine features that let you see both what Avira has done and anything it’s detected while protecting you.

Advanced scan options can be accessed from the main status screen via gear icons next to the feature they relate to, allowing you to add scan exceptions and make the software’s heuristic scanning engine behave in a more sensitive manner.

Avira was among the most effective of the free anti-virus suites we looked at, coming second only to Qihoo in protection. Its lightweight system footprint and a clear interface make it an ideal choice for lower-powered PCs.



Key features:

Silent detection mode
Multiple protection engines
Windows XP/Vista/7/8/8.1/10
Requires 1.6GHz processor, 512MB RAM, 1GB free disk space

The somewhat confusingly named Qihoo (pronounced chi-hoo) 360 Total Security – not a million miles from the name of a popular product in Symantec’s Norton range – is a relative newcomer to the free anti-virus market, but it’s equipped with an impressive set of tools and features.

Unusually for a free anti-virus product, Qihoo 360 Total Security uses its own scanning engines alongside up to two standard anti-virus engines to provide the most accurate possible results. It combines the Avira and Bitdefender engines, although you have the option of choosing not to install the latter engine at setup time. If you want to use Avast as well, you’ll be given the option of installing it later.

Bearing this in mind, it perhaps isn’t surprising that its virus detection performance in AV-TEST’s spring tests was flawless, picking up 100% of both live real-world exposures and all malicious files in a reference set. It didn’t misidentify any legitimate software as malicious, either – although, oddly, it threw up warnings during specific parts of the installation and operation of three benign programs, which is a minor blip in generally excellent performance.

Its impact on system performance is a slight weak point that may put off users with underpowered PCs: AV-TEST found a notable impact on the speed of software installs and file-copy speeds. Nonetheless, Qihoo’s perfect detection score puts it in a rare and impressive category for either free or paid-for anti-virus.

The Qihoo 360 Total Security client is a plain-looking blue-and-white affair – with optional skins on offer. It includes a number of system optimisation features that you may or may not want in its default Full Check scan, such as boot-time speed up and junk file clearing scans. However, you can just switch to the client’s Virus Scan tab if all you want to know is whether or not there’s malware on your PC.

The Virus Scan tab lets you run a quick, full or custom scan, and is also where you go to enable and disable Qihoo’s various scanning modules. It’s here that we were first given the option to download and install the Avast engine. The full range of engines used for this scan are the 360 Cloud Engine, System Repair Engine, QVMII AI Engine (all built in-house by Qihoo), Bitdefender and Avira.

If it encounters any files that are new to it, even if they’re not malicious, it will also ask permission to upload them for analysis and inclusion in its directory. Other buttons on the Virus Scan tab let you see, delete or restore anything that’s been quarantined, and edit your Trust List – a list of files, directories or URLs that you wish to exempt from scanning for any reason.

Other tabs provide access to Qihoo’s Speedup system optimisation tools, while a general Tool Box tab is packed with various Qihoo utilities, including a registry cleaner, a sandbox to safely run potentially risky software and a vulnerability scanner.

Meanwhile, if you want to replace the Windows Firewall, Qihoo has partnered with well-regarded software firewall vendor GlassWire to let you install GlassWire Firewall as an integrated component. While most of these bells and whistles aren’t particularly important to an anti-virus suite, it’s nonetheless impressive to see so many features packed into a free offering.

Qihoo 360’s settings offer up a few extra customisation options, allowing you to install browser plugins to warn about potentially dangerous sites and files when you encounter them on the web, scan compressed files and USB disks, block potentially unwanted programs from being downloaded – along with more desirable software – and disable the upload for analysis feature, among others.

A Notification Area icon lets you put the program into silent mode, so it doesn’t bother you when gaming or watching a film. It’s worth noting that Qihoo is ad-supported, but this is incredibly unobtrusive: just a couple of “recommended free games” in a bar at the bottom of the toolbox.

Qihoo 360 Total Security is still something of a newcomer to the anti-virus market, but we were pleasantly surprised by its clear interface, huge range of features, and its ability to use multiple scanning engines for optimal results, giving it a perfect protection score in AV-TEST’s spring tests.

Perhaps not surprisingly for a product with so many engines and features, it has a heavier system load than some of its rivals. But if you have a powerful PC then Qihoo, with all its engines activated, provides the most comprehensive free protection around.

Users with less powerful computers should opt for Avira instead.