Everybody needs the protection of a powerful, accurate antivirus utility. Is it fair to withhold this protection from those who can’t afford it? Eugene Kaspersky, eponymous founder of Kaspersky Lab, thinks not. The brand-new Kaspersky Free offers the full power of the company’s malware-fighting technology, minus frills and bonus features. It doesn’t cost a thing, and independent testing labs give its protection excellent marks.
Like most free antivirus utilities, Kaspersky Free is only free for noncommercial use. During installation, you must create or log into your My Kaspersky account for full activation. The product also installs a toolbar for Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer. Kaspersky Free automatically updates its antivirus database signatures in the background, but it couldn’t hurt to manually call for an update right after installation.
Even though this is a simple, stripped-down product, it’s still important for users to understand all its features. To that end, the installation winds up with a simple tour of important aspects of the software. I appreciate that the tour points out Kaspersky’s on-screen keyboard, which some users might otherwise miss. More on this tool below.
The main window looks just like that of Kaspersky Internet Security, with one significant difference. It displays the same six icons as the suite does: Scan, Database Update, Safe Money, Privacy Protection, Parental Control, and Protection for All Devices. However, only Scan and Database Update are enabled in Kaspersky Free. Grayed-out icons with a royal crown overlay indicate that access to these features requires a premium upgrade.
Stellar Lab Results
Antivirus testing labs around the world do their best to evaluate security programs and determine which are the most effective. This isn’t just a matter of scanning a million static malware samples to see how many the antivirus catches. Most of the labs work to create tests that simulate real-world conditions as closely as possible, and Kaspersky gets outstanding scores from almost all of them.
The one exception is Virus Bulletin’s RAP (Reactive and Proactive) test. Kaspersky’s score in this test is just average. However, I find that results of the RAP test don’t necessarily track with the other labs; I give it less weight in my aggregate labs score calculation.
The researchers at SE Labs capture real-world malicious websites and use a web traffic playback system to expose all tested products to the exact same web-based attack. Products can earn certification at five levels: AAA, AA, A, B, and C. Like Avast, AVG, and most products in the latest test by this lab, Kaspersky received AAA certification.
AV-Comparatives certification works a bit differently. All products that earn the minimum passing score receive Standard certification, while those that do better than the minimum can earn certification at the Advanced or Advanced+ levels. In the four tests from this lab that I follow, Kaspersky received Advanced+ all four times. Bitdefender and Avira also managed to sweep all four tests.
Tests by AV-Test Institute measure antivirus success on three criteria: protection against malware, low impact on performance, and few false positives to impact usability. Software can score up to six points in each of these categories. Kaspersky earned a perfect 18 points from this lab, as did Avira, Norton, and Trend Micro.
Most of the labs report their results as certification levels or numeric scores. With MRG-Effitas, products either achieve a near-perfect result or they fail, with no middle ground. In one test, anything but perfect defense is a failure. For the other test, a product that totally prevents all malware attacks earns level 1 certification. If some attacks get through, but the product fully remediates them afterward, that’s level 2 certification. Kaspersky passed the first test and earned Level 1 certification in the second; it’s the only recent product to do so.
Kaspersky’s aggregate lab score, based on results from all five labs, is 9.8 of 10 possible points, a result also achieved by Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition. Avira looks even better, with a perfect 10 points, but its results come from just three of the five labs. Tested by all five labs, both Avast and AVG earned 9.2 points, which is still quite good.
Scans and Settings
Kaspersky’s file antivirus component scans files in real time when any process accesses them. The web antivirus watches for dangerous websites and downloads. And the IM and mail antivirus components check for dangerous attachments and phishing messages. On the Protection tab of the Settings page you can turn these on and off—but you should leave them on. Another 10 components show up as unavailable, meaning you’d have to upgrade to use them.
A full system scan of my standard clean test system took 30 minutes, which is quite good, considering that the current average is 45 minutes. Bitdefender and AVG both took over an hour, and Avira Antivirus required more than two hours. Like many antivirus products, Kaspersky performs optimization during the initial scan to speed subsequent scans. A second scan of the same test system finished in a speedy four minutes.
