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Best Free Antivirus Software Programs

Learn how free antivirus software programs can help PCs avoid malicious programs.

Several free antivirus programs are available on the Internet. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Several free antivirus programs are available on the Internet.

Free antivirus programs are widely available on the Internet, but some are more reliable than others. Antivirus software products are mainly for computers that use the Microsoft Windows operating system, as Mac OS and Linux-based systems are not often targeted by most virus programmers. However, some of the free virus protection software referred to below are also available for Macs. If you feel your computer might be infected, the information in this article may help you clean your computer without shelling out the money that the brand name programs charge.

The Virus "WildList"

First, a word of warning. Even the most sophisticated free antivirus software isn't capable of detecting and eliminating all viruses. Many of these antivirus programs scan your computer for a list of viruses that are currently "in the wild," or spreading beyond the reach of the computer on which they were first created. This list, known as the "wildlist," is maintained by WildList Organization International, a non-profit service that collects reports on existing viruses from professional agencies around the world. While many free antivirus programs can detect all of the viruses on the list, the number of viruses to which your computer is susceptible is actually much larger, and you would need more advanced, expensive software to be totally safe.

Determining the Best Antivirus Software

To measure how well each antivirus application finds and eliminates viruses from the list, an independent organization called AV-test.org gathers data on virus protection efficiency. AV-test measures how successfully programs can detect viruses far beyond the "wildlist" and determines the programs' ability to pick out unusual viruses. Based on its findings, AV-test releases a report grading each major virus protection program on eight categories: malware on demand, adware/spyware on-demand, false positives, scan speed, proactive detection, response times, rootkit detection and cleaning. 

Malware, adware and spyware on-demand refer to a program's ability to eliminate selected viruses, and false positives indicate how often the program labels a harmless program a virus. Scan speed and response time refer to how quickly and efficiently a program works, while proactive detection shows how well a program can detect a virus on its own. Finally, rootkit detection pinpoints the location of programs designed to take over a computer's operating system, and cleaning is the completeness with which a program eliminates a virus. AV-test also measures the overall virus detection rate of every program it tests.

Current Top Free Antivirus Software Programs

In its most recent report, AV-test awarded one of its highest scores to AntiVir, a program designed by the German software company Avira GmbH. AntiVir scored positive marks in all categories and highest in malware on-demand, adware/spyware on-demand, scan speed and response times. It also scored among the highest for detection of malware, adware, and spyware, averaging about 99.2 percent. However, like most free antivirus programs, the free personal edition of AntiVir does not include protection against adware or spyware, two of the primary nuisances affecting casual computer users today. 

One of the highest-scoring programs that does eliminate adware and spyware is Avast! by Alwil, a Czech-based company that specializes in security software. Avast! scored a satisfactory or higher in all categories and registered a detection rate of over 98 percent. Both of these programs are reliable examples of antivirus software offered at no cost.

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