Malware attacks happen every single day, so it's important to protect your computer from them. Antivirus doesn't have to cost a fortune, though. In fact, there are plenty of free options available that will go a long way to keeping your computer - and data - safe from hackers. Here are six free antivirus apps available for your PC.
Should you get free antivirus?
With several huge malware and ransomware attacks making the headlines over the past couple of years, no-one should be under the illusion that they can get away without running any antivirus software. Since it doesn't have to cost any money, there's really no excuse.
While free antivirus doesn't always offer the most complete protection, it's better than having none at all and free versions often use the same 'engine' as their paid-for products.
When we talk about complete protection, we mean that free versions tend not to include any of the extra features you'd find in a paid-for internet security suite. These can include specific protection from ransomware as well as spam filtering, parental controls, password managers and support for Android devices.
If you want the extra features that a paid-for version includes, you'll find recommendations in our best antivirus roundup.
Is free antivirus really free?
And some free antivirus products will be supported by adverts, typically on Android versions. You can find out if it's worth installing antivirus on Android and whether iPhones need protecting from malware or not.
These days, antivirus software should comply with GDPR in Europe and with other privacy regulations in other countries.
Does free antivirus software work?
Privacy is perhaps not the most important factor. Antivirus software is designed to prevent your PC and laptop - plus phone and tablet - from being infected by malicious code which could cause issues ranging from annoying pop-ups through to stealing your personal information or even deleting or encrypting your files.
The effectiveness of antivirus software changes over time, and a product that stops all viruses today may not do that tomorrow or in a month. No antivirus software offers a cast iron guarantee that it will stop 100% of malware, but many come close to this figure. And it's essentially the same virus protection you get from the paid-for version of that product.
In a test carried out by AV-Comparitives in January of 2019, less than a third of the 250 Android antivirus apps tested managed to catch more than 30% of malicious apps, highlighting the importance of making sure you get an antivirus app that is genuine and effective.
What you'll find below are reviews of the leading free AV programs and their performance in the most recent tests. You really can get something for nothing, so be sure your computers are protected with one of these products.
Best Antivirus software reviews
Avira Free AntiVirus
Avira is a very strong contender in the free antivirus space (95% total accuracy in SE Labs tests), and this is one of the best specified free versions of an AV product available today. It's also the most user-friendly tested here.
As the product installs, there are several introductory screens you can flick through, detailing such delights as Safesearch Plus, Phantom VPN, Software Updater, the Avira Password manger, and System Speedup.
There's also a useful tour of the interface, showing you what's what. But is everything in the product tour really included? Surprisingly, the answer is overwhelmingly yes. Most useful modules are all fully, or almost fully, functional.
The Software Updater fetches the latest version of your apps at the click of a button, the System Speedup cleans junk, but optimising startup performance is limited to the pro version.
The Privacy Pal module is fully functional, and cleans the digital traces that leave you open to being tracked across the internet. Similarly, the Password Manager, Safesearch Plus, and Browser Safety modules can all be installed in either Google's Chrome of Mozilla's Firefox browsers.
Even the Phantom VPN works, giving you 500MB of secure data transfer for when you're on the move in dodgy places.
File scans can be scheduled, and by default there’s a quick scan set to repeat every 168 hours or, as it's better known, weekly.
Overall, this is a very well specified free AV product that can give paid products a run for their money.
Get Avira free here.
Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition
Bitdefender's free offering is simple, robust and reliable. Its paid-for version is our number one recommendation right now, too.
By simple, we really do mean simple. There are no modules here that turn out to be paid versions, no password manager, and no secure browser to install. This is stripped back system protection only, offering just antivirus and nothing else. However, Bitdefender's AV engine employs the same machine learning as the full version, enabling it to spot unknown threats as well as known ones.
The interface is similarly sparse. You can drag and drop files onto it to scan them, but you can also right click them in Explorer and do the same thing without dragging. Any dodgy files are quarantined, and you can also set up exclusions – both files and folders – that will not be scanned. This is useful if Bitdefender should produce a false positive that keeps preventing an application from running.
Overall, being stripped back to just the essential antivirus function, Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition is very simple to use, with good AI-based protection. But if you need more, you'll need to look elsewhere.
Avast Free Antivirus
Unlike some some AV companies, Avast doesn’t hide its free antivirus offering so you can’t find it. A big orange button makes this version more obvious than its paid offerings, so that's a good start.
As well as basic protection, Avast Free Antivirus offers defence from unknown threats using its Behaviour Shield, which stops even previously well-behaved software from suddenly performing dodgy operations that could endanger your identity and data.
There's also a handy password manager, so you can log into sites in your browser by remembering just one password. This is pre-stuffed at installation time with login details found in your installed browsers. Annoyingly, the browser-based password manager regularly nags you to install and activate it when you run your default browser.
We're not keen on AV software making major changes to our rig, so installing a Chrome-based browser, importing all my browser data, asking to be the default system browser, and wanting to launch at boot time was a turn off. If you're working in an insecure environment, this is a good option to have, however.
