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Best free antivirus 2019: Protect your PC from hackers, viruses and ransomware

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Don’t fall prey to online attacks – these free tools will protect your precious data

We know, internet security is boring - and since it hasn't been much in the headlines lately, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the threat had died down. The truth is, thanks to improvements in Windows and elsewhere, it's harder than it used to be for nasty viruses and the like to get into your computer.

Make no mistake, though: attacks are still happening - and they're more insidious and dangerous than ever. In years past, the bad guys might have messed up your settings or put a jokey message on screen. Nowadays they'll steal your credit card numbers, or lock up your irreplaceable files and demand a ransom for their return.

In other words, you most certainly still need protection. But you don't need to shell out a fortune to be safe; in fact, you don't have to pay a penny. These great antivirus tools will keep you safe from the latest threats absolutely for free – so there’s no need ever to go unprotected.

How to choose the best free antivirus for you

Can I trust a free antivirus tool?

You certainly can. The packages we've recommended below are published by some of the most respected names in the security business - you'll almost certainly recognise them all. And when it comes to blocking attacks, these free packages are just as effective as the paid-for security suites. That's confirmed in independent tests by industry experts AV-Test.org, among others.

That being the case, you might wonder why anyone woluld pay for the full versions of the software. Normally, the answer boils down to additional features that can provide extra security, or other handy capabilities, which we detail below. If you just want basic antivirus capabilities, you can stick with these free editions for as long as you like.

Can’t I rely on Windows Defender?

Windows’ built-in antivirus tool is better than nothing, but it regularly places near the bottom of the table in detection tests. That’s probably because virus makers know that everyone has it, so they focus on creating exploits that can sneak past its defences. A third-party virus scanner is more likely to keep you safe from the latest malware.

Won’t antivirus software slow my computer down?

Technically the answer is yes, but don't worry - these days the effect is so slight you won't notice it. Modern security software uses various tricks to keep the impact to a minimum, such as only scanning files and applications when they change, rather than every time they're accessed. In fact, one of the worst offenders is Windows Defender - so switching to a free, third-party antivirus tool will actually make your computer faster.

The best free antivirus for Windows

1. Bitdefender Antivirus Free: The best for quiet, reliable protection

The paid-for Bitdefender Internet Security suite is one of our favourite antivirus packages. That's partly down to its excellent malware detection capabilities - it scored a perfect 100% in recent malware tests by both AV-Comparatives and AV-test. We're also fans of its low-key, unobtrusive attitude, and the free edition keeps both of those strengths, giving you the same superb antivirus engine with minimal impact on your system performance.

If you like to have lots of settings and tools to play with, Bitdefender Free isn't your best choice: the feature set is so stripped down there isn't even a settings page to play with. But its laser-like focus on blocking malware and phishing attacks us perfect for those seeking simple, near-silent protection. After installation it will, by default, pop up adverts for the full suite from time to time - but these can be disabled in the settings for nag-free security.

Download Bitdefender Antivirus Free now

Why is it worth upgrading to the paid-for suite?

The full Bitdefender Internet Security product is much more extensive, including web browser protection, a password manager and specific technologies aimed at intercepting ransomware and phishing attacks. It also features a vulnerability scanner and a Wi-Fi security advisor, to alert you if your applications or network might be unsafe. 

2. AVG AntiVirus Free: Best for web and email protection

AVG AntiVirus Free is one of the best known free security tools out there, and as well as blocking malware it also scans for dodgy browser add-ons and email attachments. It's not quite as watertight as Bitdefender, but it's very close: AV-Test found that it averaged a 99.6% protection rate against unknown "zero-day" threats, and 99.95% against established attacks.

AVG also offers plenty of options for you to tinker with. You can customise its detection techniques, decide how alerts should behave, and specify what the software should do when different types of threat are found.

The one downside of AVG's free antivirus is that it's not shy about pushing the publisher's commercial products. Periodically, it pops up little adverts inviting you to get your wallet out, and the main program interface also hosts quite a few links and buttons to features which you have to pay to unlock. Still, you can disable the popups, ignore the links and ignore effective, free protection.

Download AVG Antivirus Free now

Why is it worth upgrading to the paid-for suite?

The paid-for AVG Internet Security suite adds dedicated ransomware protection, a firewall to prevent hackers from getting into your system and an encryption module for ensuring your personal files stay private. The licence also allows you to install the software on an unlimited number of PCs and Android devices in your household.

3. Avast Free Antivirus: Best free antivirus for features

For a free antivirus package, Avast is remarkably well endowed with features. As well as detecting and blocking malware, it can keep an eye on your email and your web browser; a secure browser ensures your banking and shopping details can't be pinched; an updater module ensures you’re running the latest versions of your apps; and a Wi-Fi inspector warns if your network’s not secure. If that's not enough, there's also a clever "hardened mode" which only allows a limited selection of recognised applications to run.

Avast’s malware detection abilities are pretty much as good as you could ask for, blocking 99.8% of threats in recent tests. It won't slow your PC down either - AV-Comparatives found it "very fast" for launching and running everyday applications.

As with AVG, the one catch is the upsell: the interface again includes numerous icons for premium features, although to be fair these are clearly indicated with a padlock icon. Overall, it's a solid free antivirus product, with great protection and plenty of bells and whistles to play with.

Download Avast Free Antivirus now

Why is it worth upgrading to the paid-for suite?

Avast Pro Antivirus adds web protection features that warn when you’re visiting a potentially dodgy site, and a sandbox to let you try out applications in a safe environment where they can’t affect your PC. The premium Avast Internet Security suite additionally includes a dedicated firewall, a spam filter and a module that protects specific folders against ransomware

4. Kaspersky Free: Superb, silent protection

Kaspersky has an enviable reputation when it comes to malware protection. In test after test it's achieved perfect 100% scores, and that includes multiple AV-Test reviews during 2018.

This free edition of its software sticks very much to the knitting. It sits in the background, watching for suspicious activity and known threats, and it also installs a browser add-on to steer you away from visiting compromised sites. Beyond that, you’ll look in vain for toys and tools: yes, there are lots of additional buttons and links in the interface, but these are all clearly greyed out, and marked as being only available in the paid-for suite.

And if you choose to stick with the free version, Kaspersky is impeccably unobtrusive – until you run into a threat, you can easily forget you’re running it, which is just what you want from antivirus software.

Download Kaspersky Free now

Why is it worth upgrading to the paid-for suite?

Kaspersky’s commercial Internet Security Suite is absolutely loaded with features, including a safe browser, a custom firewall, dedicated ransomware protection, and parental controls. There’s also a “trusted apps” mode which only allows software from a restricted whitelist to run.

5. Panda Free Antivirus: Best for techies

Panda Free Antivirus is just as effective as the full-priced packages: last year, AV-Comparatives awarded it a faultless 100% score against both zero-day and known malware.

It also includes some interesting options for tinkerers, including a USB “vaccination” feature that blocks the spread of flash drive-borne threats, and a tool for creating a USB recovery drive. Advanced users will love the process monitor too, which lets you check up on which apps are accessing the internet, and where they’re connecting to.

Like other free suites, Panda Free Antivirus does display adverts from time to time, but you can turn these off in the settings. Overall, it’s a dependable free security suite that’s ideal for the technically minded.

Download Panda Free Antivirus now

Why is it worth upgrading to the paid-for suite?

Panda Antivirus Pro includes ransomware protection and a Wi-Fi scanner to warn you if your network’s insecure. It also includes parental controls, to keep your kids away from inappropriate content – and it runs on Android as well as Windows

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