Malicious people with malicious intent are constantly trying to gain access to your computer to make a buck at your expense. Whether it be your credit card number for a quick transaction, or something more personal like a SS number for identity theft, anyone anywhere can be infected by all sorts of malware and viruses. The following list contains 12 free programs that will help provide excellent protection for you and your computer allowing you to have peace of mind. Why pay when you can get excellent protection for free?
The following list has been broken up into three tiers:
- Tier 1  – this tier contains the basic essentials of computer security software that everyone should have. I highly recommend you install all the software listed under tier 1.
- Tier 2  – this tier contains software that are supplements to the software listed under tier 1; they are programs that you should have installed but don’t need them, per se. However, unless you are a very experienced techie, I highly recommend that you install all the software listed under tier 2 also.
- Tier 3  – this tier contains software that goes above and beyond the protection an average user will need. The software in tier 3 are fairly unique in the sense that they don’t really overlap in functionality with the software in tier 1 and tier 2 but rather provide a unique aspect of protection. Tier 3 is completely optional; think of it as the “pick and chose” tier – you may select to install only some of the software from tier 3 or none at all. You can also install all the software in tier 3, but that will really be “overkill” protection, if you get what I mean.
Note: Unless specifically stated otherwise, all software is supported by 32-bit and 64-bit.
Note: Most of the software below are for “home” and/or “non-commercial” use only.
Anti-Virus, Spyware, Malware, and all-around Anti-Scumware
What: avast! Free Antivirus 
Why: avast! Free Edition provides protection against viruses, rootkits, dialers, phishing scams, spyware, and adware; in other word avast! Free Edition provides you protection against all scumware/malware. It also comes with multiple different real-time protection shields, such as an e-mail scanner, web scanner, IM scanner, file scanner, etc.
Originally an Avira fan, I have been converted to avast! ever since the release of v5.0 for the simple fact that it provides excellent protection while still being fairly light on computer resources, providing a boatload of features, and having a very aesthetically pleasing interface. All that with no continuous advertisement pop ups like in Avira. (Avira is still terrific though, mind you.)
avast! Free Antivirus system requirements:
- Processor: Pentium 3 or higher
- Operating system: Microsoft Windows 2000, Microsoft Windows XP/Vista/7 (32/64 bit)
- Hard drive: At least 100 MB of free hard disk memory space (more if using Quarantine for
- RAM: At least 128 MB RAM
Read my review comparing avast! vs. Avira vs. AVG  for more detailed analysis on these software.
What: Outpost Firewall Free 
Why: Originally when I wrote this article, I recommended PC Tools Firewall Plus because it was one of the firewalls that – as far as I knew – did not have compatibility issues with many people (like Comodo or Online Armor often do). However, since then I had problems with PC Tools Firewall Plus with it literally self destructing on me – and killed my internet, amongst many other mean things, with it =(. It just happened out of the blue – no idea why.
Lucky for me, recently Outpost Firewall Free 2009 was released around the same time as PC Tools Firewall Plus gave me a whiplash, so I went to check it out. Providing excellent protection, having an excellent “intelligent rules wizard”, and being a hell lot less annoying than Firewall Plus, OutPost Firewall Free 2009 is, simply put, a winner. I have never looked back since I started using Outpost.
Outpost system requirements:
- Processor: 500 MHz or higher
- Operating system: Windows 2000/XP/Vista
- Doesn’t officially support Windows 7 (yet) but it seems to work just fine on Win7.
- Update: Apparently the 64-bit version will not work on Win7.
- Doesn’t officially support Windows 7 (yet) but it seems to work just fine on Win7.
- Hard drive: 30 MB
- RAM: 256 MB
Anti-Malware On Demand Scanner
What: Malwarebytes Anti-Malware 
Why: You ask why, I say I have three words for you: lightweight, simple, and effective. Malwarebytes is a popular free anti-malware protection that provides on demand scanning. It is very lightweight and the malware detection rate is fairly good for being a supplement. It scans pretty quickly also. And since this does not provide live protection, it will only run when you tell it to. At this point you may be thinking ‘why do I need Malwarebytes when I have avast!’, correct? Well here is the thing. Technically speaking, avast! will provide excellent protection against malware. So in essence Malwarebytes is really just optional. However, having an on demand scanner is always nice because it provides a different angle to things and may pick up something avast! misses, because we all all know that no protection software is 100% perfect. Best of all it does not conflict with any program or use computer resources (except hard drive space) on a daily basis because it is an on-demand – it only starts working when you tell it to.
Malwarebytes system requirements:
- Processor: 250 MHz or higher
- Operating system: Windows 2000 and higher. Vista may only support 32-bit – I am finding conflicting reports about it.
