In this age of data-stealing Trojans and file-encrypting ransomware, it's just not sensible to go without antivirus protection. Many free antivirus utilities are quite effective, so cost isn't really an issue. One such free service is Qihoo 360 Total Security Essential 8.6, which goes beyond simple protection against malware, adding system tuneup and cleanup features along with a large number of other useful tools. However, this wealth of bonus features doesn't quite make up for the fact that its core antivirus protection is just average.
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Installing this product is quick and simple. The mini-installer downloads and executes the very latest version of the full install program. You really should check the box that enables the licensed Bitdefender antivirus engine. It's up to you whether you participate in the company's User Experience Improvement Program. If you do, the antivirus will send nonpersonal information back to the company. All of these options are checked by default.
Once you click Install, the process finishes without further interaction. When installation is complete, the installer presents three pages of information about impressive new features in this version. 360 Connect lets you connect with friends and family to give or receive help with the program. A new Registry Cleaner eliminates useless and erroneous items from the Registry. And the Data Hijacking Protection feature promises to protect you from data-encrypting ransomware.
After installing the product on my test system, I checked for malware signature updates. Even though the mini-installer grabbed the very latest program version, the program did find some newer signatures to install. I also found a number of settings that every user should change from their default values. The licensed Avira antivirus engine is absent by default; you should click to download and enable it. Detection of Potentially Unwanted Programs (PUPs) is another option you should turn on. And you should install Qihoo's add-ons for Chrome and Firefox (Internet Explorer protection gets installed automatically). Qihoo also offers add-ons for Opera and Russian browser Yandex.
A large icon at the top-left corner displays the legend Protection: On when everything is configured correctly. Clicking this icon reveals that the product's protection comes in three modes: Performance, Balanced, and Security. Initially it's set to Balanced, but I'd strongly recommend you crank it up to Security mode. After all, security is the reason you even have an antivirus!
Qihoo's main window focuses on what it calls Full Check. Clicking the big Check Now button runs four scans: Speedup, Virus Scan, Cleanup, and Wi-Fi Security Check. My virtual machine test systems don't have Wi-Fi, but the other three scans finished in less than three minutes total.
Clearly the virus scan included in Full Check was a quick scan, just looking for active threats. When I ran a full anti-malware scan, it took about 50 minutes. The scan checks system settings, common programs, running processes, and startup items first, then goes on to scan all files. On my clean test system, it found two files it thought suspicious and asked for permission to send another nine to Qihoo for analysis.
Some antivirus products perform a kind of optimization during the first scan, making subsequent scans run faster, sometimes much faster. A repeat scan with Qihoo brought the scan time down to 30 minutes. Panda Free Antivirus (2016) also brought a lengthy scan (over an hour) down to 30 minutes on the second scan. That's an improvement, but nothing like AVG AntiVirus Free (2016), which finished a repeat scan in one minute.
Little From the Labs
I carefully track each antivirus product's scores from five independent antivirus testing labs. The very best products get high marks in many different tests by numerous labs. Alas, just one of the labs I follow includes Qihoo, and just one of the certifying agencies certifies its effectiveness. That's not enough data on which to calculate an aggregate lab test score.
AV-Test Institute is the only lab that includes Qihoo in its testing. This lab assigns antivirus products a score of up to six points each on three criteria: Protection, Performance, and Usability. Qihoo earned the full six points for thoroughly protecting against malware attack. It took another perfect six for usability, meaning that it refrained from erroneously flagging legitimate programs or websites as malicious. A four-point score for performance indicates that it did put a bit of a drag on system performance; I noticed this in my own testing. Its total score of 16 points is good, but Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2016 managed a perfect 18 points in the latest round of testing. Avira Antivirus 2016 and several others came close, with 17.5 points.
So-So Malware Blocking
My hands-on malware blocking test starts when I open the folder containing my collection of samples. Many products, including Avira and Microsoft Windows Defender 4.9, spring into action at this point. Others, like Emsisoft Anti-Malware 11.0 and Webroot, don't react until the samples are copied to a new location or otherwise saved to disk.
Qihoo is one of those rare products that doesn't scan files until they're about to execute. My testing is vastly easier when products scan before the point of execution, and I also consider scanning on any file access, even just viewing the file in Windows Explorer, to be safer. What if the antivirus crashes, or otherwise stops functioning? My company contact advised that switching the protection mode from Balanced to Security would make it scan any time a file is saved. However, even after I did so, copying the samples to a new folder didn't get any reaction from the antivirus. I had to proceed by launching every single sample and noting the results.
