Make sure free antivirus software really is free

Consumer Reports

Some readers have told us they've had trouble downloading the free antivirus software we recommend because they were "lured" to other downloads while navigating the maze of pages required to get to the product they wanted. This is a common issue with free software, since the manufacturer, or its partner for distributing the software, often bombards the user with big "download" buttons that look like they link to the desired target, but actually go to other software that requires payment.

When you set out to download software, make sure you're on the right website, then carefully examine subsequent pages in the download sequence and choose the page that actually goes to the real download.

To illustrate, take a look at the process for finding, downloading, and installing the free Avast! antivirus. If you Google or Bing "avast free" (without quotes), you get a link to "avast.com" as the top nonsponsored result. Since the link goes to the actual manufacturer’s website, we can assume it's genuine—but it's worth looking twice, since there is a lot of malware disguised as antivirus programs.

Clicking that link takes us to a page that includes this table:

While first column is the free product, the middle one looks enticing, as it’s “Most popular.” But it will get you a different version, with a “reminder” after 30 days to pay for continued use. Since all we want is the truly free version, we click the button on the left and get to this page:

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Aha! Now there’s a big blue button for another chance to “enhance your protection” and get the paid version. The button we want is the smaller gray one below it. Clicking that gets us here:

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More potential pitfalls! This switch without warning to a different website (download.com) could lead us to believe we’ve gotten off track and should go back to the previous page to get the paid product. But this is actually the right place. Avast! has partnered with CNET’s Download.com service to distribute the free version of its software.

Still, there are three opportunities to click the wrong thing: The “special offer” and the “buy and save” are both for Avast’s paid product, and the bigger green “Start Download” button goes to an entirely different brand of security software. We avoid them all and click “Download Now” in the gray rectangle. A quick check of the filename in the file-download box shows that this is what we want. Clicking “Run” gets us a standard Windows security check, followed by the Avast! setup window:

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"Express Install" seems like the right thing to click, though there is an opportunity to include a "free trial" of another paid Avast! Product. Fortunately, it’s not selected by default. Clicking Express Install starts the installation, ending with a note that says we have 30 days of protection, but we’ll also receive prompts to purchase "premium protection." But we’ll also be prompted to register the software, and after which we’d be able to keep using it free.

So consider yourself warned: If you download the free version of Avast!, you’ll receive additional upselling attempts made, but you’ll be able to register and keep using the software for free. You’ll have to re-register after a year to keep using the free software.

When we opened the Avast! program interface for the first time, a Web page opens offering other Avast! Free products, and encouraging us to "share" Avast! with friends. No need to do anything but close this page.

After we registered the free Avast!, this popped up:

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We avoid clicking the big green button, and close this window by clicking either the "X" in the upper right, or the tiny blue "Stay with basic protection" link at the bottom.

Finally, this window shows the free software is properly installed and registered for one year.

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Now Avast! will automatically update itself to keep up with new malware threats. Be careful not to click the "Upgrade" button at the top, though, or you'll be upsold to a trial of the paid version.

This kind of obstacle course is to be expected when you get free versions of software from a company that depends on income from paid products. Caveat freeloaders!

—Dean Gallea

Before you decide on the right protection for your computer or mobile device, check our buying guide and Ratings for security software and our story on mobile security software.



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