The free version also gives you the Avast Online Security browser extension and the infamous SafePrice extension, which selects the best price on items from a database of "trusted e-shops". What you don't get is the Real Site plugin, which spots fake web sites that stand ready to relieve you of your credit card details and money.
Avast’s antivirus protection is also solid. AV-Test's December 2018 report found that Avast's core AV engine stopped 100% of zero-day attacks, and 100% of malware.
SE Labs scored it similarly, with a total accuracy score of 93%. Other than the Behaviour Shield mentioned above, you also get the File Shield (all files scanned on opening), the Web Shield (blocks browser attacks and malicious downloads), and the Mail Shield (blocks dangerous email attachments).
What's missing? The system Cleanup Premier tool is an advert for the paid version. It will tell you what's slowing and bulking your computer, but you'll need to “buy” a free 60-day free trial. Similarly, installing the VPN and enabling it opens an invitation to subscribe to the service for a monthly fee.
Kaspersky is another big name in antivirus, and it offers a free version for PC.
While installing this product, you're implored to “Feel the power of protection” by the splashscreen, but it's no surprise that the free version doesn't come fully-featured.
There's no parental control, online payment protection, or VPN functionality here. But you will get all of the essentials, including file, email and web antivirus, automatic updates, self-defence, quarantine and more.
What's particularly good to see included is extensive right-click functionality against individual files. You can scan a file, send it to the Kaspersky Security Network to instantly have its reputation checked out.
You also have access to Kaspersky's cloud-based Application Advisor, which provides a full rundown about the content of the file, the number of users that have tested it, where in the world people are using it, along with various pieces of technical information.
Kaspersky's paid-for version scores well in AV-Test's December report, with 100% detection and protection, and good scores in both performance and usability. It also came top in SE Labs' most recent test report with a 100% total accuracy rating. As Kaspersky Free contains the same AV engine, you can bet it has the same ability.
As with Bitdefender's free offering, Kaspersky Free is a lightweight, solid choice.
Get Kaspersky Free here.
AVG Free Antivirus
Immediately after installation, AVG Antivirus Free offers to protect your phone, which is a clever move. Simply send the link to your device and download the protection.
Not all is as it seems here. For example, when you look through the tools on offer, you're told that PC Tuneup has already been “purchased” and is available for installation.
However, when installed, there's a button to unlock all features. Running PC Tuneup finds all kinds of things to change or delete, but it turns out that doing anything about these things involves signing up for a 30-day trial. Not exactly, “purchased” then.
The other tools in AVG's arsenal must also be purchased, including the VPN, password manager, software updater, and AntiTrack module, which deletes tracking cookies. Most of these tools are included free with Avira's free offering.
AV-Test found that AVG's underlying AV engine protected against and detected 100% of threats in its December 2018 report. SE Labs' October-December report pegged its total accuracy at just 92%.
That said, AVG Antivirus Free does offer six different scan types, including Deep Scan, USB/DVD scan, single file or folder scans, and a boot-time scan, which runs before Windows starts up, thereby running before any lurking malware has a chance to start up and protect itself from the product. If you're ever presented with a family member's computer displaying weird behaviour, this is the product to give that machine a thorough delousing.
In addition to AV duties, AVG also warns you of unsafe web links, and can block unsafe email attachments. Rounding out the product is a handy file shredder, right-click scanning for individual files, and a Do Not Disturb mode, which allows you to play games or watch shows without nag screens or other notifications.
In summary, this is a great product for deep cleaning your machines, but other offerings have more toys.
Get AVG free here.
Microsoft Windows Defender
Many people think Windows Defender is a joke. Built into Windows 8 onwards, it runs by default when no third party antivirus software product is installed. It's just a sop to appease windows haters, right?
Wrong. Windows Defender scored a triple A protection rating in SE Labs' October-December report, with a total accuracy of 100%. AV-Test has also found that it detects and protects against almost all attacks, and scored it well for performance.
Being the default, there's a common perception that Windows Defender has no toys in the box beyond basic antivirus duties. This is not the case. For starters, there's ransomware protection that allows you to nominate folders that cannot be changed other than with your explicit say so. Integrated OneDrive support allows you to recover files that do become corrupted by malware.
Suspect samples can automatically be submitted for thorough cloud-based analysis. Being tightly integrated with Windows also allows Defender to provide innovative sign-in options, including Windows Hello, which allows you to log in with your face or fingerprint.
There's also the integrated Windows firewall, advanced exploit protection, and protection from code being injected by malware into innocent processes.
Secure Boot prevents rootkits or anything else from running and hiding before other software, including AV software, gets a chance to start up. Scanning duties include an offline scan that runs at boot time, before Windows starts, thereby denying rootkits and other stealthy malware a place to hide.
Finally, there are family options to help keep your kids safe online. Coupled with this, Windows itself has a little-used VPN built into the operating system.
There are more accessible free and paid-for choices, but if you really don't trust third party AV companies to keep your details safe, you could do much worse than Windows Defender.