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.

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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.

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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.

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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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