The best free antivirus for 2020: Keep your PC safe without spending a dime

Many of the mainstream antivirus vendors offer a free version of their security suites. Here are our top five choices for free antivirus.

We spend a lot of time looking at the best paid antivirus suites on this site, but we don’t spend a lot of time talking about free antivirus solutions. Part of the reason is that the free versions are based on their paid counterparts.

If you see a paid version you like that offers a free version, you can safely assume the antivirus protection level is similar, save for any specific malware types the free version doesn’t cover.

To create this list of the top free AV programs we looked at the top mainstream antivirus suites for Windows 10  and selected the ones that offer a free version, as not all of them do. After that, we looked at how well these suites performed in third-party detection tests. We also made sure they weren’t resource hogs, because the last thing you want is a piece of free software slowing down your PC while running in the background.

In the end, our selection came down to these five antivirus suites.

Avast Free Antivirus

avastfree IDG

Avast Premier is a very highly rated antivirus program. With the free version of this suite you can run all the various virus scans. Most of the key Avast protections are also available, such as scanning new files added to your system, watching for malicious behavior from installed programs, a web browsing shield, and an email shield.

Avast Free even allows you to inspect your network and see the devices currently connected to your home router. Plus Avast’s password manager is available for free.

What you don’t get for free is the phishing protection, the sandbox to separate suspicious files from your system, the Avast firewall, and the ransomware protection.

Avast is surprisingly useful in its free version and is one of the most flexible options around.

During installation Avast gets a little annoying. It tries to sneak an installation of Google Chrome past you, for example. Avast also hasn’t been a friend to privacy in recent years by sharing user data with its subsidiary Jumpshot.

avastjumpshot IDG

Avast’s opt-in page during installation for Jumpshot sharing.

That concern is coming to a close, however. The company recently said it will shut down Jumpshot. In the meantime, Avast makes it very clear during installation that you don’t have to share data with the company, as seen above.

Kapsersky Security Cloud - Free

kasperskyfree IDG

Kasperksy is another highly rated antivirus with a good amount to offer for a free service. This free antivirus suite doesn’t try to install any extra software on the sly like Avast does. It will, however, ask you to create a Kaspersky account during installation. Just be sure to uncheck the box about receiving marketing materials—unless you want a bunch of email from Kaspersky, that is.

Kaspersky Free supports the various scanning options you’d expect from paid suites, including scans of external devices, and the ability to schedule scans. Also part of the free package are Kaspersky’s password manager and Secure Connection VPN with a 300MB data usage limit per day.

What you don’t get are the privacy-protection features for preventing unauthorized use of your webcam; Safe Money, the sandboxed browser for financial transactions; PC Cleaner for clearing out old files; and any of the extra tools such as the software updater or network monitor. To see what you’re missing check out our review of Kaspersky Total Security.

Overall, however, Kaspersky offers solid protection for free, plus a few extras.

Avira Free Antivirus

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Avira Antivirus Pro is a strange suite. As we’ve noted in our reviews, there’s little point in paying for the Pro version when you get so much with the free option. Avira Free includes the antivirus, the software updater, the home network updater, and a free VPN with an allowance of 500MB per month. All of these are separate applications connected via the Avira desktop app.

There are essentially no limits on all the extras. The difference in protection is with the antivirus capabilities. The free version will scan your PC, and offers real-time protection for your desktop. But it lacks protection from ransomware, web threats, email threats, and advanced cloud protection. It also lacks the improved PC cleanup feature for clearing out old files in the Pro version.

Installation with Avira is easy, with no attempts to sneak in other software, and no requirement for creating an account. Uninstalling, however, is a pain since there are so many different components automatically installed, and each one must be removed one by one.

Bitdefender Antivirus Free

bitdefenderfree IDG

Most antivirus suites use the same desktop interface as their pro versions. The difference being all the premium features have some kind of lock icon over them to indicate that you can’t use them. The companies hope you’ll see all the great stuff their product has to offer and sign up to unlock the paid features.

Bitdefender doesn’t do that. Instead, it offers a stripped down antivirus program with minimal options instead of the full interface of Bitdefender Total Security.

Bitdefender’s free antivirus scans your PC only. You can click the System Scan button to initiate a scan, or you can drag-and-drop files in need of scanning. If you like, you can exclude certain files or folders to speed up scan times.

That’s about it for extra features. There are no password managers, PC tools, or VPN. It’s scanning and that’s it. Well, almost it. Bitdefender’s free edition includes anti-phishing, and anti-fraud protection.

Windows Security

windowssecurity IDG

Finally, we come to Microsoft’s built-in security solution. There was a time when we wouldn’t even consider Windows Security (also known as Windows Defender) for an article like this. Times have changed, however, and Windows Security is often getting high marks from third-party testing houses.

The truth is, Windows Security is very good. It has ransomware protection, which many free suites don’t. There are third-party options that have better detection capabilities based on independent tests, but the improved performance is often marginal. If you want reasonable security without the bother of installing a third-party suite, then you’re all set. Windows Security is active by default in Windows 10, and it works in the background ensuring you’re protected from threats. For a detailed look at Windows Security, check out our review.

Whether you want to stick with Microsoft’s homegrown option, take advantage of a free password manager or VPN, one of these five free antivirus suites will meet your needs.

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Ian Paul

PC World (US online)
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