Panda Free Antivirus is a no-strings free antivirus tool from the Spanish multinational, Panda Security.
Panda Free Windows' edition is mostly focused on its core antivirus engine, with no direct web filtering and very few security extras.
There is one unusual exception in a Hotspot Shield-based VPN, although the free edition limits you to just 150MB of data transfer a day, making it virtually useless for all but the simplest of tasks.
Panda's commercial Dome range takes the product further, adding everything from a firewall and parental controls to 20GB of cloud storage and unlimited VPN usage. Prices start relatively high at an initial £26.24 ($36.75) to cover one device with the baseline Essential package, £34.99 ($48.99) on renewal. There are significant discounts as you add more devices, though (Android and Mac are supported), with for example a ten device, one-year licence costing £53.24 ($74.55) initially, £70.99 ($99.39) on renewal.
The Panda website doesn't provide a great deal of low-level detail about the company's free antivirus, but it is at least easy to find, and if you're in a hurry you'll locate the Download button in a very few seconds.
We tapped Download and Panda made one last-ditch attempt to grab our money by offering a 25% discount on the commercial Panda dome Advanced package. That's not a special deal - you would get the same discount if you bought dome Advanced from its own page - so we hit the 'no, thanks' button.
Surprisingly, Panda then redirected us a download.cnet.com page to finally download the file. Presumably Panda gets paid for this as they're directing traffic to the site, but we would still much rather download sensitive software such as antivirus from the developer, rather than via an ad-packed third-party page.
The installation process is straightforward, although you'll need to pay close attention to avoid another monetization attempt, as Panda asks to set your default browser home page and search provider to the Yahoo-powered Panda Safe Web. But as long as you pay attention, read the setup screen and set or clear the checkboxes to suit your needs, you can ensure your browser settings remain unchanged.
Once setup is complete, Panda Free Antivirus asks that you 'activate' it, which essentially means provide an email to create a free Panda account or log in to one you have already. This isn't unusual - companies such as Bitdefender and Kaspersky do something similar - but Avast, Avira and a few others allow using their software without providing any personal details.
If you're happy to sign up, Panda Free Antivirus runs a speedy initial scan, pops up its console to display the results and is immediately ready for use.
Panda Free Antivirus has a good-looking but quirky interface, where your security status and ten action buttons are overlaid on a desktop wallpaper-type image of mountains and a lake. This works better than we would have expected, and you can even change the background image to something else if you prefer.
Tapping the Scan button gives you access to critical, full system and custom scan types. The Custom option is limited - you only get to choose a target folder - but otherwise the scans are simple and speedy, with our critical scan dropping from an initial six minutes to around a minute by the third run, and report information kept to the essentials only.
A separate Antivirus section offers a little more control, including options to scan a custom set of locations on your system, configure a few basic settings and schedule the scan to run automatically. This is easy to use, but can't begin to compete with the power and configurability offered by Comodo and Avast's free products.
Real-time protection blocks unknown files from running until Panda receives a verdict from the cloud. This can be annoying if there's a delay, but it does make you more secure, and if you're impatient you can tell Panda to run the program anyway if there's no verdict after a defined number of seconds.
A Rescue Kit option could help you remove more stubborn threats by creating a bootable USB drive or installing and launching a separate free tool, Panda's Cloud Cleaner.
Built-in USB protection can 'vaccinate' USB keys to offer some protection from autorun malware.
The Process Monitor is a handy module which lists processes which have run on your system, highlights their security status, whether they're digitally signed, when they appeared on your PC, where you downloaded them, and shows you how many HTTP connections they have open.
What's interesting about Process Monitor is it doesn't just show running processes, Task Manager-style. You can filter the display to show a history of what's run on your PC in the last day, week, month, or since Panda Free Antivirus has been installed. It can even record the URL of every HTTP connection the process has made, an incredibly useful feature for understanding what the file is doing. If you're concerned about a possible malware infection, this enables looking back in time to perhaps find the source of the problem and get some clues about what really happened.
Elsewhere, a My Devices section points you to Panda software for other platforms (Android, Mac) and enables viewing and managing their protection from one central console.
The surprise extra here is a Hotspot Shield-powered VPN. In a click or two you can encrypt your internet connection and get a new virtual IP address with a click. Data usage in Panda Free is horribly limited at 150MB a day, barely enough for a few minutes of browsing, and you can't choose a location (you'll automatically get an IP from the nearest country to you), but if you just need the feature occasionally - to pick up your emails on an insecure wireless network, for instance - you might appreciate having it around.
Panda Free Antivirus isn't regularly assessed by all the major testing labs, but there's just about enough coverage to get an idea of its abilities.
AV-Comparative's Real-World Protection Test is a tough assessment of how antivirus performs when faced with a range of malware. Panda was included for all ten tests in 2017, and the two summary reports showed some very impressive results. The February to June report placed Panda fourth out of 21 with a creditable 99.5% protection rate, and the July to November report placed Panda first with a 100% protection rate, the only package in the group to achieve that.
The news isn't quite as good in AV-Comparatives' Performance Test, where the company measures the impact various antivirus packages have on your system. Panda doesn't do badly, but it's also far from topping the table, this time rating tenth out of 18 for its system impact. We also found the package appeared to slow down our system in some situations.
AV-Test and SE Labs haven't covered Panda recently, but MR Effitas included Panda Internet Security in its Q4 2017 360 Assessment report. This takes a very different approach to testing antivirus and Panda's results weren't nearly as positive, with the company achieving mid to lower mid-range results and lagging behind some big-name competitors (Avira, Avast, Bitdefender, ESET, Kaspersky.)
As ever, these results need to be treated with caution, as they all use their own criteria and scoring systems which may not relate to your situation. But overall, we think Panda offers capable all-round protection, especially for a free antivirus, and if you're on a budget it could be a smart choice.
A likeable and effective antivirus, mainly targeted at novice users, although its VPN and Process Monitor could appeal to a much wider audience.
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