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Updated: 16 Mar 2022

Is it worth paying for antivirus? We reveal why it's probably not

Free antivirus is a tempting option, and the latest Which? data proves that you don't need to pay to get top-tier security.
Laptop antivirus

Whether it's a month of Netflix to go with your new mobile contract, or a year of free insurance when you buy a new car, we're used to companies bundling extras with their products to make them seem better value than the rest.

Antivirus security software companies do this to the extreme. Ever noticed that most antivirus software is now called a 'security suite' or 'total protection'? In a market where all the products have become so reliable, adding extra features has become a game of cat-and-mouse, with extras disappearing and reappearing year in, year out.

But the big question is, are any antivirus programs actually worth paying extra for? Or should you just opt for the free or more basic packages that just include antivirus software and nothing else? Below, we reveal whether there are any fundamental differences between free and paid-for versions of the same antivirus software.

Browse our expert pick of the best antivirus software for Windows, as revealed by our tough lab tests.

Does paying for antivirus get you better protection?

The basic job of security software is to passively stand guard, preventing malicious software (known as a virus or malware) from either being downloaded or, if it's already snuck onto your computer, from running and doing any damage.

We also expect this software, in conjunction with an additional browser extension tool, to stop you from visiting phishing websites designed to steal your data.

When comparing free and premium packages from the same antivirus brand, it can be hard to tell whether the paid-for version is actually capable of this basic protection, or whether you need to pay for antivirus.

From our lab tests, we can say that there is next to no difference to the passive protection offered by the free and paid-for versions of the software we've tested. You can see below in our table where there are differences in the fundamental protection provided by free and paid-for antivirus.

In short, there are very few differences in the dozens of tests we undertake using many thousands of viruses and websites. Perhaps this is why the number of free antivirus packages available is gradually getting smaller; in the last year both Bitdefender and Sophos have stopped supplying free antivirus packages.

Below, we reveal our test results from our latest lab tests. Perhaps even more interesting than the fact that all of these packages offer similar levels of protection is that it doesn't seem to matter whether you pay or not, if antivirus software is constantly trying to upsell you to a more expensive product, it will do so whether or not you pay.

You can see this on the rightmost column in our table. Brands A and B will present locked features and annoying pop-ups whether or not you've paid. We're not revealing the brand names in the table as that content is reserved for Which? members.

BrandDownload protection (out of 5)Anti-Phishing (out of 5)USB scanning (out of 5)False positives (out of 5)Pop-ups and locked features (out of 5)
Brand A Free45541
Brand A Premium55541
Brand B Free55541
Brand B Premium55541
Brand C Free55452
Brand C Premium55452
Brand D Free55455

Which? members can get access to all our full antivirus software test results in our independent guide to the best antivirus software.

Premium antivirus features: Are they worth it?

Now we've established that free and paid software provide the exact same basic protection, you can now think about whether you want to pay anyway in order to get extra features.

Some of these extra features can increase your security from other threats, but none of them are what we'd deem essential for protecting your computer. Some of them offer extra peace-of-mind, while others don't really have that much of a benefit.

A bundled VPN

Should you pay extra? Probably not.

Lots of security suites come with VPN (virtual private network) software included in the price. VPNs help you to control your privacy online, although you should read our guide on how to buy the best VPN to work out whether it's something you need.

The main issue with VPN software bundled with your antivirus is that it typically offers a miserly amount of data. Avira Antivirus Pro, for example, comes with just 1GB a month. This is about as little as you'd get from a free trial with another VPN company, and only makes sense if you use a VPN rarely.

Similarly, Bitdefender offers just 200MB a day, which is only enough for a bit of light browsing on a given day.

If that's all you need, great. But if you want more, consider paying for a proper subscription. If your antivirus software comes with it anyway, don't feel like you're wasting money by not using it.

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System tune-up

Should you pay extra? No.

This is a classic value-added feature that can occasionally be helpful, but it's not so useful that it's worth paying extra for.

It's a really common feature in free antivirus tools, and you can all but guarantee that no matter what you do, your antivirus will find 'advanced' problems that require you to shell out to fix them.

We've rarely seen any of those 'advanced' problems turn out to be anything more than basic settings tweak which, frankly, we could take or leave.

woman frustrated with computer

In all but the most extreme circumstances, all that this software will find is 'junk' files, and it will want to empty your Downloads folder and possibly delete all your web-browser cookies.

Some may also suggest that you update some software. In some cases this could be quite handy, but ultimately you can do this yourself without paying:

  • Keep your Downloads folder tidy
  • Use the Storage Settings tools in Windows 10/11 and MacOS to keep junk files at bay
  • Ensure you only keep programs you want installed by using the 'Add or remove programs' tool in Windows 10/11, or delete the app from the Finder app in MacOS.