During this test, Qihoo displayed a few behavior-related popups, flagging applications that set themselves to launch at startup, make changes in a system folder, and so on. I dutifully let it block these behaviors, but didn't count this as malware detection, since the app displayed the same popups for several legitimate programs. When it detected a malicious program trying to launch, it displayed a big warning with a 30-second countdown to automatic removal. I always clicked Remove before the countdown ended.
Qihoo detected 84 percent of my samples and scored 8.1 out of a possible 10 points. I found its test results puzzling in a couple of ways. I accidentally ran this same test last month before realizing I wasn't using the latest version. You'd expect the very newest version to be as good or better, but in fact the earlier version eked out 8.2 points. The two tests mostly jibed with each other, but there were samples caught by the current version and not by the older one, or caught by the old one and not the new. In addition, I tested Avira with the same set of samples not long ago. Given that Qihoo licenses antivirus technology from both Avira and Bitdefender, you'd expect it to score as well or better than Avira, but Avira detected 94 percent of the samples. As I said, puzzling!
The top score among products tested with this same set of samples goes to Webroot SecureAnywhere AntiVirus (2016). You can't beat 100 percent detection and a perfect 10 points! Tested with my previous sample set, Avast Free Antivirus 2016 also detected 100 percent. Along with Bitdefender, it earned 9.3 points, the top score in that group.
I also test each antivirus product's ability to block malware at the source, either by preventing access to malware-hosting URLs or by wiping out malware during or immediately after the download process. For this test, I use a feed of the very newest malicious URLs discovered by London-based MRG-Effitas. These are typically no more than a day old. Every product gets the URLs that are active on its day of testing, so I keep at the test until I have data for at least 100 URLs.
I expected Qihoo's browser add-on to prevent access to at least some of the malicious URLs, but it didn't kick in at all. Qihoo did eliminate 76 percent of the samples during the download process. That's an okay score, but Avira managed 99 percent protection, in every case blocking all access to the malware-hosting URL. Before Avira's amazing feat, the top score was 91 percent, shared by McAfee AntiVirus Plus (2016) and Symantec Norton Security Premium.
Shopping and Ransomware Protection
Bitdefender offers to open shopping websites and other sensitive sites in a hardened browser. Kaspersky reserves its similar feature for the full Kaspersky Internet Security (2016) suite. Qihoo's Online Shopping Protection works a bit differently, but aims for a similar effect.
When you enter a shopping site, you'll see a transient notification that Qihoo is entering its online shopping mode. In this mode, it terminates any unknown programs and doesn't allow new unknown programs to launch. It also promises protection against keyloggers and attempts to modify browser settings.
Qihoo also offers a feature called Data Hijacking Protection, aimed at keeping your files safe from ransomware. Like the similar feature in Bitdefender, it prevents all access to your important data files by any process that isn't known and trusted. I tried to prod this feature into action by modifying files in the Documents folder using a tiny editor that I wrote myself, but it didn't prevent my modifications. I also used a very simple file encryptor, again without any reaction from Qihoo.
My contact at the company explained that this feature only kicks in under clearly suspicious circumstances. Simply editing or deleting files using a program not recognized by Qihoo isn't enough to trigger it. Using detailed instructions supplied by the company, I created a new program to trigger ransomware protection. Alas, I couldn't even launch it. Qihoo flagged it as malicious program DR.Delphi.Gen, apparently for the simple reason that it was written in Delphi. In order to launch the test program, I had to whitelist it, and of course whitelisted programs don't trigger the ransomware protection.
I'm pretty sure this feature works, but Qihoo may have gone overboard trying to ensure it doesn't snare valid programs. Bitdefender and Panda alert you to any unknown program that attempts to modify your documents. If you triggered it yourself by using a new document editor, you simply click to whitelist the new program.
Phishing websites are fraudulent sites that imitate bank sites and other sensitive sites in order to steal the login credentials of hapless victims. Who needs a data-stealing Trojan if you can simply trick people into giving away their data?
For this test, I collect URLs from phish-tracking sites online. Specifically, I gather that have been reported as fraudulent within the last few hours. Most of these are too new to have been analyzed and blacklisted. That's important, because phishing fraudsters don't keep these sites open for very long. Once they've scammed a handful of victims, they shut down the site and open another. I launch each URL simultaneously in a browser protected by the tested product and in one protected by antiphishing champ Norton. I also launch each in Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer, relying on the phishing protection built into the browser.
When I tested Qihoo's previous version, it scored extremely well, with a detection rate just one percentage point behind Norton's. Few products get this close. Only Webroot and Bitdefender have outscored Norton in this test.
I don't know what changed, but this time around Qihoo totally tanked. Its detection rate lagged Norton's by a whopping 91 percent, and all three of the browsers proved significantly more effective. The lesson is clear; don't rely on Qihoo to fend off fraudulent websites!
