4. Avira Free Antivirus
Some security companies spend a great deal of time and effort on interface design, but Avira isn't quite so concerned. Sure, Avira Free Antivirus adds a graphical launcher to your system tray, but the core program looks plain, ordinary, and a little dated.
Fortunately Avira scores where it matters. The company seems much more interested in substance than style, and the end result is one of the best security freebies around.
The program is loved by the testing labs. Whether you check out AV-Test, AV-Comparatives or VB100 reports, Avira technology almost always scores very highly. And that's not only in relation to free software. AV-Comparative's December 2014 Real-World Protection Test ranked the program fifth out of 22 mostly commercial contenders, with the same 99.4% protection rate as the highly-rated Bitdefender and Kaspersky. (That's a typical score, not a fluke – sometimes Avira tops the list.)
If you're looking for an easy life then you can leave the program alone, and it'll do its work almost entirely automatically. But expert users get plenty of fine control. There are options to protect the Hosts file, block autorun, scan archives (including a configurable recursion depth), monitor network drives, set the file types to be scanned, even password protect your Avira installation so others can't mess with your settings.
Avira Free Antivirus has a distinct shortage of bonus extras, which might be an issue for some. The "Firewall" options add little (they configure the standard Windows firewall, rather than adding anything new), and even basic web protection requires a separate browser extension.
Still, for us, Avira's stripped-back design is a plus, as it makes it easier to add other security tools without conflicts. Factor in its very accurate engine and Avira is our pick of the free antivirus crop.
5. Panda Free Antivirus
Panda Free Antivirus makes a great first impression, with its colourful Windows 8-style interface giving easy access to the program's many features.
We were surprised to find the main screen is configurable, too. If you're unhappy with the layout of the tiles then you can drag and drop them around, delete some or add others.
The verdict on the core antivirus engine is a little less clear. We found it delivered great detection rates in our own small-scale tests, but scanning speeds were a little below average.
The independent testing labs also have some doubts, with AV-Comparatives in particular showing protection levels falling a little towards the end of the year. But that's still good enough to justify a top five position, and the test reports also highlight some other positives (the package raises very few false alarms).
A useful set of extras start with the URL filter, which does a solid job of preventing access to malicious sites. The USB Vaccine feature tries to protect your USB keys from some infections, while Process Monitor is a Task Manager-like tool, displaying running processes, their open HTTP connections, and highlighting likely dangers.
If all this fails then Panda's Rescue Kit could be a lifesaver. It's able to download and run Panda Cloud Cleaner, which is great for catching the very latest malware, or you can build a bootable USB key to remove the most stubborn of threats.
Panda Free Antivirus isn't quite as powerful as the market leaders, but it still offers very capable protection and some valuable bonus features. If you're looking for a simple package which anyone can use then it's a sensible choice.