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SECURING YOUR WINDOWS NETWORK / HOW-TO GEEK SCHOOL

How-To Geek

Lesson 9: Beyond Defender: Third Party Security Products in Windows

Network Security

While Microsoft tries to do a good job at providing a secure computing experience, there will always be other companies that provide better security products than those found in Windows. This is especially true when you consider Windows Defender (Microsoft Security Essentials) and its effectiveness in blocking all kinds of malware.

If you read the tests performed by independent security companies, you will see that Windows Defender is merely a decent product and most security vendors provide better protection. That’s why many users tend to disable it and use a free antivirus program from another company or purchase commercial security products like Internet Security suites or Total Security suites.

In this lesson we will discuss both free and paid security products. We will start by sharing the compromises you make when choosing free antivirus programs and what to watch for when installing them. We will also share a couple of free antivirus products that you should consider testing.

For those of you who want the most complete protection possible, we will share what to look for when purchasing paid security products. To help you out even more, we will also explain the most common marketing gimmicks you should avoid. Security companies will try to sell you great sounding products that provide the “ultimate protection,” while the sad truth is that half of their features do not provide any benefit from a security perspective and are not worth the premium they charge.

At the end of this lesson we will share a couple of websites that regularly test security products and can help you pick the best security product for you. We hope that we have stirred your interest. We sure love the subject of security and we think that you will love this lesson.

What to Pay Attention to When Installing Free Antivirus Programs

When installing free antivirus products from the Internet, please keep in mind that the companies developing them need to monetize these products in order to survive. That’s why almost every time you install free antivirus, there is a catch involved.

  • Some free antivirus products are used as a promotional tool for the commercial products developed by the same company. Therefore, you will be nagged regularly by prompts and banners that urge you to purchase products.
  • Some free antivirus products install unwanted software such as Internet browsers or browser toolbars. For each installation of this extra software, the antivirus company gets paid a fee from the company that develops the unwanted software.
  • Some free antivirus products change your browser’s homepage and the default search engine. For each successful change they are paid a fee from the company benefiting from these changes.

Each time you install free antivirus products, pay attention to every prompt and every option in the installation process. When choosing a product other than Windows Defender/Microsoft Security Essentials, try to pick something that provides more protection. This means a better antivirus engine, rootkit protection, and protection while browsing the web against phishing sites and sites that distribute malware.

Which Free Antivirus Products Should You Consider Except Windows Defender?

avast! Free Antivirus is one of the most popular free antivirus products. You can use it for free for 30 days, but if you want to use it longer you have to register an account with avast!.

Just like other similar products, it provides antivirus and rootkit protection. With the help of browser add-ons it also protects you when browsing the web. When installing it, please be careful so that you don’t end up having an unwanted browser and toolbar.

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AVG Antivirus Free is a very popular free antivirus which has the basics you need from a free antivirus product: real-time antivirus and anti-rootkit protection, plus a module for scanning your HTTP traffic. As you will quickly see after installing it, this product heavily advertises paid products developed by AVG.

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Avira Free Antivirus is a product that includes real-time antivirus and anti-rootkit protection. Even though its interface mentions a firewall module, it is only referring to the Windows Firewall. Also, it doesn’t protect you from malicious websites or phishing schemes.

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Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition is a very lightweight product that doesn’t offer anything more than Windows Defender does in terms of features. It has the same real-time protection module for dealing with viruses and spyware. The only difference is that it uses the Bitdefender engine which is widely recognized as one of the most powerful antivirus engines in the world. In order to use it for free, for more than 30 days, you have to register and create a Bitdefender account. We like its simplicity, that it doesn’t advertise anything and that it doesn’t bundle any unwanted extras.

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Comodo Free Internet Security is one of the very few Internet Security-type products that are available for free. This means that it includes antivirus, antispyware, anti-rootkit, and firewall protection, as well as a virtual sandbox in which you can run suspicious files. The only thing that is missing is a module that scans your HTTP traffic and provides phishing protection and blocks sites with malware. When installing it, please do pay attention so that you don’t end up with your browser’s settings changed as well as unwanted toolbars.

