Free antivirus software can do a surprisingly stellar job -- as long as you don't want any frills. Paid antivirus software still outperforms the free stuff, catching more malware and having fewer false positives (detecting and even removing "threats" that aren't there -- an error that can hurt your computer). You'll also need to do without some sometimes helpful features found in paid software (like protecting you on Facebook and Twitter, or when you're paying online with your credit card).
Free software also peppers you with ads, which can get pretty annoying as they nag you to upgrade to the company's premium (read: paid) versions. Still, if you're looking for no-cost, no-frills antivirus software, these programs are getting better and better every year; currently, AVG AntiVirus Free 2014 comes out on top.
AVG Free 2014 consistently impresses tough experts. It's a top pick at both PCMag.com and CNET's Download.com. It's VB100-certified (by independent lab Virus Bulletin) and AV-Test Certified (by independent lab AV-Test.org). It blocks malware just as flawlessly as any paid software in tests -- and once your system's infected, AVG Free cleans it up nearly as effectively as the top-rated paid software, Bitdefender Antivirus Plus (2014) (Est. $30 for 3 PCs) , tests show. It's dead simple to use, too, with a clean, touch-friendly design that testers adore.
Here's the catch: It's a pain to install on infected systems. If your system is clean, it's fine. But at PCMag.com, Neil J. Rubenking usually has to do some fiddling to get AVG Free 2014 installed on infested systems. Usually, it's just a re-try or a re-scan, but in a few cases, Rubenking has to bust out the Rescue CD and go back and forth with tech support.
Runner-up Ad-Aware Free Antivirus+ solves that problem: It's a breeze to install, even on malware-riddled systems, Rubenking reports. Malware detection and cleanup are just about as strong as AVG's (in tests of the most recent versions).
Ad-Aware doesn't score as well with users, though: Thousands of Download.com readers award it just 3.5 out of 5 stars (for all versions overall) versus 4 stars for AVG. Ad-Aware suffers from a dreadfully ineffective anti-phishing tool (Internet Explorer does a better job by itself) and a toolbar eraser that makes it way too easy to wipe out Java, Flash and other important plug-ins, Rubenking says. Still, those aren't deal-breakers -- Rubenking still names Ad-Aware Free an Editors' Choice, right alongside AVG Free.
Finally, Avast Free Antivirus 2014 might also be worth considering. Independent labs give it good marks, PCMag.com reports, but that doesn't leave Rubenking without some reservations. In his own tests, malware blocking is good, but not as stellar, finishing in the bottom half of programs tested with the same malware collection. Also concerning is that the software is prone to false positives -- identifying some safe software as malware -- though it again fares far worse at PCMag.com than in tests by independent labs. In addition, Rubenking says that it's hard to get Avast to stop identifying those programs as malware in future scans, leading to some frustrations. Still, with its new, streamlined user interface and "decent" performance, Rubenking calls Avast "definitely a contender in the free antivirus space."