Is free virus protection inferior?

What price is virus protection worth?

It seems the CEO of a company that distributes free antivirus (AV) software is taking exception to something a Symantec official said about the differences between free and paid AV. The funny thing is that it took him a year to get angry about it—leading us to believe that it’s all just a big publicity stunt. It’s getting a lot of attention to be sure, but it’s a stunt nonetheless.

In 2009, Tech Blorge reporter John Pospisil interviewed David Hall, Symantec’s product manager for consumer products in the Asia-Pacific region. “There is a very, very big gap between what antivirus does and the threats that are being delivered today,” Hall said in that interview. “If you are only relying on free antivirus to offer you protection in this modern age, you are not getting the protection you need to be able to stay clean and have a reasonable chance of avoiding identity theft. That’s why free antivirus is not enough; you need in-depth layered technologies, which only come from the more mature paid suites.”

Fast-forward to the present day, and we have Comodo CEO Melih Abdulhayaglou suddenly offended by that remark and challenging Symantec to a showdown.

This is actually a pretty smart move based on previous reviews of AV performance we’ve done in the GCN Lab. Our most recent AV review this year  showed no functional difference between free and paid programs in terms of stopping viruses, and it’s been that way for many years. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2006 to find an AV roundup where viruses were missed by some companies.

The lab has a secure computer that is kept locked away, filled with nasty viruses. And we use virus creation tools plus good old-fashion programming elbow grease to create new ones for any AV test. They are then loaded into a traffic generator and slammed into a computer protected by antivirus tools. But here’s the thing: pretty much every AV program with proper updates is going to be able to stop every virus these days. If one gets through, it’s actually news. That’s not to say a virus couldn’t suddenly erupt and start killing off computers, but such a virus probably would affect both paid and free programs in equal measure.

The point is that if you are talking about basic protection, all AV suites are pretty much equal. We’ve never tested, or even heard of, Comodo. But we would be willing to bet next week’s donuts that they could pass this basic test. Protection however, is a lot more than just that basic goal of stopping viruses. These days true protection includes halting spam, phishing attacks, transmission of personal information, the scanning of links to ensure a Website isn’t infected before you visit it, stopping keyloggers and snoops. And a protection suite has to have a clean interface as well, or else all that protection will be wasted inside a bad GUI that could almost be like spam itself. It’s actually difficult to find a program that only stops viruses, since the protection it would offer would be minimal compared to the level and types of threats out there today.

That’s why when we test AV software these days, we look at all aspects of a program. It gets the basic tests, but most of its overall grade is based on other factors. That basic testing is more or less just a check box on our reviewer’s form, sort of a Pass/Fail situation. If it passes, then the real testing can begin.

We loved Symantec’s response to Comodo. They gave them the addresses and contact info for testing labs like the one at GCN, and invited them to participate in roundup reviews alongside the Norton product. And we second that notion. The next time we perform one, we would love to have Comodo along.


About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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