PC Tools Antivirus Free

Note: This review addresses v6.0 of the software.

PC Tools Antivirus Free Edition holds to a now-archaic distinction between spyware and other forms of malware. Largely due to this, it does a remarkably poor job of keeping a PC safe. It came in at number five (out of six contenders) in our rankings of free antivirus software.

In an age when a single baddie might spread like a worm, steal passwords like spyware, and allow backdoor-style remote control of an infected PC, most security vendors recognize that labels such as "Trojan horse" or "spyware" are secondary to the idea of keeping everything bad off PCs. Hence today's use of malware as a catch-all term for attack software.

However, PC Tools says that its free program will not detect what it deems spyware (a critical point not emphasized on the company's Web site). And that limitation may account for its awful detection and blocking results: The app left the door wide open for about half of the malware in our tests.

And while the app purports to protect against Trojan horses, a common malware type, it detected only 46 percent of such software in AV-Test.org tests. It did better in detecting worms, but its catch rate of 83 percent for the self-spreading malware still didn't compare with the detection results we saw from Avira AntiVir Personal, the overall leader among the free antivirus software we tested.

Unsurprisingly, the poor performance carried over to AV-Test.org's heuristic tests, which use two- and four-week-old signature databases to simulate how an app will handle new and unknown malware. PC Tools Antivirus came in last, with respective results of 33 percent and 36 percent (in contrast, Avira, the best app we tested, scored 52 percent and 45 percent, respectively). It was decent in detecting and removing existing infections, missing only one out of ten--but most of the tested antivirus apps got them all.

While the program installs smoothly and looks relatively good, it doesn't schedule a scan by default, nor does it automatically update. The software will notify you once a day (by default) if an update is available, but to make it do the updating by itself, you will need to turn on the Smart Update feature.

In short, there's no reason to choose PC Tools Antivirus when other free apps can truly keep your PC safe. Fortunately, the behavior-based PC Tools Threatfire supplemental utility is as good as Antivirus Free Edition is bad.

--Erik Larkin

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