Paid Vs. Free Antivirus Protection: Which Is Best?

Have you chosen free or paid antivirus (AV) protection for your computer? Is there a difference, and does it matter? We take a look at the pros and cons of free antivirus vs. paid antivirus to find out.

Let's start with full disclosure: I hate paying extra for anything. How about you? Needless to say, I've opted for free AV protection. Thus I was intrigued by this article arguing that free AV is worse than paid AV. I became open to being convinced that I'm wrong.

One thing on which everyone seems to agree is that having no antivirus protection is a recipe for disaster. Clearly! Thus free AV is better than no AV. Personally, I felt that since I was not a voracious user of the digital domain, and harbored no great secrets nor furtive proclivities, basic free AV protection was OK.

However, the many recent ransomware attacks got me thinking again. Those and the invasive bank Trojans I was hearing about. I use online banking and buy items over the internet. For me, then, the arguments in the article for paid AV came at the right time. Let’s first look at free protection.

Free Antivirus Software: Considerations

The most popular free AV products are Microsoft Defender, Avast Antivirus, Panda Antivirus, and Bitdefender Antivirus. Although free antivirus has the advantage of costing nothing, there are some downsides when it comes to free stuff. Firstly, why are companies giving away their service for free? If it’s truly free, how the heck do they make money?

The answer is advertising revenue. Free antivirus usually buries the user in adverts. These can be about buying the full version of the AV or for some other product. Some folks find this very annoying. There's also much more to be concerned about.

By offering free AV, vendors can collect telemetry data. The more users an antivirus company has, the better visibility it has on the current threat landscape. This data might include your browsing habits, which applications you use, and the identities of those with whom you communicate. As such, you may be safe from basic viruses but still exposed.

An internet browser with paid AV can prevent the theft of sensitive information. AV can also install browser plugins to check the reputation of a website, and warn if the site has a bad reputation. It can also block phishing attacks.

Paid AV also allows the analysis of unknown threats in an isolated environment. This is known as sandboxing. The suspect sample is analysed in a safe environment. Even if it evades signature-based detection, the AV can detect its malicious behaviour and block it.

Paid AV also provides an outgoing firewall that can control which applications communicate with the internet. This might protect against malware that uses outbound command and control channels.

Another benefit of paid antivirus protection is that it provides exploitation protection against in-memory attacks. These attempt to avoid detection by not writing to disk storage. Detecting in-memory attacks is hard, but good AV protection can block the loading of the malicious code at the exploit stage. Flash plugin, Internet Explorer, Office applications and Firefox are commonly exploited by cybercriminals in this way.

Many paid AV services also provide ransomware protection. You only have to lose your files once to know how important ransomware protection is!

Finally, using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) with AV can help keep your internet use hidden and secure from your local ISP, unscrupulous WiFi operators and snooping government authorities.

I must admit that I'm now feeling a little vulnerable now, especially given the growing ransomware menace. As a private user in the safety of my home office, I thought I wouldn’t end up as a statistic. I thought that only corporations, hospitals and the like were targets. Now, I’m not so sure. I guess I have to take a long, hard look at paid antivirus again. How about you?

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Written by: Stan Ward

Stan Ward has enjoyed writing for 50 years. Writing has been a comfortable companion to a successful business and teaching career for him.


on September 18, 2017
I feel like free stuff are always meant to get paid one way or another. Like for VPNs free ones will probably sell your data or something which is why I use FrootVPN even though it is a paid one its worth the money
Douglas Crawford replied to Micron
on September 18, 2017
Hi Micron, Yes. when it comes to VPNs, there is no such thing as a free lunch. running a VPN service is an expensive business, so the people doing it will be making money somehow.
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