- Hard drive: At least 3 MB
- RAM: 64 MB or higher
What: WinPatrol 
Why: Simply put WinPatrol is a lightweight program that provides excellent supplementary protection. WinPatrol is not an anti-virus, or anti-spyware, or anti-[insert catch phrase here], per se. WinPatrol is an anti-make-system-changes-without-my-consent… if that makes sense. WinPatrol sits in the background and monitors your computer for “hijackings, malware attacks, and critical changes” and alerts you about them. A few very handy things WinPatrol protects you against include, but are not limited to, homepage changes, ActiveX changes, and startup program changes. I can’t tell you how many times WinPatrol has saved me from an ***hole developer who thinks he can change my IE homepage without asking me. Excellent program this WinPatrol is.
WinPatrol system requirements:
- Operating system: Windows 95/98/ME/NT/2000/XP/Vista/Windows 7
Alternatives: AnVir Task Manager 
For Firefox/Flock users
What: LinkExtend 
Why: The two most popular website advisers are McAfee Site Advisor and Web of Trust. Both of them provide good information on websites and help steer us away from possible websites. Of course no one service is perfect (it is impossible to be 100% accurate on every website on the internet). This is why we have LinkExtend. LinkExtend is a Firefox/Flock extension that provides information on:
- Safety – Informs you if a web page is malicious, sends spam, contains spyware, online scams, identity theft, and more
- KidSafe – Alerts you about sites that are unsafe for children and let’s you erase these sites from your Firefox history automatically
- Ethics – Rates ethical behavior of a site’s company including social responsibility, business practices, environmental impact, etc.
- PageRank – Represents how important a page is on the web, based on the Google link analysis algorithm, ranked from zero to ten
- SiteTraffic – Shows you how popular a site is, based on the average page views and users for a particular site or web page
- Visited – Tells you when you last visited a site, what pages you accessed, and lets you remove the site from your Firefox history
If you prefer to not view all this information, LinkExtend options let you pick and choose what you want to see. Additionally if the toolbar annoys you, if you “Customize Toolbars” (right click) you can click + drag any of the ratings, place them at a different position on your Firefox toolbars and turn off the LinkExtend toolbar. That way you don’t have that annoys toolbar there yet you can still enjoy LinkExtend. LinkExtend also has a context menu feature that allows you to view the ratings of a link – Shift + right click on a link to see it.
The great thing about LinkExtend the ratings generated by LinkExtend are from a combination of sources, including Site Advisor, Web of Trust, Browser Defender, Google Safe Browser, and many more. You can also view the individual ratings from all these individual services. So in essence LinkExtend is the “Google” of site advisers – it gathers ratings from popular services and shows you all of them for the website in question. Of course since it gathers information from multiple sources, LinkExtend does cause a minor increase in website load times but that is the trade off for the abundance of information you get.
For everyone else
What: Web of Trust (WOT) 
Why: Web of Trust provides preemptive warnings about websites before you visit them. It places a circle next to a link, and depending on the color of the circle, you know what kind of website it is (green = good, red = bad). If you visit a website below a certain level, you set the level through preference, you will be warned about the website and must confirm you want to visit it. WOT information on websites comes from a cross reference of its databases and community rating/feedback. WOT rates websites based on four categories: trustworthiness, vendor reliability, privacy, and child safety. The information on WOT is generally good and reliable although not perfect. While McAfee and WOT are generally similar in performance, I chose WOT over McAfee because WOT supports more platforms. Currently WOT has plugins for Firefox and Internet Explorer with plans for a plugin for Chrome in the near future; for Safari and Opera, it provides a bookmarklet. McAfee only works with Firefox or Internet Explorer.
What: Keyscrambler 
Why: Keyscrambler – literally – “scrambles” your keystrokes when you type in your Internet browser, so keyloggers can’t log your keys. In other words, it ensures that your important passwords, personal data (that you often have to fill out forms with), etc. is safe in the case that you have a keylogger installed on your computer and you don’t even know it. (The keylogger will get a much of useless garbage instead of your real keystrokes.)
Keyscrambler system requirements:
- Operating System: Windows 2000, 2003, XP, Vista or Windows 7 (32-bit or 64-bit);
- Browsers: Internet Explorer 6 or higher, Firefox 1.5 and later, Flock 1.0 and later (the paid version supports more browsers than the three mentioned)
Preemptive Spyware Prevention
What: Spyware Blaster 
Why: Spyware Blaster is a program that blocks cookies, ActiveX and URLs of known malware websites in Internet Explorer and blocks cookies for known malware websites in Firefox. The great thing about Spyware Blaster is that it is not running all the time. Spyware Blaster is somewhat like an vaccination shot for your computer: you run it once and your computer is vaccinated against all those spyware websites. However you need to update the Spyware Blaster database at regular intervals (suggested is once a week but once a month should be fine – you have to manually update it) and re-vaccinate your computer every time you update the database.
