88% of people use antivirus on their laptop or desktop computer, yet only 50% use additional features like a VPN, secure browser or password manager that often come bundled with paid packages, according to a survey of 1,275 people conducted in November 2019.
So the question is, is there really any point in paying? With a range of free packages available, there’s plenty of choice if you only need the basics, provided they offer sufficient protection.
If you’re a Windows 10 user, there’s also the option of relying on Windows Defender to keep you safe – but again, only if it’s secure. Our latest antivirus tests reveal the answers, and below we look in more detail at the differences between free and paid options.
Head straight to the best antivirus software from our recent tests.
Paid antivirus: what do you get for your money?
Paid packages typically cost between £20 and £60 – more if you need to buy multiple licences for use on more than one device or computer.
While free packages will usually only protect one computer, some paid packages enable you to protect multiple devices and oversee all that from a central hub. That’s particularly useful if you have family members who perhaps don’t see security as their top priority, so you can make sure things are protected throughout the home.
Paid packages usually offer a range of additional features compared with their no-frills free counterparts. Here’s our breakdown of some typical extras, but check our antivirus reviews to see what each individual package offers.
- Password manager: This helps you to more effectively manage your passwords for online accounts and services. However, there are separate, dedicated password manager options that likely provide a better experience overall, so don’t put all your money on a security package just for this feature.
- Safe banking: When you visit a banking website, this should automatically activate and increase your browser security. We find, though, that the effectiveness and coverage of safe-banking features can be patchy and some don’t seem to work at all. Modern browser should already have the security features required to bank safely, while your bank will also ensure that its web pages are secure.
- Parental controls: Take control of what subject matter the young ones can access on your devices. However, bear in mind that Windows 10 already has good parental controls built in so, again, check to see what features your premium package of choice has before shelling out for it.
- Anti-phishing: Paid packages can offer superior protection against phishing attacks, flagging up dodgy websites and messages intended to steal your data. However, in our most recent tests we’ve found very little difference between the premium anti-phishing features of a security package, and the free equivalent. Also bear in mind that all modern web browsers have some form of phishing protection built in, so can protect you to a degree without needing antivirus software.
- VPN: This can help you to use public wi-fi more safely. Be aware, though, that there may be a limit on how much bandwidth you can use and you often aren’t able to choose your endpoint, which is the country in which your VPN will simulate your connection. This might hamper your ability to unlock country-restricted content.
- Anti-ransomware: This is a sticking point for a lot of antivirus products. The name suggests that premium packages will be superior at stopping ransomware viruses from locking up your files. This normally takes the form of a setting that lets you lock down a particular set of folders, preventing unauthorised programs from modifying them in the way that ransomware does. This is all well and good, but the only time this setting is actually needed is if your antivirus fails at the first hurdle and allows a ransomware package to run. The best free and paid antivirus software will block ransomware before it gets to work on locking up files, so while perhaps this sounds like a nice backstop, it shouldn’t be necessary with a good antivirus package.
Browse our guide to the best paid antivirus packages for more.
Free antivirus: does it offer enough security?
Importantly, most free antivirus software should offer all the core tools you really need to keep your computer safe from internet threats. If you can live without the sorts of extras described above, you might wonder if it’s really worth paying for protection.
With free antivirus packages, expect to find:
- Malware protection: Free antivirus usually gives virtually the same malware protection as its paid-for siblings. While some free packages supposedly lack anti-ransomware shields, they’ve still blitzed all ransomware in our testing.
- Anti-phising: They might not always claim it, but Best Buy packages can eliminate phishing attacks often as effectively as paid-for software.
- Simple user interfaces: As free packages tend to have fewer features and extras, the menu systems can be more stripped back and simple to follow than paid rivals.
- Online support: Support being available via email, live chat and even on the phone is reserved for paid-for software, but good free packages usually have a range of useful online advice should you have a problem.
- Occasional extras: Although you typically don’t get many features, we’ve tested some free packages that offer a few extras, including one service with a password manager included.
- Some nagging messages: In a bid to get you to pay up, some free antivirus packages make mountains out of security molehills, suggesting you need to upgrade your package to a paid-for version to solve ‘problems’ it claims to have found. This could be settings it deems to be insecure, or even just files it considers to be junk and wants to delete for you. The best free packages don’t do this too often, but they all do it to some degree.
Also keep in mind that as with any free online service, one way companies may choose to claw back money is by using your security software as a means to gather data for advertising purposes. This issue was brought to the fore in January 2020, when Avast closed down a data-gathering subsidiary for ‘unacceptable’ data collection. Read our guide to the Avast controversy for more. Which? is currently investigating the practices of antivirus software and their data gathering practices.
Browse our guide to the best free antivirus for more.
Is paid or free antivirus right for me?
You should only pay for antivirus software if you want to protect more than one device and you’re convinced that the extra features it offers are worth the price. Otherwise, just install a good free package.
Remember that Windows 10’s built-in security is a now a credible line of defense against malware and phishing, particularly if you only install apps from the Windows Store and use the Microsoft Edge browser. For more, find out whether Windows Defender is enough to protect your PC.
If you’re using a Mac and you’re concerned about viruses, you can read about the best protection in our guide to antivirus software for Apple Macs.