Is free antivirus enough for my computer?

PC users need antivirus protection, but is free good enough?
(Image credit: Dell)

A free-to-use antivirus can seem a tempting option at first glance. After all, why should you pay for a premium app when you can get one for nothing? So what’s the real deal with free virus protection? Is one of these freebie pieces of software enough to keep your PC safe from malware, or are there pitfalls to be aware of?


Today's best free security download is Avira Free Antivirus
Avira takes the title of our favorite freebie right now. In addition to scoring brilliantly for pure virus protection from independent test labs, it also comes with a whole host of features like anti-ransomware, scam protection, password manager and even a free VPN.

Core protection

A free online security app - at least when it comes to the big-name security firms who make the cut for our best free antivirus roundup - can provide excellent core protection (obscure or less reputable brands may not – so obviously be wary there). Indeed, with a good antivirus application, you’ll get the same core engine defending your PC as with the premium app.

This will keep you safe, and so the short answer to our question of whether free software is enough for your computer is: yes, it is. A good free app from a quality vendor – the software makers who are ranked top by the independent testing labs in report after report – will keep your PC secure, broadly speaking.

Indeed, even Windows Defender, which comes built into Windows 10, is good enough to stay true to its name and defend your PC from threats these days (even if that wasn’t true in the past). So even those who don’t want to go to any lengths at all when it comes to getting antivirus protection have a solid enough no-effort option which is on by default, at least on Microsoft-powered PCs.

Extra layers

However, what you need to remember with a free virus protection is that you are only getting the bare minimum of security, however solid that may be. The premium products exist to provide extra countermeasures and further layers of defense to bolster your PC’s security.

As an example, a premium antivirus might have an added layer of anti-ransomware protection over and above the free version, making it even more likely to catch perhaps the latest strain of ransomware – a particularly nasty variant of malware that can lock away your entire digital life, so you never get it back.

Badblock ransomware

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Often, premium antivirus products introduce extras like parental controls or social media monitoring, and other tools which might help keep your kids safe online. So for families, rather than a freebie, a paid product can often be a worthwhile investment – particularly one of the internet security suites which offer protection for a large number of devices (if you’ve got a large family, or a lot of hardware to protect).

Free apps often use some form of advertising as a means of supporting their existence (perhaps with pop-ups pushing you to upgrade to the premium app). That’s understandable, but paid products don’t bother you with such ads.

That said, a good free antivirus app won’t be bombarding you with advertisements, and indeed some of the top products don’t have any advertising, even though they’re free.

One last thing to bear in mind is technical support. With a free product, the support you get will be limited or minimal – perhaps the ability to ask other users on an online forum, for example, or use a web knowledgebase, and these can sometimes be pretty sketchy resources. However, premium products will provide fully staffed customer support services for those occasions when confusion rears its ugly head or things go wrong.

Is free antivirus enough for my computer?

A good free product will provide robust enough defenses to keep your PC safe, so the short answer is yes, such a product is enough. However, you are missing out on extra layers of protection – sometimes pretty important stuff like anti-phishing measures, or online banking with peace of mind via a secure browser – and other benefits like better customer support. Depending on your exact situation and use case, these may well prove worth paying for in the long run.

Darren is a freelancer writing news and features for TechRadar (and occasionally T3) across a broad range of computing topics including CPUs, GPUs, various other hardware, VPNs, antivirus and more. He has written about tech for the best part of three decades, and writes books in his spare time (his debut novel - 'I Know What You Did Last Supper' - was published by Hachette UK in 2013).