Depending on whom you ask, paying for antivirus software is either a good investment or a total rip-off. In reality, neither viewpoint is accurate. You can find plenty of good reasons to choose a paid antivirus product, and plenty of good reasons to go with a freebie.
Four basic levels of antivirus products exist: free, paid antivirus, suites, and “premium” suites. As you move up the ladder from free antivirus to premium suites, you typically get more features, such as identity theft protection, firewalls, parental controls, and system performance tools. ]
Free antivirus software usually provides a bare minimum level of protection. It will scan for malware, and often can perform automatic scans, too. Some free apps may have additional protection tools such as a browser add-on that checks for bad links–and such as the Comodo Fee Internet Security premium, has a firewall. But such features are usually limited to paid antivirus products. Some free apps offer behavioral malware detection, which finds malware based on how it acts on your PC–a good way of detecting brand-new malware outbreaks. (Behavioral detection is standard on paid products.)
Paid antivirus straddles a middle ground between the basic freebies and the feature-packed security suites: They typically offer more comprehensive security tools (such as parental controls and identity theft protection) and more flexibility than a free antivirus package, but they have fewer additional features than suites, which are intended to be one-stop security shops.
One of the biggest drawbacks to going with a free product is the lack of technical support. While most companies offer some sort of phone support for paying customers, free antivirus users usually must fend for themselves. Avast does offer e-mail support for its free customers; most others provide only a knowledge base or forum where users can go for help.
Another tradeoff is that free antivirus products often have some sort of advertisement for the company’s paid product.
How about malware signature updates? The security software companies I spoke to before told me that they treat their free and paid products the same as far as signature updates are concerned, although there may be some under-the-hood differences between their free and paid products.
User interfaces are typically as good (or as bad) in free products as they are in their paid counterparts. Avira and Avast, for example, use the same basic interface for their free and paid versions; they just include or leave out certain features and toggles as needed.
Most of the free products we tested put up identical or nearly identical malware detection scores to the paid varietals put out by the same company. But we did see some subtle differences. Per experience, on the whole, paid antivirus products did a slightly better job at detecting malware than their freebie counterparts.
Given how close the two classes of products are in terms of speed and effectiveness, the two biggest factors are features and customer support. With some exceptions, you get better customer support and more comprehensive security features with a paid product, but if you’re willing to forgo these, it’s definitely worth considering going free.