Is There a Downside to Using Free Security Programs?
Yes, but not so problematic a downside as to make free security programs unacceptable. You lose the convenience of a one-program-does-all security suite. And companies that don't charge you seldom offer great tech support. (Then again, neither do some companies that do charge you. In fact, some of the biggest hassles readers report about security programs involve billing snafus.) Also, the last time PC World looked at spyware fighters (see "Die, Spyware, Die!"), the free programs performed relatively poorly.
Not all free security programs can be trusted. Some are scams and amount to malware themselves. So don't use one unless you've heard good things about it from a reliable source.
For just such a source, consult Preston Gralla's "15 Great, Free Security Programs."
How Can I Make Vista's UAC Less Annoying?
Many Vista users hate User Account Control, the security system that pops up a warning every time they try to do something as serious as installing software or as innocuous as changing the system's clock. Luckily, a free program called TweakUAC can turn UAC off for Administrator accounts but leave it on for everyone else. Just run the program, select Switch UAC to the quiet mode, and click OK.
But this expedient has its risks. Vista deems this setting a problem and so notifies you. Sure, you can turn off the warnings or learn to ignore them--but either way, you risk missing other, more important warnings.
Another option: If you use Vista Pro or Ultra, you can fine-tune your system's UAC settings. Select Start, type secpol.msc, and press Enter. Navigate the left pane to Local Security Settings, Local PoliciesSecurity Options, and scroll to the bottom of the right-hand pane for several User Account Control options. Experiment with them until you find something to your liking.