Column: Is free anti-virus good enough?

Q: Is it necessary to pay for good anti-virus protection or are the free ones good enough?

A: The answer to this question differs widely based on the user’s behavior and comfort level with technical products, but before I get into those details, it’s important to understand the difference between anti-virus and anti-malware programs.

Technically speaking, a virus is an older type of threat that generally hits you via an infected file that’s capable of replicating itself.  They generally rely on users to open these infected files in order to start the infection process (email file attachments, fake downloads, etc.).

Malware, on the other hand, is more of a blanket description for all of the various ways your computer can be exploited or compromised and is a better representation of what threatens you today.

A virus is actually one type of malware, so the industry should really stop calling their security offerings “anti-virus software.”

What you really want is complete anti-malware protection in order to best protect yourself from all of today’s threats: viruses, worms, Trojans, spyware, adware, rootkits, bots, ransomware, fake scareware, phishing attacks, zero-day exploits and more.

You can accomplish this with a single security package or multiple specialty packages; there are trade-offs in either case.

Comprehensive single-vendor security packages are what you generally get when you pay a company, while free options generally require you to install multiple programs to properly cover all your bases.

You also get technical support from humans when you pay, while free programs require you to use web forums, email and help from others when you run into a problem.

A single package approach can generally accomplish the task using fewer resources, which could have less of an overall performance impact on your computer.

Stacking a free anti-virus tool with one or two free anti-malware tools will save you money, but could cost you in performance.

Tech-savvy users have a better chance of navigating solid protection choices that have the least performance impact on their computers, so in those situations, using free programs can be quite adequate.

Non-technical users may not be able to decipher whether the free program they’ve installed is more focused on anti-virus or anti-malware tools, which can result in a false sense of security.

In addition, some free programs will constantly bug you to update to their paid version, while others will sell your browsing history to advertisers in order to make money.  Others will provide you with the program for free, but if you need their help they’ll charge you as much or more than what other programs with support would have cost in the first place.

No anti-virus or anti-malware program can provide 100 percent protection against all of the constantly evolving threats, so you should assume that you’ll have to do some cleanup at some point.

Are you tech-savvy and feel comfortable handling it on your own? Or will you need help when your computer gets infected? The answer to this question is probably the best way to decide whether to use pay or free programs.

Editor’s note: Ken Colburn is founder and CEO of Data Doctors Computer Services.

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