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Freeware vs Paid Security Software


The range of free alternatives to commercial products may leave you wondering whether it’s worth paying for protection. Free virus removal tools are now available from a range of vendors that cover anti-virus and anti-malware protection as well as firewalls, and of course Windows has its own built-in firewall that many now use by default to save money. So, with what appears to be a comprehensive array of protection available at no cost, is there any real benefit to investing in a dedicated suite?


There is no definitive answer to this question, because it depends on your needs, on how much you use your computer and what you use it for. It is clear, however, that free tools omit a range of features and technologies found in commercial packages, as well as helpful “extras” that take the hassle out of tasks such as data backup and system optimisation.



How capable are free tools against modern threats?


Studies have found that, when it comes to “core security”, free tools are often just as effective at detecting and eliminating known threats as commercial alternatives. However, these tests are usually conducted using strains of viruses and malware that have already been identified as malicious – thereby testing something called signature-based detection.


What free tools don’t offer is a more advanced form of security called behavioural protection. This is rapidly becoming an essential standard and has proven far more effective against the ever-evolving face of modern threats than what many are calling “yesterday’s technology”.


A recent interview with BullGuard CTO, Claus Villumsen, published in The Guardian, sheds some light on the question: “What is being offered for free is yesterday’s technology, which only detects around 60% of viruses – it is based on a detection method which is becoming obsolete. You need behavioural detection technology to stay safe today. If you look around, you will see that the companies who offer free antivirus have more advanced and comprehensive products which they do charge for – those are the products you need to stay safe.”


Behavioural-based detection can detect new viruses that haven’t been discovered and added to a signature database by analysing the typical behaviour of files, registry entries, processes and network events and flagging anything that appears abnormal. Research suggests that 65% more malware can be detected in this way, which goes to show how important it is to be pro-active, rather than reactive, in the face of modern threats.



The benefits of commercial software


As well as more advanced forms of security, many commercial suites include features that you won’t find in freeware alternatives. These benefits include tools such as:


Spam protection helps viruses and links to malicious websites from finding their way to locally-stored mailboxes.


Identity protection prevents sensitive details such as credit card information and personal data from being retrieved and read by internet criminals.


Online protection, also known as a web-shield or “safe browsing”, flags websites that are deemed as unsafe or that may contain malware or other malicious software and warns you before you open the page.


Anti-rootkit technology prevents unauthorised users who may have gained access to your computer from hiding their behaviour from typical detection techniques and retaining some degree of control – perhaps to send sensitive information to third parties.


In a more general sense, commercial packages give you far more control over the range of benefits and more streamlined overall operation. Updates are usually far more frequent and managed automatically, which saves you time but more importantly ensures that the latest definitions are retrieved to your computer as soon as they are available. Additional features such as local and online backup, encryption, secure file deletion and tune-up tools are now becoming standard in high-end suites and the ability to schedule these sorts of processes alongside traditional scans can save you a lot of hassle.


Tech-support is usually not provided as standard with freeware solutions so if you do encounter problems you won’t have an expert resource to turn to for additional help. Also, some freeware alternatives use pop-ups to promote other services, which can be an irritation.


Finally, installing multiple free applications may save money, but it also “clutters” your PC far more than an optimised all-in-one suite and typically uses more system resources, which slows down general operation.



The choice is yours


All of these security and support issues can sound daunting, but in truth you’ll rarely need to concern yourself with the intricacies of modern threats provided you are sufficiently protected. “Peace of mind” is perhaps the biggest benefit of a commercial security suite, which is why many deem the initial outlay to be a small price to pay.


At the end of the day, “you get what you pay for” and the final choice will be down to your priorities. Those who value the integrity of their data enough to desire the very latest in protection standards will no doubt argue that the added convenience, features and flexibility of a commercial package makes the decision a no-brainer, but more casual or infrequent users on a budget can still find plenty of value from free alternatives. The choice is yours.

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