Family controls

Should you pay extra? Yes (but only if you need it).

Family controls let you set rules and manage a number of devices within your family. Where applicable, they'll also provide antivirus protection to those devices.

Features include setting screen-time limits, preventing certain apps from being installed, and keeping track of the location of smartphones (make sure you let the kids know before you do the latter).

This can be incredibly handy, especially if your household has a mix of Windows, Mac, iOS and Android devices. Keep in mind, though, that you don't strictly need to pay to have this level of control over the kids' tech. Microsoft Family Safety, Apple parental controls and Google Family Link all provide very similar features for their respective devices. So paying for such a tool isn't strictly necessary.

But if you want a one-stop shop to manage and protect your family's devices, paying extra for this could be a good shout.

Banking browser

Should you pay extra? Only if you're really worried (and if it actually works).

A banking browser, also known as safe browsing, purports to provide extra protection to prevent keyloggers and hackers seeing what you're up to when you're banking online.

Kaspersky and Norton both provide this as part of their paid-for products.

Like ransomware protection (see below), this really shouldn't be necessary if your antivirus is working properly. If there's a keylogger or some other nefarious activity happening on your computer, your antivirus should have already spotted and eliminated it.

With that said, banking fraud remains a common and devastating crime, so any tools that help to prevent it shouldn't be dismissed entirely.

But beware: in our testing we've had mixed results with these browsers actually working at all. Often they don't appear to do anything, while at other times they fail to recognise when you visit a banking website and so don't activate.

Shopping add-ons

Should you pay extra? No.

For one, these tools are typically free and tend to be browser-based, so you don't need to install or pay for any antivirus software to get them working. Avast Safe Price and Avira Safe Shopping are two examples of this.

Flight refunds

They may be useful, and claim to be able to filter out deals from retailers that haven't been vetted. But this is really no different from using any other deal-finding toolbar that you happen to trust.

Whichever toolbar you use, you're allowing the company to see all your shopping habits and, in the case of Avast, passing that information to a third-party company to serve you better deals. See Avast's privacy policy for more. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, but it rather steps beyond what you'd expect and want a piece of security software to do.

With a myriad of ways to compare prices online, we think toolbars for this purpose are mostly unnecessary.

Ransomware protection

Should you pay extra? Yes, if you're very worried about ransomware.

Ransomware is nasty: it locks up your files and asks you to pay a fee to unlock them again.

However, despite its infamous reputation, ransomware is relatively uncommon compared with other types of viruses, according to our test lab. There are much easier ways to get money out of you by stealing credit card information or trying to scam you via text message or email.

But it does still happen, which is why security companies often highlight it in their marketing and include 'ransomware protection' as a premium feature.

In truth, ransomware protection is not the right name for this feature - this implies that without it, ransomware is free to do what it wants on your computer. This isn't true.

What it actually does is monitor specific files that you value highly, and prevents any other programs from modifying or deleting them without your permission.

Sounds handy, but keep in mind that if your antivirus is any good, it will stop the ransomware from running at all, and therefore never allow it to even get close to locking up your files.

We know this because we've used free software, which offers ransomware protection as a paid upgrade, and found that the free software is equally adept at stopping ransomware as the paid-for version.

This shows that all you're actually paying for is the file-monitoring feature. Ultimately, if you're extremely worried about ransomware, you should use a service such as OneDrive or Google Drive to keep your files backed up.

Wi-fi scanner

Should you pay extra? Yes, if you have a lot of smart devices.

Wi-fi security scanners are a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to features. Some simply claim to let you know whenever a new device connects to the network, while others will attempt to scan all the devices on the network and find out whether they're out of date or have known security flaws.

Bitdefender is one example of a package that does the whole lot.

This type of tool can be useful, but only if you're using old or cheap kit. We've found in the past that there could be up to 100,000 security cameras at risk of being hacked.

If you're using smart devices such as security cameras or motion sensors and you aren't sure whether they're actually kept up to date by the manufacturer, it could be useful.

But if you're using gadgets from a big brand such as Ring or Netgear, you probably know exactly when and how they're updated, and a tool such as this can tell you whatever it likes. And are you really going to ditch your entire security system because your wi-fi scanner told you there are some issues with it?

These tools also let you know whether your router is up to date. This can be very useful, especially if you're using a router supplied by your ISP that's starting to show its age. We've found that older routers can pose a security risk, so a wi-fi scanning tool can be a good way to find out whether that's the case.