When AOL started offering free McAfee antivirus protection to its members last fall, it added one more question to the already confusing chore of shopping for antivirus software.
Is free good enough? Or should you pay for heftier software?
The answer, according to experts, is maybe.
"If you absolutely cannot or do not want to buy antivirus software, then please at least get a free one," said Mary Landesman, a security consultant who is featured as the guide to antivirus software on the Web site About.com. "I don't think they're the best choice, but I do think they're certainly a very good choice if you don't have one."
She's referring not just to AOL's new offering but to a number of surprisingly competitive programs that are available for free online with no strings attached. There are also a growing number of Internet service providers that offer antivirus software as a premium service with a monthly charge.
Antivirus software is like a vaccine: Going without it doesn't just put you at risk. It allows infections to spread and puts everyone at risk. And there are plenty of people on the Internet without protection: 67 percent of respondents to an October survey by AOL and the National Cyber Security Alliance said they either had no antivirus protection or that their software had not been updated in the previous week.
Since new viruses come out all the time, antivirus software isn't much good after the update subscription has run out.
The antivirus software provided free by AOL is from McAfee Inc.'s EarthLink, one of the ISPs that charges a monthly fee for antivirus and offers Norton's antivirus software for an additional $3.95 a month. Add Norton's firewall and more security services, and it's $5.95 a month.
McAfee and Symantec say the protection offered through their ISP partners is the same as what you'd get if you bought their software outright.
Getting protection through your ISP is convenient, especially for computer users who don't want to bother with shopping for and installing the software. Since antivirus programs need to be continually updated to be effective and most packages come with only a one-year subscription of updates, getting it this way also saves the buyer from having to renew the subscription or replace the software 12 months later.
However, it won't save money for most people to switch ISPs just to get the antivirus service. EarthLink costs $21.95 a month (plus $3.95-$5.95 for Norton) and AOL is $23.90, more than twice as much as bargain services such as NetZero and Wal-Mart Connect.
Landesman pointed out that you'd be better off buying an antivirus product like Trend Micro's PC-cillin Internet Security 2004, which retails for $49.95 (or $4.16 a month) and is ranked higher than either McAfee or Norton by software reviewers at Cnet.
Landesman, a former product manager in the antivirus industry, said McAfee, which is a prominent antivirus brand, is good at detecting incoming viruses. However, she doesn't think it's the best. She doesn't like its interface, and she thinks it should include better protection against some nonvirus computer nuisances. She bases her opinion not just on her own experience but on Web sites that test antivirus programs, such as www.av-test.org.
As for the truly free products, some of them rank as well as or even better in tests than the software you pay for. For example, AV-Test.org, which is based in Germany, found that free products available online such as AVG, Avast and AntiVir detected 100 percent of the viruses out there today, just as McAfee, Norton and PC-cillin did.
Another study by AV-Test.org found that these three free programs responded to virus outbreaks faster than either Norton or McAfee.
Of course, free software isn't for everyone, or Symantec, McAfee and Trend Micro would be out of business. "Free products usually have less functionality," said Andreas Marx, chief executive of AV-Test.org.
And with a well-known provider, the user gets the security that the company probably will be around next year with more updates, said Matthew Ham, a technical consultant for the British magazine Virus Bulletin.
Matt Moynihan, a Symantec executive in charge of consumer products, said consumers' confidence in his brand stops him from worrying about AOL's free offering or any other no-cost antivirus program.
"Free security is not something that gives people a lot of comfort," he said.
The difference between free software and the stuff you pay for often comes down to the tech support available, Ham said.
"If you have a certain amount of computer knowledge and you're not going to have problems in setting something up, then you're fine. You don't have to bother paying," he said. "I tend to use free stuff because it's free."