Microsoft includes free antivirus protection with recent versions of Windows, and it does work—to a point. But for full protection against malware, you need a third-party antivirus, and you don’t necessarily have to pay for it. Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition (2017) includes all the core malware-fighting components of Bitdefender’s paid edition, but without the vast collection of additional security features. This product has gone several years without an update; the latest edition is now compatible with Windows 10.
Installing Bitdefender Free is quick and easy. During the process, it downloads the latest version and scans for active malware. You need to sign up for a Bitdefender account to activate it (or sign in if you already have one). The premium edition’s main window isn’t especially busy, but the free edition is simplicity itself. There’s a button to run the full system scan, a drag/drop spot to scan specific files or folders, and a timeline of recent activity. That’s it. There isn’t even a separate scan window. When you launch a scan, the scan’s progress appears in the events timeline.
Excellent Lab Results
While Bitdefender Free doesn’t include every feature of the commercial edition, its core antivirus engine is exactly the same as what the independent labs test. And indeed, all the labs that I follow include Bitdefender in their testing. It scored 84.36 percent in Virus Bulletin’s RAP (Reactive And Proactive) test, very close to the current average. PC Pitstop PC Matic blew away the competition in the most recent RAP test, with a score of 99.87 percent.
In the three-part test regularly reported by AV-Test Institute, Bitdefender earned 6 of 6 possible points each for protection and usability, and 5.5 out of 6 for performance. Its total score of 17.5 points makes it a top product. Avira and Kaspersky edged out that score, each taking a perfect 18 points.
The researchers at AV-Comparatives perform a wide variety of tests; I follow five of them. Products that pass a test earn Standard certification, while those that do significantly better receive Advanced or even Advanced+ certification. Bitdefender took Advanced+ in all five tests; only Kaspersky Anti-Virus has matched that feat recently.
Simon Edwards Labs attempts to simulate the real world of malware as closely as possible for testing purposes, using a capture/replay system to present each product with a real-world Web-based attack. Certification from this lab comes at five levels, AAA, AA, A, B, and C. Bitdefender and Avast got AA certification, beaten only by the AAA certification received by ESET, Kaspersky, and Norton.
The tests performed by MRG-Effitas are a bit different from the rest. To pass this lab’s banking Trojans test, a product needs a perfect score; anything less is failure. Another test using a wide variety of malware offers two passing levels. If a product absolutely blocks every installation attempt, it passes at Level 1. If some malware gets through, but is eliminated within 24 hours, that earns Level 2. Anything else is a fail. Like two-thirds of all products tested, Bitdefender failed the banking Trojans test. Along with Avast Free Antivirus 2016, Avira, and a few others, Bitdefender passed the broad-spectrum test at Level 2.
Only Avast, AVG AntiVirus Free, Bitdefender, and ESET show up in the test results of all five of the labs that I follow. Bitdefender’s excellent performance yields an aggregate lab score of 9.3 points. Avira Antivirus and Norton scored a bit better, and Kaspersky is at the top, with a perfect 10 points, but all the other products I track trail Bitdefender in aggregate lab score.
Very Good Malware Blocking
I always run my own hands-on testing, just to get a feel for the way a product handles malware. If I don’t get enough data from the labs, my hands-on test is the only way I can rate antivirus accuracy. In this case, the labs have already made it very clear that Bitdefender is a winner.
Naturally the results of my hands-on malware blocking test were basically the same as what I got when testing Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2017 a few months ago. In a few cases the cleanup was more thorough, but not enough to change the score. A detection rate of 90 percent isn’t tip-top, nor is an overall score of 8.8 points. Tested with this same collection of samples, Webroot managed 100 percent detection and a perfect 10 points. Avast detected 100 percent of my previous collection and earned 9.7 points. But when my results don’t jibe with the findings of the labs, I yield to the labs.