See How We Test Security Software
Are you the de facto tech support team for your family? The 360 Connect app (for iPhone or Android phone) can make helping easier. Just scan a QR code on your smartphone to install the app from the appropriate app store. Enter your phone number, enter the verification code texted to that number, and optionally link the app with your Facebook profile.
Next, you need to pair your family's Qihoo installations with your 360 Connect account. This is a simple matter of entering your phone number on the device, and accepting the connection on your smartphone. Once the device is paired with your phone, you can check system status, or run a full system check remotely. Note that the recipient of your remote help must approve that system check. You can also send a message, though as far as I can tell, there's no way for the recipient of your assistance to reply.
Speedup, Cleanup, and More
Qihoo offers a substantial set of tools to speed up your system's performance. It scans the system each time you boot; you can also launch a scan whenever you want. The speedup scan automatically optimizes network performance and simple startup items. It also lists scheduled tasks, application services, and system services that aren't essential, leaving to you the decision whether to disable them. All of these options show up on the Easy Speedup tab of the Speedup page.
The My Boot Time tab graphs how long your system takes to boot up. In theory, you'll see that time shrinking as Qihoo optimizes the system. It also displays a transient popup reporting the boot time after each time you boot the system. I checked the boot time before and after disabling all non-essential items; Qihoo didn't report any difference. Apparently those items didn't have a big effect on boot time.
The History tab shows all of the optimizations the system has performed, and the Manual tab lets you manually change settings. On the Manual tab, I found that most items were marked "Leave as it is." A few were marked Optional Off, Optional On, Recommend Off, or Recommend On. Unless you're a trained expert, you should leave the items on this page alone.
The Cleanup tool checks for unnecessary browser plug-ins and junk files. After the very quick scan finishes, you can review its findings and optionally rescue some items from deletion, or request deletion of items not slated for deletion by default. Qihoo's scan for junk files is more thorough than many. In addition to the expected browser cache files and Windows temporary files, it finds application junk files, Windows app cache files, and more. Removed files go into quarantine, so if the cleanup causes any problems (which it shouldn't) you can recover them.
Once the cleanup process finishes, Qihoo recommends running the System Backup Cleaner, one of the many useful items found on the Tool Box page. This utility deletes unused driver backups and unused backups related to system updates. It does warn that deleting system update backups means those updates can no longer be uninstalled, and that existing system restore points will be invalidated. I found that this tool took a bit longer to scan and clean than the main cleanup tool, but it recovered another 9GB of disk space.
Also on the Tool Box page, the Patch Up scanner looks for missing Windows security patches, as well as optional updates and non-security updates. Just check the ones you want and click the Patch button; Qihoo takes care of the rest. When I ran this tool on my test system, it found a Java update and nine Windows patches available. I selected them all and set it running, but it didn't get past the Java update. Canceling the patch job and trying again fixed that problem.
There are plenty more tools in the Tool Box, many of them flagged as new in this edition. Browser Protection blocks unauthorized changes to the default browser, and to the home page and search engine in Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer. Instant Setup downloads and installs a number of popular applications with a single click. The list includes Skype, Line, Open Office, and 7-Zip, among others.
The new Registry Cleaner scans for invalid system data and invalid application data in the Registry. After the very quick scan, you can review the tool's findings. You don't get the option to pick and choose individual items for cleanup, but then, most users don't have the knowledge to make that sort of decision. In the unlikely event that the cleanup process causes a problem, you can reverse this tool's actions.
Qihoo doesn't actually have a firewall built in, but clicking Firewall brings up an offer to install the free GlassWire Firewall. There's also a Sandbox tool that lets you run suspect programs without letting them make permanent changes to the system, and a beta tool to gain disk space by compressing system files. You'll also find a couple of recommended free games at the bottom of the page; you can hide these if you wish.
Want more? You can go online and vote for what tools Qihoo should add next. Among the choices are parental control, file shredding, and a network monitor.
Good, Not Great
Qihoo 360 Total Security Essential 8.6 packs in more security-related bonus features than any other free antivirus I can think of. Those features would be a lovely addition to an excellent free antivirus. The problem is that Qihoo's core antivirus protection doesn't quite measure up. There's not much to go on from the independent labs, but its scores in our own malware blocking and malicious URL blocking tests were just average. And somehow going from the previous edition to this one, its antiphishing score went from near the top to near the bottom.
If Qihoo's many extras fill you with delight, you can go ahead and use it. But if your aim is to get the best free antivirus protection you can, there are better choices. All five of the independent testing labs that I follow include both Avast Free Antivirus 2016 and AVG AntiVirus Free (2016) in their testing, giving them good marks overall. Panda Free Antivirus (2016) includes a collection of bonus features that almost rivals Qihoo's. All three are Editors' Choice winners for free antivirus.