AntiVirus and AntiSpyware is not something you want to skimp on if you have any important information stored on your computer. And if you do any shopping, banking, or other types of financial transactions online, Viruses and Spyware could help a criminal steal your identity and you may be liable for thousands of dollars! However, if you have a computer where you just want some basic AntiVirus and AntiSpyware software, there are some free software packages you can pick up that will fit the bill.
The top 3 free AV products are AntiVir, Grisoft, and Avast!. Here is a comparison of these three programs. Remember, these are primarily on-demand scanners, which means you have to manually run them! Yes, you can schedule them, but you still have a long delay between when you might become infected and when you get cleaned. Also, keep in mind that stopping the viruses from getting into your system is better than cleaning up later, as you might not be able to get rid of it. [Edit: It has been pointed out to me that some of these have do real-time monitoring and should catch things before they get installed.]
Another free AntiVirus program I've seen is Cyberhawk. It is a free heuristics based AntiVirus which runs in realtime. I haven't tested it much, but it seems to pick up on some of the more suspicious behavior of some of the software I have thrown at it. I recommend using it alongside one of the other virus scanners. And don't forget that Google Pack gives you 6 months of Norton AntiVirus 2005 for free, and AOL Safety and Security Center licenses Kaspersky AntiVirus to you for free. If you'd rather do some research and pay for something, here are some good sites to get you started.
AntiSpyware is a fairly new industry and, until the last 18 months or so, the free programs were probably better than anything you could buy. However, now it seems like the free stuff isn't being updated nearly as often and the stuff you can buy makes life a lot simpler. This is my opinion, and others will have wildly differing ones, but one thing everyone can agree on is to stay far away from the rogue AntiSpyware!
Also, try out different programs on different computers. If you use F-Secure AntiVirus, Zone Alarm Pro Firewall, and Webroot SpySweeper on your main computer, put Avast!, Kerio, and Ad-Aware on your kids' computer. Find something that works out well for you. Some of the newer viruses and spyware are written specifically to evade the main AntiVirus vendors, so give some of the lesser known guys a try. Use Nod32 or Kaspersky instead of McAfee or Norton.
The way I avoid spyware and viruses is to know what I'm downloading, avoid sketchy websites, patch Windows, and configure my browsers for security -- IE, and Firefox. You can get plugins which will disable scripting, warn you of bad sites, and warn you of phishing sites. I also recommend replacing the default Windows firewall with one of the good free alternatives: Zone Labs, Kerio, or Comodo. These will block outbound network traffic as well as inbound, but they may be a bit more intimidating for the average user.
If you're worried about your kids, visitors, or whoever going to dangerous sites, you can install a web filtering proxy and set up separate Limited User Windows logins. I recently had a house guest go to some unsavory sites late at night while he was staying here and I ended up getting hit with something that shut my computer off, but thanks to my AntiVirus program, nothing ended up on the hard drive. However, taking the two steps above would have prevented the incident altogether and would have saved me the couple of hours it took to double check the computer for any nasty stuff that had gotten by.
In the end, the best thing for the average user looking at some of the freeware listed here is to just pick something and use it. If you find that it doesn't fit the bill, you can always drop it and grab something else. Remember that ease of use can be as important as anything else. If you get 10 popups an hour from your security software, you're likely to just click through it. It may be no more effective at protecting you than having nothing, and it makes using the computer frustrating.
There have been quite a few links in this week's post, and it might be a bit intimidating. But each one links to a program or to information about them. You don't have to hit every one of them, just surf where the 'net takes you. If you feel more comfortable navigating and digging deep into things, feel free to click every link and devour all of the information. And post here if you find more things.
When you were a kid, your parents tried to help you understand the dangers of the world outside your home and protect you from them. When you're going out into the big bad online world, there are a lot of things to look out for, too. Hopefully this will be a starting point for you to do some research and see what is out there so you can keep your computer healthy. And don't forget your scarf, it might get cold out there.