Bitdefender’s premium antivirus, along with the suite products, runs by default in AutoPilot mode, meaning that as much as possible it takes care of security without bothering the user. You can turn off AutoPilot in the premium products, but not in the free edition. I observed that in several cases, it silently killed off a malware process and cleaned up its traces, occasionally triggering an error message from Windows about its inability to access the file.
My malicious URL blocking test takes an hour or more to run. In this test, I challenge the antivirus’s Web-based protection to keep the browser safe from 100 very fresh malware-hosting URLs. I also give credit if the real-time antivirus eliminates the malicious payload during the download process. I didn’t rerun the entire test, since the underlying engine is the same, but I ran a stripped-down version just to verify that the free edition handles malicious URLs. A 90 percent protection rate is quite good, better than all but a few competing products. However, with 98 percent protection, Norton has the top score.
Tops at Antiphishing
The most accurate malware-detection system in the world can’t help you if you fall for a scam and give away your precious passwords. Phishing websites masquerade as banks, online merchants, even gaming websites, and do their best to steal your login credentials. They get caught and blacklisted quickly enough, but the fraudsters just grab their winnings and move on.
To test a product’s ability to keep users safe from this kind of fraud, I scrape phishing URLs from a variety of reporting sites. I try to get URLs so new that they haven’t been analyzed and verified. I run the test simultaneously on the product under testing and on Symantec Norton AntiVirus Basic, a consistent antiphishing winner. I also check the protection built into Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer.
Hardly any products come even close to Norton’s detection rate. Avast and Qihoo 360 Total Security 8.6 did well, coming in just 1 percentage point behind Norton. Webroot beat Norton by 1 percentage point, and Kaspersky beat it by 2 points. But Bitdefender owns this test, coming in 5 percentage points better than Norton.
Note that Bitdefender also aims to detect frauds and scams other than straight phishing websites. The full antivirus product uses specialized icons for such things as escrow scams, online dating scams, and piracy sites. With the free edition, you just get a report that it blocked a phishing attempt or a fraud attempt.
What’s Not Here
I’ve described the entirety of what Bitdefender Free does. The feature list of the full, premium Bitdefender Antivirus goes way, way beyond this. Please read my review (linked above) for full details on what you get by paying for the full edition. I’ll list the bonus features here.
The Bitdefender Wallet component is a complete, if basic, password manager. It captures and replays passwords, imports passwords from your browsers, generates strong passwords, and fills Web forms. It doesn’t try for advanced features like two-factor authentication or automatic password update.
Bitdefender SafePay is a hardened separate desktop designed to keep your sensitive online transactions safe. Processes running under SafePay are isolated from processes on the regular desktop. The Wi-Fi Advisor both checks your home network’s security and warns when you connect to an insecure network. If the antivirus can’t eliminate a particularly nasty malware specimen, you can reboot in Rescue Mode to handle the threat outside of Windows.
Using the File Shredder you can delete sensitive files permanently, beyond the possibility of forensic recovery. A Search Advisor add-in marks up dangerous websites in search results. And the Vulnerability Scan checks for missing security updates and for weak Windows passwords. A new ransomware-specific protection layer aims to protect your important files. And none of these jolly bonus features are present in the free edition.
As you can see, Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition doesn’t have the wealth of features that makes its for-pay sibling such a powerhouse. But it totally does contain the same basic protection against malware, malicious websites, and fraudulent sites. If that’s exactly what you want, then you needn’t spend a penny to get your system protected by Bitdefender.
The feature set of AVG AntiVirus Free includes website rating, file shredding, active blocking of trackers, and a simple browser privacy cleaner. Avast Free Antivirus 2016 offers password management, vulnerability scanning, system cleanup, and an unusual scan for network and router vulnerabilities. Panda Free Antivirus helps clear out unwanted toolbars from your browsers, scans every USB drive you mount, and vaccinates USB drives against malware infestation. These three are our Editors’ Choice free antivirus utilities. Of course, since they’re all free, you can give each of them (and Bitdefender, too) a try before settling on your favorite free protection.