In theory, the real-time protection component should handle any malware attacks that occur after your initial full scan. However, you have the option to schedule a full scan or quick scan to run daily, each weekday, each weekend day, weekly, or monthly.
Malware Protection Test Results
By default, Kaspersky refrains from bothering you when it detects malware, instead dealing with it automatically. Also by default, it doesn’t meddle with objects that are probably (but not certainly) infected. For testing purposes, I disabled both of those features, forcing it to check all of its actions with me. Most users should leave those settings checked, allowing Kaspersky to take care of business silently.
To start the test, I simply opened the folder containing my current collection of malware samples. The minimal file access caused by Windows Explorer listing the files was sufficient to trigger a scan by Kaspersky’s real-time protection. It disinfected virus-infested files and offered to delete non-virus malware. It identified a few samples as “legitimate software that can be used by criminals to damage your computer.” I chose to delete those as well, figuring this category is similar to what other products call potentially unwanted applications, or PUAs.
When the notifications stopped after a few minutes, I found that Kaspersky had eliminated 57 percent of the samples, the same as Bitdefender. That’s on the low side—Emsisoft Anti-Malware and IObit both wiped out 79 percent of the same samples on sight.
Continuing the test, I launched the samples that survived real-time protection. The results were disappointing. Matching Bitdefender once again, Kaspersky detected 79 percent of the samples overall. Some of those it detected managed to plant executable traces on the test system, dragging Kaspersky’s overall score down to 7.2 of 10 possible points, just a hair above Bitdefender. Tested with the same sample collection, Emsisoft managed 9.4 points. Webroot and Comodo Antivirus achieved a perfect 10 points, but since they came up against my previous sample collection the results aren’t directly comparable.
For another measure of malware protection, I use a feed of very new malware-hosting URLs supplied by MRG-Effitas. Typically, these are no more than a day old. I launch each URL and note how the antivirus reacts. Does it divert the browser away from the dangerous URL? Does it halt the download before it finishes? Does it eliminate the malware payload after download? I don’t care how it handles the problem as long as it prevents the download.
Kaspersky exhibited a wide variety of reactions during this test. In many cases, it displayed a warning message in the browser, plus a pop-up notification that had it blocked a dangerous URL. It offered to block download of legitimate but dangerous software. It advised blocking pages containing adware. Despite this variety of responses, however, it only prevented 67 percent of the malware downloads. Norton holds the top score in this test, with 98 percent protection, and Avira managed 95 percent.
When my hands-on results don’t sync with the results from the independent labs, especially when all of the labs are involved, I defer to the lab results. Still, I’d be happier with stellar results both in lab tests and in my own tests.
Impressive Phishing Protection
The same web protection mechanism that keeps your browser from reaching malware-hosting URLs also fends off phishing sites, fraudulent websites that try to steal your login credentials. In fact, you have to look closely to see just which type of protection is active. For malware-hosting sites, the warning page reports “dangerous URL.” For phishing pages, it lets you know about a “threat of data loss.”
Phishing websites are transitory things. The fraudsters aim to capture as many passwords as they can before they get backlisted, then they move on to new sites. For testing, I gather the newest phishing URLs I can find from sites that track such things. I launch each URL simultaneously in five browsers and note what happens in each. The product under test protects one browser, naturally, and another has Symantec Norton AntiVirus Basic (which I use as a baseline) at work smacking down frauds. The other three use the phishing protection built into Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer.
If any of the browsers throws an error message instead of loading the URL, I toss it. If the page doesn’t actively attempt to mimic a secure site and steal login credentials, I toss it. When I’ve got data on 100 or so valid frauds, I calculate a score.
Phishing is more of an art than a science. The clever ploy that gets past detection one week may be a flop the next week. Because of this, I report the difference in each product’s detection rate from the other browsers, rather than a hard number. Kaspersky’s detection rate came in just one percentage point behind Norton’s. Last time I tested Kaspersky, it actually did better than Norton, but coming very close is still quite good—better than about 80 percent of competing products.
