New PCs almost invariably come with a free trial version of a subscription security suite from a company such as Symantec or McAfee. But you can probably skip paying for those programs and still be safe online, our latest tests confirm.
Our evaluations, performed in conjunction with International Consumer Research & Testing, an association of independent, not-for-profit organizations, turned up free programs that should adequately protect all but the most at-risk Internet users from malware—viruses, spyware, and other online threats.
Consider paying for software mostly for convenience and some extra features. Those additions include a built-in firewall, which can block attempts by malicious software to access data on your computer. In our tests, the firewalls in the best suites afforded slightly better protection than those built into Windows operating systems. However, the Windows 7 firewall scored comparably to those in most suites. Even the Windows Vista firewall should protect you well enough, unless your computers are often used by inexperienced Web surfers or you enable files on them to be accessed via the Internet.
A pay suite does simplify matters. It requires just one download and installation and a single upgrade to its database when necessary. Its single interface can also be easier to use than multiple stand-alone programs. You can use a suite on as many as three computers in the same household, and it will offer features not available on stand-alone and free apps. And almost all pay suites offer free phone or e-mail support or both. Few of the free programs we tested offered either support.
The extras offered by many pay suites include a spam filter and a browser toolbar that will alert you when you're visiting sites that host malware. But if you need a spam filter because your e-mail program isn't adequately filtering out unwanted messages, you can get a free stand-alone anti-spam program; we recommend SPAMfighter at spamfighter.com. And there are free security toolbars available for all major browsers that provide extra protection against phishing sites.