The Best Free Antivirus Utilities for 2016

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There are plenty of different ways you can choose to spend your money. Take a trip, buy the latest console game, see a blockbuster at the movie theater. Then there are budget items that you can't avoid, like paying your taxes. But even if the looming tax filing deadline cramps your cash flow, you can still install one of the excellent free antivirus utilities we've collected for you. And hey! If you're getting a refund, you'll still want to keep your security tight, to keep cyber-crooks from siphoning off that tax bonus before it gets to you.

Quite a few of these products are free only for noncommercial use; if you want to protect your business, you have to pony up for the paid edition. At that point, you should probably consider upgrading to a full security suite. After all, it's your business's security on the line. And if you've grown beyond SMB status, investing in a SaaS endpoint protection system will let you monitor and manage security across your entire organization.

Yes, it's true that Windows 8 and Windows 10 have antivirus built right in, but in our tests and most independent lab tests, Windows Defender hasn't done very well. There have been some signs of improvement in several tests last year, which is encouraging.

Your antivirus should definitely have the ability to root out existing malware, but its ongoing task is to prevent ransomware, botnets, Trojans, and other types of nasty programs from getting a foothold. All of the antivirus programs in this collection offer real-time protection against malware attack. Some take the fight upstream, working hard to ensure you never even browse to a malware-hosting site, or get fooled into turning over your credentials to a phishing site.

Independent Antivirus Lab Test Results
Around the world, researchers at independent antivirus testing labs spend their days putting antivirus tools to the test. Some of these labs regularly release public reports on their findings. I follow six such labs closely: AV-Comparatives, AV-Test Institute, Dennis Technology Labs, ICSA Labs, Virus Bulletin, and West Coast Labs.

Security companies typically pay for the privilege of being included in testing. In return, the labs supply them with detailed reports that can help improve their products. The number of labs that include a particular vendor serves as a measure of significance. In each case, the lab considered the product important enough to test, and the vendor felt the price was worthwhile. The labs don't necessarily test a vendor's free product, but most vendors pack full protection into the free product, enhancing premium versions with additional features. I've worked out a system for aggregating lab results, yielding a lab score from 0 to 5, or N/A if there just isn't enough data.

PCMag Antivirus Test Results
In addition to carefully perusing results from the independent labs, I also run my own hands-on malware blocking test. I expose each antivirus to a collection of malware samples, including a variety of different malware types, and note its reaction. Typically the antivirus will wipe out most of the samples on sight, and detect some of the remaining ones when I try to launch them. I derive a malware blocking score from 0 to 10 points based on how thoroughly the antivirus protects the test system from these samples. Avast Free Antivirus holds the current top score in this test, tied with one of our Editors' Choice paid antivirus utilities.

Since I use the same samples month after month, the malware-blocking test definitely doesn't measure a product's ability to detect brand-new threats. In a separate test, I attempt to download malware from 100 very new malicious URLs supplied by MRG-Effitas, typically less than a day old. I note whether the antivirus blocked all access to the URL, wiped out the malicious payload during download, or did nothing. McAfee and Symantec, both paid products, hold the very best scores in this test, though some free antivirus utilities have done fairly well.

Useful Features
Just about every antivirus product scans files on access to make sure malware can't launch, and also scans the entire system on demand, or on a schedule you set. Once that cleaning and scheduling is done, blocking all access to malware-hosting URLs is another good way to avoid trouble. Many products extend that protection to also steer users away from fraudulent websites, phishing sites that try to steal login credentials for financial sites and other sensitive sites. A few rate links in search results, flagging any dangerous or iffy ones.

Behavior-based detection, a feature of some antivirus products, is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it can detect malware that's never been seen before. On the other hand, if it's not done right, it can baffle the user with messages about perfectly legitimate programs.

One easy way to keep your PC protected is to install all security updates, both for Windows and for browsers and other popular applications. Starting with Windows 10, Windows updates aren't optional for consumers, but there are plenty of security holes in popular apps and add-ons. Scanning for vulnerabilities in the form of missing updates is a feature most often found in commercial antivirus products, but it does turn up in some free ones. In the chart above you can see which products include these useful features.

What's Not Here
This article reports only on free antivirus products that received at least a good rating in our reviews—three stars or better. Among those that didn't make the cut is Microsoft Security Essentials / Windows Defender. All of the independent labs I follow do include Microsoft in testing, but most use it as a baseline. If a product can't do better than the baseline, it's got real problems.

Avira Antivirus 2015 is among the many antivirus utilities that don't qualify for inclusion. I mention Avira's application in particular because some among its fans seem to think it has been excluded as the result of some sort of conspiracy. The truth is that the last version simply didn't measure up. I'm hoping to review the latest version of Avira soon. The reason I haven't done so already couldn't be further from nefarious, however. In fact, I'm still waiting—on the company's advice—until a few final features are added to the latest version. I want to make sure the software gets a fair shake.

Furthermore, I'm aware that my review of Bitdefender's Free Antivirus is getting long in the tooth, but the company simply doesn't update its free utilities as often as its premium ones. Rest assured, I'm in close contact with Bitdefender and I'll review its new offering as soon as it's available. 

There are also numerous free antivirus utilities that work solely to clean up existing malware infestations. You bring out these cleanup-only tools when you have a nasty malware infestation. When the problem's gone, they have no further use, since they offer no ongoing protection. Our Editors' Choice in this category is Malwarebytes Anti-Malware 2.0, and it's definitely one you should try if you've got a malware problem. But since they're free, you can keep trying others if the first one doesn't do the job. When the scare is over, you'll need a full-blown antivirus for ongoing protection.

What's Best
Our current Editors' Choice products for free antivirus utility are Avast Free Antivirus, AVG AntiVirus Free, and Panda Free Antivirus. All three get very good scores from the independent labs, and in our own tests as well. All three include some useful bonus features. Avast in particular packs a password manager and a network security scanner in its toolkit. If you do have a little cash in your budget for security, the best paid antivirus products do tend to offer more and better protection. If not, try a few of these free tools and see which one you like best.

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