Security software: 15 free and paid-for security suites reviewed

Security software: 15 free and paid-for security suites reviewed

It’s vital to pick a security package with a proven ability to detect malware and repel online attacks. But that isn’t the only consideration: what about system resources?

Nobody wants to bog down their PC with software that eats up lots of RAM. And costs are a factor, too.

There are several free options, but paid-for packages typically offer more features, and this month we find out if they also do a better job of the basics.

If you decide to buy, look carefully at the pricing options. We detail them below, including all the deals for people with or two or three PCs to look after.

Finally, note that not all internet security suites are born the same. While we criticise the extra cost of McAfee’s Total Protection, for example, it does offer extra features – most notably Anti-Theft, which allows you to encrypt vital files that could be invaluable to you.

The tests

To help you find your ideal security software, we put 15 security packages through their paces. Each package is installed on a Windows Vista PC with a 2.66GHz Core i7-920 processor and 3GB of RAM.

We accept the default installation and configuration options, and ensure that the most recent updates are applied to both Windows and the security package. We give each product a thorough road-test and award points in four categories based on how they fare.


Our Performance rating reflects the results of two practical tests. In the first, we use each suite to scan a collection of viruses, trojans, keyloggers and other file-based threats.

Every file has been positively identified as dangerous by at least four packages, so a good suite should detect most of them. The results are shown in the graphs.

We also test the intrusion-protection capabilities of each package using the GFI LANguard scanning tool, launched from a remote computer on the same internal network.

This reports which ports are accessible, and whether the system is exposing any known vulnerabilities.

We also visit a large number of websites suspected of hosting malicious exploits, and observe whether each security package warns us of the danger.

The number of pages flagged by each site is shown in the second graph above, but this metric is not reflected in the Performance score, since more warnings don’t necessarily mean better protection.

click to view full size image
Malware detection rates: click on image for larger size

Ease of Use

The Ease of Use score reflects how responsive and accessible the user interface is, including our assessment of how neatly it handles email-borne malware, which we test with Windows Mail. It also takes into account startup time and memory footprint.

To quantify how long it takes each package to initialise, we time how long it takes for the desktop to appear on a clean Windows Vista system, leave the computer idle for a further two minutes, and then add the number of seconds during which CPU usage is displayed as greater than 10%. Our third graph above shows how much time is added by installing the software.

To measure each package’s memory footprint, we note basic memory usage once the software has finished initialising, and subtract the RAM usage of a clean system.

click to view full size image
Web threats, startup time, RAM usage: click on image for larger size

Value for Money

The Value for Money score reflects the cost of a suite, but also takes into account the Performance and Ease of Use scores: a cheap – or even free – security suite is still poor value if it doesn’t deliver effective protection. We also weigh up extra features, such as online backup.


Finally, we award an Overall score to each package. This score is an average of the other three scores combined, although due to rounding it may appear slightly higher or lower than expected.

click to view full size image

Feature table: click on image for larger size

Browse this article: 

This Group Test appeared in the April, 2010 issue of PC & Tech Authority Magazine

See more about:  security  |  malware  |  antivirus  |  software  |  internet  |  trend  |  norton  |  microsoft  |  kaspersky  |  mcafee  |  eset  |  avast  |  avira

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Comments: 6
22 March 2010
I don't know why PC Authority test the obsolete version of Avast 4.8 when then current version 5 is available. it makes the whole exercise of a review a waist of time and reading.

Comment made about the PC Authority article:
Security software: 15 free and paid-for security suites reviewed ?
It’s vital to pick a security package with a proven ability to detect malware and repel online attacks. But that isn’t the only consideration: what about system resources?

What do you think? Join the discussion.
23 March 2010
Agree, I've just found out that avast uses less than 25MBs memory on my Windows XP netbook (1GB memory total) by checking Windows Task Manager.
I used to have AVG 9 free not long ago, but feeling it takes up my computer's resources espectially while loading up.
The only inconvenience with avast is its user interface, they should have made it simpler and easer to access as AVG does IMO.
23 March 2010

I was going to comment on article lead times EG: the article was written for a magazine at least a month before the mag hit the shelves earlier this month.

I suppose you could call it the tyranny of print.

If PCA were to become purely web based like then the lead times should become less of an issue. Of course if that were to happen you'd probably have to pay to view.

But having read the article I'm not impressed at how unbalanced it is.

The paid for programs are being compared to free suits that have fully functional paid for versions that aren't included in the round up.
It strikes me as illogical.

1 July 2010
How can we take your results or tests seriously when you state that AVG 9 FREE (Your best value choice) has rootkit detection and plainly does not, click here for proof
If you are going to use a free antivirus product then use one which has rootkit detection such as AVAST 5, there are others but please check to see if the product detects rootkits.Also download sandboxie or GeSwall as a browser protector.No antivirus gives you 100% protection but adding sandboxie or Geswall gives you 99.99% protection.
15 September 2010
This was the year for change. The KIS2010 system I was running on 2 PC's was increasingly slow updating - typically 2-3mb per day, plus various resource limitations that the previous version did not have. So, reviewed the group tests and chose norton and AVG to trial.
I did try to download the trial of KIS2011, but that not only failed to install properly but the roll back didn't work either: which left a system in limbo. Fortunately I'd taken a system drive backup before starting any of this.
The Norton trial aborted at the download point - what they wanted was credit card details on an opt out basis before supplying the trial package. In this day of scams and identity fraud - stupid to say the least.
which left AVG.
The trial package downloaded and installed without a hitch, and ran sweetly for 3 weeks. Resource limits of the type previously experienced were not there and I was able to again do updates on an auto basis. I bought it. One thing that stood out for AVG was the fast update download time and size: the reason given in their FAQ was illuminating. I was dumbfounded to find that - despite the test ratings - AVG was as slow or marginally slower to start than KIS. Measure of test - time from pressing the cold start button to system fully online after the start scan and the startup menu has finished, indicated by the wallpaper package (last in the startup menu) updating the screen image. Typical times - around 3minutes 10-15 seconds, which is a tad longer than the 14-30+ seconds in the test ratings. Interestingly, it was the same time on a single core CPU as it was on a dual core CPU.
15 September 2010
And PCs don't have security problems…


No they don't, honest!
Comments have been disabled for this article.
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