If you’re not using an anti-virus suite, but have discovered that living dangerously has led to your PC behaving oddly, there’s a fair chance that your system has been infected by some form of malware.
With no security suite on your PC already there is a strong chance that installation will be blocked by the malware, resulting in you having to find an alternative, smaller scale tool. Compact anti-virus scanners that can be quickly downloaded and deployed are a good option.
Here, we take a look at four tools from some of the world’s most well-known security software publishers, and compare their effectiveness.
Why Use A Basic Virus Scanner Rather Than An Anti-Virus Solution?
With dozens of suites offering a wealth of security tools and features, you might have found it difficult to find a stripped-down virus scanning tool that can be downloaded to your PC for free. This basic feature can prove vital to diagnosing an infection on your computer, but we often find ourselves downloading bigger apps, complete security suites with firewalls and bells and whistles like identity theft alerts.
Keeping it simple can save time and money, and these four free virus scanners – AVG, Microsoft Safety Scanner, McAfee Free Security Scan Plus, Kaspersky Free Internet Security Scan – are among those you might select, and are superior to online virus scanners.
When it comes to anti-virus, “free” does not necessarily equate to “inadequate”. To sort the wheat from the chaff, we’ve compared the performance of these virus scanners using a basic Windows 7 device (32 bit) with 1 GB of RAM, 20 GB HDD and a single core CPU. We’ve assessed the competence of each application, its speed and its usability.
Fake Virus Files
To test the competence of these apps, we’ve used a safe virus signature known as Eicar. This is a text file with a string of characters saved in it, used in the field of testing anti-virus and malware software. The virus scanners we’ve selected should have no problem finding the file in all of the three places it has been saved to: the Desktop, the Documents folder and the System32 subfolder.
There has been some debate over Eicar signatures and their suitability for testing anti-virus and antimalware products. The idea here is that a competent product will detect this file immediately and report or remove it, depending on the scope of the app.
“Using real viruses for testing in the real world is rather like setting fire to the dustbin in your office to see whether the smoke detector is working. Such a test will give meaningful results, but with unappealing, unacceptable risks.
…you need a file that can safely be passed around and which is obviously non-viral, but which your anti-virus software will react to as if it were a virus.”
First under the microscope is Microsoft Safety Scanner, a lightweight malware scanner than can be run as an executable without installation. It features two scan modes, full and quick.
Launching Microsoft Safety Scanner requires Administrator privileges, as well as agreeing with terms and conditions before starting a scan.
Sadly the result of the quick scan is inadequate, although it is fast, completing inside 6 minutes.
Switching to the full scan, meanwhile, it takes a surprising 75 minutes on a usually fast 20 GB HDD. However, all three files are uncovered.
It’s interesting to note that Microsoft Safety Scanner expires 10 days after downloading. This is because Microsoft are constantly updating profiles for the tool. To re-run a scan with the latest antimalware definitions, you’ll need to download a fresh copy.
Offering a full scan and clean-up of any suspicious files it finds, along with a full report, AVG AntiVirus Free takes around 21 minutes, and safely detected and isolated the suspicious files.
Scanning is split up into sections, beginning with “processes” and cycling through the registry and system files in turn. Additional scan settings are also available.
This lightweight scanner curiously requires installing before use – I say “curiously” because the end results are surprising. After installation, the app will proceed to check your virus and spyware protection, which it manages in record time – within 30 seconds! Sadly, McAfee Security Scan Plus doesn’t actually find anything.
Although the utility will also check your firewall protection status and scan for any active online threats, its inability to find the Eicar signature files is a big black mark. Security Scan Plus from McAfee simply cannot be relied upon, regardless of how long it may take.
Kaspersky’s antivirus scanner offers two modes, Quick and Full. Running Quick scan, within seconds the tool detected that there was no antivirus solution installed on the system and has found one of the Eicar files.
Using the Full scan takes considerably longer, as the tool scans deeper into the operating system than – it would seem – any of the other tools profiled here. By the end of the 48 minute scan, not only has Kaspersky found the three Eicar files, it has also uncovered the virtual location of one of the desktop Eicar files (Windows operating systems from Vista onwards use virtual file paths for user data) and listed a collection of other potential security threats. Impressive!
Conclusion: Kaspersky Security Scan Wins!
If you’re looking at this quartet of tools to provide lightweight, easy antivirus scanning on your Windows PC, we would recommend the Kaspersky Security Scan utility. Microsoft and AVG both offer competent alternatives, but we would suggest you steer clear of McAfee Security Scan Plus, as it brings nothing to your computer security.
For further information and a better look at these tools in action, see our recent video, 4 Free Virus Scanners’ Accuracy Compared, on YouTube.