If you own a laptop or personal computer, then it’s important to make sure you are protected by antivirus software.
These programs protect your device by identifying and blocking or removing malicious software, or ‘malware’, which can wreak havoc on your device if it is not detected and removed in time.
In this article, we explain why antivirus software is so important for your computer, and point to a few free options you can use.
Do I need antivirus software?
You should always make sure your computer has some kind of antivirus software installed. Malware can lurk anywhere – attachments in spam emails or dodgy websites are two of the most common places you’ll find it, but it can even be hidden on a USB stick.
Malware can do all sorts of harmful things to your computer, such as stealing, blocking or deleting your data, installing programs you don’t want, slowing your device down, or even rendering it totally unusable.
The exact functions of an antivirus programme will depend on which one you use, with most free or low-cost programmes offering a superior version for a higher cost. A paid-for service will offer a few more features, so you’ll need to weigh up whether you want to pay extra for additional protection, or you’re happy with a basic level of cover.
Whichever anti-virus software you choose, aim to keep it updated and run scans regularly. A scan is a function offered by most antivirus programmes that checks the files on your computer to see if any of them might contain malware – these can be done across your whole device, or in specific file locations. The former normally takes a few hours to complete, or you can usually choose a relatively quick scan that can run in the background, though it will be less comprehensive.
Some antivirus software comes with features such as password managers for storing your login details, or a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN is a service that protects your IP address when you connect to the internet, which essentially makes browsing safer and more private.
Do I have antivirus installed already?
Many computers will have some form of antivirus system installed already. For example, a new Windows device will usually have Windows Defender installed, which is an excellent, free antivirus programme. This is considered enough protection by some tech experts, but if you’re worried, you may want to install additional antivirus software on top of this.
New devices will sometimes come with a free trial version of an antivirus product (as well as Windows Defender, for example). You don’t have to stick with this software if you would prefer to use something else, however. If you do use the free trial, make sure to cancel before it renews so you aren’t charged full price, as most antivirus products charge you on a yearly basis.
What are the best free antivirus programs?
Windows Defender (Windows-exclusive)
This is the free software that comes already installed on Windows devices, so you don’t need to go to the trouble of setting it up.
While Defender is convenient and offers a certain level of protection, it may not protect your device against serious cybersecurity threats, and scans performed with Windows Defender won’t always detect malicious files on your device. You may want to get some extra protection in addition.
Bitdefender is a free antivirus programme you can download on both Windows and Mac devices. While it’s not especially feature-rich, Bitdefender places an emphasis on reliably detecting malware without slowing down your computer or annoying you with popups. You can set it to run discrete daily scans that it claims won’t affect your computer’s performance. It also includes a live customer support feature, which is rare among antivirus providers, though some reviewers have complained that they are slow to respond.
If you want to pay to upgrade, you can purchase Bitdefender Total Security, a more powerful version that includes a VPN, file encryption, and the ability to access your device remotely. This upgraded package costs £21.99 for the first year, then £74.99 after that.
AVG boasts an “excellent” rating on Trustpilot from over 14,000 reviews. Their antivirus offers six layers of protection from malware, an “email shield” to alert you to dodgy emails or attachments, and a simple interface for ease of use.
The paid version of AVG – AVG Internet Security – provides enhanced protection, and costs £41.49 for the first year, then renews at £62.99.
Avast is one of the biggest names in antivirus software, with over 400 million users of their products. Avast One Essential is its latest offering, with a free version that offers powerful antivirus protection, a VPN and the ability to scan your Wifi network to detect security issues with your router. Some users have complained that it slows their device down a bit when performing scans, but otherwise it’s one of the most reliable options out there.
Avast offers a range of paid upgrades and extras. The paid version of Avast One is £39.99 for an individual plan for the first year (and £79.99 after that), allowing you to protect up to five of your devices under one account (including phones and tablets) and offering boosted protection.
Malwarebytes is a very basic antivirus service. It’s effective for hunting down malware and spyware that may evade other antivirus programs, though PCMag recommends using it in conjunction with at least one other program such as AVG or Avast.
Should I pay to upgrade?
For many computer users, a basic, free antivirus service may provide enough protection, particularly if you tend to stick to the same few websites or don’t use your computer that often.
However, with new forms of malware emerging all the time and threats to cybersecurity always circulating, internet safety is more important than ever. If you have a lot of online accounts, keep sensitive or important information on your device, or find yourself visiting a range of different websites frequently, then you may want to consider paying for a more robust antivirus product for the extra protection.
Advice for staying safe online
Keep your antivirus updated
It can be a pain having to update things all the time, but your antivirus is one thing you absolutely don’t want to let fall out of date. Hackers and cyber criminals are always coming up with new ways to attack other devices, so it’s really important to keep your software updated to combat the latest malware trends.
Be careful what you click on
It’s advice dating back to the dawn of the internet, but it remains as true as ever – be really careful what you click on. Many forms of antivirus will alert or protect you if a link is dodgy or dangerous, but the best form of protection is to always be on your guard and looking out for the warning signs of a malicious link.
Our article Latest scams to watch out for in 2023 features some common ways that fraudsters may try to get the better of you with fake links in emails or text messages.
Protect your passwords
It feels like we live more of our lives online than ever these days, meaning that most of us have lots of personal information sitting in our accounts.
The best way to keep this information safe is by creating a different password for every account you make, and making sure these are impossible to guess. Many services require a password to have a mix of capital and lowercase letters, a symbol and a number in them for increased safety. A password manager is a great way to keep track of these – some antivirus products come with a password manager feature, but if yours doesn’t, you can use Google’s or download one to keep your passwords safe in one place.
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