Some 88% of people use antivirus on their laptop or desktop computer, yet only 50% use additional features like a virtual private network (VPN), secure browser or password manager that often come bundled with paid packages, according to a Which? survey.*
So the question is, is there any point in paying? Are premium packages better than free alternatives at protecting you from online nasties?
We've put a range of free and paid-for packages through our tough antivirus test to see how they compare in 2021, and below we sum up the main differences you can expect to find between them.
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 browsers 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, keep in mind that Microsoft, Apple and Google all have family protection features that don't require you to pay and are integrated directly into the computer's operating system.
Anti-phishing: Paid-for 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.
Virtual private network (VPN): This can help you to use public wi-fi more safely and boost your privacy elsewhere. 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. We've tested 13 paid-for VPNs; see which ones impressed in our VPN software reviews, or learn more about them in our guide to how choose a VPN.
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-for 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.
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-phishing: They might not always claim it, but Best Buy packages can eliminate phishing attacks often as effectively as paid-for software. Even if it's not stated, check to see whether the app can be augmented with a web browser extension. If phishing is the only security threat you're worried about, you'll be pleased to know that our tests have found web browsers by themselves do offer a degree of phishing protection. But our reviews have uncovered that many antivirus packages do provide better phishing protection than by using a web browser alone, and given you can get that protection from a free package, this is worth doing for an additional layer of protection.
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-for rivals.
Limited support: Free services may only offer very limited help and support, and may ask you to upgrade to a premium subscription to gain access to phone and live chat support.
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. New to our antivirus tests this year is a check to see how often this happens, and we provide a star rating for advertising annoyance on every package's test results page.
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.