Thursday, May 17, 2007

What Microsoft/McAfee/Symantec and AVG/AntiVir/avast! do not have in common

Summary: Few people realize that low-profile anti-virus tools work as well -- and often better -- than big names from McAfee, Symantex, and Microsoft. And they are free.

Okay, the first group identifies companies and the second names software, but this is not the point. To rephrase the question, what don't the anti-virus software offerings from Microsoft, McAfee, and Symantec have in common with AVG, AntiVir, and avast!? (In case you haven't heard about the last three, these are the most common free anti-virus software products available to home users from Grisoft, Alwil Software, and Avira respectively. Notice that free offerings may be -- and in most cases are -- restricted to private, non-commercial, single home computer use.)

Here is one difference. According to Scott Dunn, an associate editor of the Windows Secrets newsletter, Microsoft, McAfee, Symantec charge credit cards repeatedly. So before you rush to the nearest Fry's outlet for a free copy of Norton or McAfee security suite,* listen to this:
"[T]he unfortunate truth is that the practice of enrolling customers in automatic renewal for antivirus and other security products [...] has become an industry standard. Microsoft Windows Live OneCare, Symantec, McAfee, and ZoneAlarm all enroll customers into the companies' automatic subscription-renewal programs with the purchase of a subscription-based product. In most cases, customers aren't given a choice to opt out, and only find out about the annual renewals when they receive an e-mail notice or see a charge on their credit card."
Here is another one. Say, you do not mind paying renewal fees and decide to stick with one of the anti-virus godzillas (good for you!). But if you keep wondering why your system performance is not what it used to be, see What Really Slows Windows Down. As a corporate user of McAfee (damn IT policy!) and home user of both avast! and AVG, I clearly see the difference in performance, and it's not in McAfee's favor.

It could be that McAfee does a bit more than others, but does extra-functionality (assuming that it's useful to start with) justify the huge performance drag? And does McAfee really do more? For example, is it catching more viruses? Not if you believe test results recently released by AV-Comparatives. According to the study based on almost 500,000 sample files, McAfee's 91.63% detection rate is worse than avatst!'s (93.86%), AVG's (96.37%), and AntiVir's (98.85%). McAfee is also doing worse than Norton (96.83%), but it is better than Microsoft's Live OneCare, which bottoms the list with the meager 82.40% detection rate.

By the way, if you are using anti-virus software but haven't updated virus signatures in a while (which should be the case if you got a free promotional copy over a year ago and/or did not pay for an upgrade once a trial period was over), stop right now and go get them. If you are not using anti-virus software, unless you made a conscious choice, please reconsider. If you can't afford a paid license, get one of the available free tools, but if you're thinking about getting a pirated copy of an anti-virus software, read the Pirated Security Software Worse Than None at All article first.

In addition to anti-virus software, you should be running a personal firewall. To check personal firewall reviews and test results, check these (and other) articles:

Leak-test Results
Personal Firewall Reviews
Best Firewall Software - Editor's Choice

Along with anti-virus and firewall software, you may want to use an anti-spyware program. To learn more about anti-spyware application offerings, read So, You Think You've Got Spyware? The following application can help you avoid malware infestation:

ThreatFire AntiVirus

I would also recommend using Software Inspector offered by This free (so far) Web-based service will scan your computer looking for files with known vulnerabilities. If Software Inspector finds old or unpatched files, it will list them along with the information about the patches and updates. Panda Security-sponsored NanoScan is another free Web-based virus scanning tool you can try.

UPDATE: As of 2010, for a free anti-virus, I recommend Microsoft Security Essentials. After a bumpy start, it seems to have risen to the level of other free anti-viruses, such as Avast! (and it does not require an annual re-registration). For more info, read The 120-day Microsoft security suite test drive by Fred Langa. if you need to remove a virus from your computer, try Microsoft Windows Malicious Software Removal Tool.

See also:
Is your free AV tool a ‘resource pig?’
10 Free Online Malware and Virus Scanners
Anti-Virus GuideAnti-Virus Software Review 2007
CyberNotes: Free Anti-virus, Anti-Spyware, and Firewall Downloads
Free Antivirus: Finally Ready for Prime Time
New Antivirus Rankings
Review: Free Antivirus Software
What's better, AVG or Avast anti-virus?

*Actually, buying (or getting for free, after rebates) a hard copy of an anti-virus software from a local store may not be such a bad idea. Says Windows Secrets reader Steve Himel: "I avoid the whole automatic subscription renewal of security products by simply purchasing the retail, boxed version of the software. So far, I have been able to register the software to obtain updates for a year without giving away a credit-card number. When the year is up, I simply purchase a new retail version of security software — either the same product, or I can switch to a different product. Also, with sales and rebates, the cost of a new retail package is often less than the subscription-renewal price."

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