Kaspersky also did better than the protection built into all three browsers. That may not seem like a feat, but more than half of current products failed to beat at least one of the three, and over 20 percent scored lower than all of them. Bitdefender is the current champion in this test, with a detection rate 12 percentage points better than Norton’s.
Avast’s free edition fared much worse in this test, coming in 57 points behind Norton; the paid Avast did better. AVG AntiVirus Free lagged 70 points behind Norton. Chrome and Internet Explorer beat both Avast and AVG in this test. Kaspersky definitely tops these two as far as phishing protection goes.
Few Bonus Features
You might think that security companies in general would limit what they give away, reserving the best features for paying customers. In some cases, that’s true, but other companies give you a ton of goodies to go along with your free antivirus protection. AVG comes with the Zen remote management tool, a secure deletion shredder, and a web protection component that marks up dangerous search results and actively foils trackers. With Avira, the bonus features come as separate installations, including a free, bandwidth-limited edition of Avira’s Phantom VPN, a privacy-centered browser, a vulnerability scanner, and a price comparison tool.
Avast Free Antivirus really piles on the bonuses, at no charge. Its Wi-Fi Inspector checks all networks, wired or wireless, for security problems, and recommends fixes. It includes a full-featured (if basic) password manager, a vulnerability scanner, and an ad-stripping browser that switches to hardened Bank Mode for financial transactions. It marks up dangerous links in search results, watches for URL typos, and (like Avira) seeks better prices when you’re shopping online.
As with Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition, Kaspersky’s bonus feature collection is sparse by comparison. You can activate its previously mentioned on-screen keyboard to type passwords without any chance of capture by a keylogger, even a hardware keylogger. And it installs a free, bandwidth-limited edition of Kaspersky Secure Connection VPN. To be fair, even in Kaspersky’s full security suite products, the VPN comes with the same 200MB per day bandwidth limit. Rounding out the free edition’s bonus features is a simple search markup system that flags dangerous links and, with a click, identifies the relevant type of danger.
See How We Test Security Software
What’s Not Here
Eugene Kaspersky referred to Kaspersky Free as “the indispensable basics that no one on the planet should do without.” The emphasis here is on basics. While Kaspersky Free does contain all of Kaspersky’s basic antivirus technology, some features only appear in the paid edition. For example, at one point during my testing the antivirus suggested running the Microsoft Windows Troubleshooter, but advised that doing so would require an update to a paid edition. Other features present in the paid antivirus but not in the free edition include creation of a bootable Kaspersky Rescue Disk, cleaning traces of browsing activity and computer activity, and scanning the system for vulnerabilities.
The free edition does offer the same file, web, instant messaging, and mail antivirus components found in the paid edition, but it doesn’t include the System Watcher component. Among its other skills, System Watcher can roll back malware activity, including ransomware activity. When I tested Kaspersky Anti-Virus with all protection components except System Watcher turned off, it correctly identified a half-dozen ransomware samples as malware (though it didn’t specifically call them out as ransomware).
Finally, the free edition doesn’t offer the advanced technical support granted to paid users. You can root around in the FAQs and documentation, or post questions in the forums. But you can’t get the phone and live chat help that paid users enjoy.
A Treat for Kaspersky Fans
If you’re a Kaspersky enthusiast or a security-conscious person on a tight budget, you’ll love the fact that Kaspersky Free gives you all the basics of antivirus protection at no charge. This is the same malware-fighting technology that gets top scores from the independent labs, and it also earned a very good score in our hands-on antiphishing test. It’s true that it didn’t do so well in our other hands-on tests, but when the labs all praise a product, we listen.
This product is completely free, so you can install it and have a look for yourself without spending a penny. But if you do, we suggest you also take a look at Editors’ Choices Avast Free Antivirus and AVG AntiVirus Free. Both get great lab scores (though not quite as high as Kaspersky’s) and they also pack a bundle of useful security bonus features at no charge.