Spyware Blaster system requirements:
- Operating system: Windows 98/ME/NT/2000/XP/Vista
- Browsers: Internet Explorer (or any browser that uses the IE engine), Firefox, Netscape, Sea Monkey, Flock and K-Melon
Alternatives: OpenDNS 
What: Threatfire 
Why: Varying from the norm signature based protection, Threatfire uses a unique ‘behavior based’ detection system. This methodology not only helps prevent conflict and slowdowns if Threatfire is used with other security software like avast! or Avira, but it provides a whole new angle at detecting scumware on your PC. Threatfire is one of the only free anti-malware programs that provides full real time detection and protection. Other programs such as Ad-Aware AE and Spyware Doctor provide limited real time protection that are signature based, raising the chance of conflict between security programs. Threatfire has the ability to detect all kinds of scumware; however the real-time protection is only for malware while there is an on demand scanner for everything else.
Alternatives: None as far as I know.
Threatfire system requirements:
- Operating System: Windows 7/Vista/XP/2003
- Note: 64- bit Vista and Win7 is now supported.
Anti-Dangerous Outdated Software
What: JavaRA 
Why: Java Runtime Environment is often times targeted by scum looking a way to install scumware onto your computer. To respond to this, JRE (Java Runtime Environment) is often patched and updated. The problem is, after a patch/update the older version are just… left there. This, obviously, is very dangerous – more harm than good. JavaRA is a simple program that removes old version of JRE. JavaRA does not run all the time. Just run JavaRA after you download it for the first time and run it every time after you do an update of Java. Vista users need to run this as Administrator.
JavaRA system requirements:
- Operating system: Windows 95, 98, 2000, XP, Vista, and Win7
What: Secunia PSI 
Why: Secunia PSI is a software that focuses on updating software which cause a security risk. Secunia scans your computers and looks for software that are missing security patches or are “end-of-life”. If it finds them it tells you and you then fix the problem as necessary. Secunia PSI is the desktop version (you must download it) while Secunia OSI  is the online scanner (slower and less features). You should just run this scanner once in a while to make sure you don’t suffer from a dangerous out dated software.
Secunia PSI system requirements:
- Operating system: Windows 2000 SP4, XP SP2 or higher, 2003, Vista, and Win7
Secunia OSI system requirements:
- Operating system: Windows 2000 SP4, XP SP2 or higher, 2003, Vista, and Win7
- Browser: Internet Explorer 6 or higher, Firefox 2 or higher, Opera 9 or higher and Safart 3 or higher
- Required software: Latest version of Windows Update and Java JRE 1.6.x or higher
Ad-hoc Host Intrusion Protection Software (kind of)
What: GeSWall 
Why: GeSWall has taken it upon its self to be the “prevention” part of the three step computer security plan. Similar to Sandboxie, or any other sandboxing program, GeSWall “isolates” programs; however GeSWall focuses on the main “entry points” from where scumware can enter your computer, including but not limited to, your internet browser instead of all programs in general. Different to Sandboxie, or any other sandboxing program, GeSWall’s “isolation” does not involve sandboxing programs; rather GeSWall limits file permissions and restricts access to system resources/important files. The “isolated” program runs just fine but all files (and/or folders/registry keys) downloaded from an “isolated” program (knowingly or unknowingly) are automatically treated as “untrusted”. “Untrusted” files/folders/registry keys have no system access – no permissions. Therefore with no system access, even a scumware file/folder/registry entry will be able to do diddly squat to your computer. You are told anytime an “untrusted” file tries to make any system changes. Just go and delete the scumware files and no harm is done. Simple, yet effective. If you ever want to download something, yet your are running an “isolated” browser, you just need to manually right click on that file and make it “trusted” after you finish downloading it.
The one thing I like about GeSWall is that it does not slow down your browser if your run it “isolated” as opposed to minor lag if I run a browser “sandboxed” with Sandboxie.
GeSWall system requirements:
- Operating system: Windows 2000/XP/2003/Vista/Win7
What: Returnil Virtual System Home Free 
Why: Returnil Virtual System is a program which aims to provide protection to users in an unorthodox manner. Usually when a user wants protection against malware, and other bad things, he or she installs security software like avast!, Avira, Kaspersky, Norton, AVG, NOD32, etc. which actively, and on demand, detect and remove infected files. Although the new 2010 version of RVS also includes an anti-virus/anti-malware component, RVS’s core method of system security is this: it creates a “virtual copy” of your main system partition (the partition which you have Windows installed) and whatever changes are made to your computer are dumped when you restart your computer (there are opinions to tweak how it does that, but generally speaking, that is how it works). This approach is the ultimate protection because even if you download malware unknowingly on your computer, RVS gets rid it (100% completely) when you restart your computer. Of course, any other changes made to your computer are also undone (like Windows Updates; so be sure to turn RVS off when running Windows Updates).
Returnil Virtual System system requirements:
- Operating System: Windows XP/2003 Server/Vista/2008 Server/Win7
Alternatives: Microsoft SteadyState 
That sums up my recommended list of 12 best free protection software. The logical behind this list is quite simple: prevention, detection, and cure. The combination of these 12 software will provide you all-around security for you and your computer. However they are not a replacement for the human element – the best way to stay safe is to avoid shady and questionable websites/downloads! Good luck =).
Feel free to post your thoughts, experiences, or suggestions below.
Originally written on Jan 27, 2009. Last updated April 8, 2010.