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360 Internet Security is free light-weight antivirus made in China. It includes a real-time protection module and several scanning engines including the one from Bitdefender, which is recognized by many as being one of the best antivirus engines in the world. It also scans your HTTP traffic automatically and it provides protection against keyloggers. It also has a sandbox for running files that you do not trust. Even though it is named “Internet Security,” it doesn’t include a firewall as products with this name usually do. Just like “Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition,” this product doesn’t try to install unwanted extras.

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What to Keep In Mind When Purchasing Security Products

In our experience with testing security products we have learned a few useful things that you should keep in mind:

  • Some commercial products use Windows Firewall instead of their own proprietary firewall technology. The most famous example is Trend Micro which develops only their own anti-malware technology and uses the Windows Firewall for providing firewall protection. In this case, it doesn’t make much sense to provide the “Internet Security” or “Total Security” product version unless it provides other protection modules and extra features that are useful to you. In these scenarios it is best only to purchase their standard antivirus product.
  • “Total Security” products generally do not offer more protection against malware. They only offer more extras that justify their increased cost. Things like: cloud storage and synchronization for your files, parental controls, or Windows tuning tools. These extras tend to be generic products which are no better than dedicated products by other companies. For example, cloud storage and synchronization solutions provided by security companies are no better or cheaper than OneDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive, and so on. The same goes for Parental Controls – the Family Safety product offered by Windows 8.x operating systems is one of the best solutions of this type and it is free to use. The parental controls offered by security products tend to be less effective or more complicated to use.
  • When you purchase a commercial security product double check that it has these mandatory protection modules: antivirus, antispyware, antiphishing (this provided through modules that verify your http traffic), antispam, antirootkit, and a firewall (optional if you want to stick to the Windows Firewal). These protection modules are generally included in most Antivirus or Internet Security products. Other protection modules or features are optional and do not necessarily improve the security of your system.
  • Out of all the extras that are bundled by some security vendors in their security suites, the only ones that are likely to be useful in enhancing security are the following:
  • Secure browsers like Bitdefender’s Safepay – this is a custom Webkit browser that is very useful when doing online transactions on public WiFi. It uses encrypted VPN connections, stops phishing attacks, and it protects you from keyloggers. However, the same level of protection can be achieved by using a VPN connection and a good antivirus product.
  • Sandboxing tools which allow you to run suspicious files in an isolated environment so that your system doesn’t get infected in case those files turn out to be some form of malware. You can also use a virtual machine for testing suspicious files.

Where to Learn More About Security Products Before Purchasing Them

As is always the case in the tech world, there are plenty of sources where you can read reviews about security products. In order to help you decide which the best antivirus or Internet Security product for you, we would like to recommend three websites that test security products on a regular basis:

  • AV Test – this organization tests most antivirus products on Windows and Android. You pick the producer of the product you are interested in and the operating system you are using. You can see the results of their testing split into three categories: protection, performance, and usability.
  • AV Comparatives – they test all the mainstream security products once every quarter and share their results in comprehensive reports. They test security products for Windows, Mac, and Android.
  • 7 Tutorials – in their Security for Everyone series, they test Internet Security suites for Windows. They also look at the effectiveness of the firewall protection that is provided by each product and spend a lot of time evaluating the user experience. Their tests are less technical than those performed by the other two organizations but they provide a lot more detail about how each product works and what’s it like to use it on a daily basis.

Coming up next …

We hope that you have enjoyed this lesson. We sure did enjoy writing it. In the final lesson of this How-To Geek School class, we will share several tips about keeping your system safe from harm, such as how to avoid crapware, some best practices about how to browse the web in a secure manner, and so on.

Ciprian Adrian Rusen is an experienced technology writer and author with several titles published internationally by Microsoft Press. You can connect with him on 7 Tutorials, Twitter, and Google+ or even buy his books on Amazon.

  • Published 06/5/14