Note: I no longer update this page. For an updated and easily navigable version, check out AV Scan.
Linux users are lucky: there aren't really many viruses that target them. Even Mac folks don't have to lose sleep over virus attacks too often. But life for us Windows people is different. Much of our digital worries hover about the possibility that a single malicious program could turn the world upside down.
To make sure I'm insured for the next digital doomsday, over the past few weeks I've checked out all the major brands of antivirus software, including free antivirus software (all latest versions till date). My poor PC had to go through a horrible degree of abomination, but in the end my finds were sure worth it. First of all, you should know that
- this isn't a data-centric report. I neither have the intention nor the resources to come up with that kind of thing (you can check out Download.com, About.com, Consumer Search, PC Magazine and PC World for stats; amazingly, the test results differ across these reviews even when they're using the same parameters. Also, google to look up a particular antivirus version review).
- what I've come up with is a plain-talk user account. However, I've tested (read 'applied') different home user versions of standalone antivirus software on my PC under the same conditions (courtesy of Acronis TrueImage; OS: Windows XP).
- all prices mentioned are in US$ and generally include a 1-year virus definitions subscription.
BitDefender product page | top
This year's champ won many hearts with its price tag: a one year subscription for 3 users (yes, that wasn't a typo) costs only $23.96. BitDefender is a vastly improved product in its current incarnation (the current version is 2008), although version 9 (the last one I used) was good too. BitDefender did a good job cleaning up my PC; it looks sleek these days, and scan speed seems to have slightly improved. However, my chief complaint against BitDefender is it eats up a lot of your RAM. And a hell lot: in fact, if you're using an older machine you might even think your PC has crashed for good (I tested it on a 2.0 -something GHz Celeron, and it's going to curse me for the rest of its days).
Summary: good detection rate, great price tag, improved interface; slow scan speed, RAM hog.
Price: $23.96 (for 3 users)
Kaspersky Labs product page | top
I've used Kaspersky since its infancy, and the thing I like about it is the way it updates its database. Kaspersky responds to security threats fast, and scans all Internet traffic in real time to block viruses before they are saved to disk. Kaspersky isn't impenetrable, as its fans (including myself) used to believe. But then again that faith stems from the fact that it's so good at catching viruses -- if not the best. It scans well and fast (unless you're using the highest settings), and one might argue that the relatively high $59.95 price tag for a single user license is worth it. The interface is better than before, but could be better; it seems to eat up more RAM than its previous versions. The problem with Kaspersky is an almost silly one: its update mechanism often fails, leaving you in minutes of sluggish online experience; worse, it will then keep nagging you even if your virus database is only a few days old, making the situation seem much worse than it really is (many users, especially people who use dial-up, rely completely on weekly, bi-weekly or even monthly virus definitions downloads). The situation really gets on your nerves when you discover that Kaspersky is downloading all the files it needs, but somehow can't update its database. While you can adjust the way Kaspersky updates, it's worth pointing out that the auto-update is perhaps its prime feature. You get the idea. The latest version is 7.0.
Summary: good detection rate, quick to respond to virus outbreaks; update mechanism acts weird at times, eats more RAM than previous versions, interface could be better.
Price: $59.95 (1 user)
ESET product page | top
You might have heard a lot of praise for NOD32: professional virus testers use NOD32, and its virus detection engine is considered the industry benchmark. It really is that good. It's not heavy on RAM, and the updating process works like a charm. Most review magazines have long blamed NOD32 for its unintuitive interface, but version 3 and over fare better in that department. I feel NOD32's interface shortcomings was (and continues to be) much exaggerated. Eset (the makers of NOD32) recommend Eset Smart Security for home users, which includes a firewall and costs $59.99 for a one-year single user license. I'd suggest you go ahead with just the NOD32 Antivirus (v3.0), which costs $39.99, and use it alongside a stand-alone firewall.
Summary: great detection rate, good update mechanism, latest interface is much more intuitive, light on system resources.
Price: $39.99 (1 user)
Check Point product page (antivirus) (security suite) | top
ZoneAlarm is perhaps best known as a great firewall, but these days the company (Check Point) has started offering an antivirus as well. It's essentially a variant of Kaspersky (version 6.0?), but it's not as good. It scanned really, really slowly; it doesn't have enough options for scans; it fared poorly in cleaning up registry entries generated by malware; it came up with false alerts (an area where other antivirus programs have improved greatly); and I really can't trust Check Point on effective user support or disaster management, because they're into firewalls, not antivirus software (and, the antivirus they made sucks). The only reason I'm discussing ZoneAlarm Antivirus at all is it's part of the ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite (v7.1) -- and the bundle comes pretty cheap at $49.95.
Summary: good detection rate, not heavy on the wallet (as part of the ZA Security Suite); slow scan speed, can't clean up leftover registry entries, lacks scanning options, Vista support issues.
Price: $29.95 (1 user); $49.95 for ZA Security Suite (1 user)
Panda Software product page | top
I liked the looks of Panda Antivirus: any antivirus software that's called 'panda' deserves praise :D Panda Antivirus (v 2008) installs quickly, and its real-time scanner is good and even underrated. But the good part stops there. Panda doesn't seem to respond to new threats quickly enough, and once installed, your PC takes an annoying while to boot (not to mention the panda head icon that appears on the bottom-right corner of your screen and gets on your nerves soon enough. You might even end up appreciating pandas less). Independent reviewers seem to be uninterested in Panda as well, which makes it hardly a popular choice. Worst part: Panda eats up a lot of your RAM.
Summary: good detection rate, affordable; slow scan speed, RAM hog extraordinaire.
Price: $39.95 (for 3 users, 1 year)
F-Secure product page | top
I ended up using F-Secure for almost the entire trial period. The new version is massively improved and it detects viruses fairly well (reviews have traditionally underrated F-Secure's engine). It updates quickly and frequently (in small files, a lot like Kaspersky) too. The reason I gave up on it is it eats up a lot of RAM. In that respect, it shares the same curse as BitDefender. It's also pricey.
Summary: good detection rate, good update mechanism; pricey, RAM-intensive.
Price: $97 (for 3 users; the price is actually €65.90 on the company website)
Next: (part 2: the biggies)