Microsoft includes free antivirus protection with recent versions of Windows, and it works pretty well, especially in Windows 10. However, you can get even better protection against malware with a third-party antivirus, and you don’t necessarily have to pay for it. Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition includes the core malware-fighting components of Bitdefender’s commercial edition, but without the vast collection of additional security features, and without some advanced layers of malware protection.
Installing Bitdefender Free is quick and easy. During the process, it downloads the latest version and scans for active malware. You need to sign up for a Bitdefender account to activate it (or sign in if you already have one). The premium edition’s main window isn’t especially busy, but the free edition is simplicity itself. There’s a button to run the full system scan, a drag/drop spot to scan specific files or folders, and a timeline of recent activity. That’s it.
When you launch a scan, the scan’s progress appears in the events timeline, unless you click it to see the full scan window. A full scan took an hour and a half, a bit over the current average of an hour and a quarter. However, that scan clearly performed some optimization, as a repeat scan finished in not quite 13 minutes. As always, you should run a full scan right after installation, to root out any nasties that invaded the system before you installed antivirus.
Excellent Lab Results
While Bitdefender Free doesn’t include every feature of the commercial edition, its core antivirus engine is the same as what the independent labs test. However, the independent labs test the commercial product, not the free one. Bitdefender Antivirus Plus did slightly better in my hands on tests, so chances are good the free antivirus wouldn’t reach the same level in lab tests. Results discussed below are for the commercial edition.
Three of the four labs that I follow include Bitdefender in their testing. In the three-part test regularly reported by AV-Test Institute, Bitdefender earned 6 of 6 possible points in all three categories, for a perfect 18 points. F-Secure, Kaspersky, McAfee, and Norton also earned the maximum points.
The researchers at AV-Comparatives perform a wide variety of tests; I follow four of them. Products that pass a test earn Standard certification, while those that do significantly better receive Advanced or even Advanced+ certification. Bitdefender took Advanced+ in all four tests. Kaspersky did nearly as well, with three Advanced+ and one Advanced.
The tests performed by MRG-Effitas are a bit different from the rest. To pass this lab’s banking Trojans test, a product needs a perfect score; anything less is failure. Another test using a wide variety of malware offers two passing levels. If a product absolutely blocks every installation attempt, it passes at Level 1. If some malware gets through, but is eliminated within 24 hours, that earns Level 2. Anything else is a fail. Bitdefender passed the banking test, along with Avira, ESET, and Kaspersky. It also received Level 1 certification in the broad-spectrum test, along with Kasperky, Microsoft Windows Defender Security Center, and seven others.
SE Labs attempts to simulate the real world of malware as closely as possible for testing purposes, using a capture/replay system to present each product with a real-world Web-based attack. Certification from this lab comes at five levels, AAA, AA, A, B, and C. Alas, Bitdefender doesn’t appear in the latest report from SE Labs. When last tested, it took AA certification.
I have contrived an algorithm that maps all the test results onto a 10-point scale and returns an aggregate lab score, as long as the product has results from at least two labs. Avast, Avira, and Kaspersky Free are among the products that appear in reports from all four labs. In terms of aggregate score, Kaspersky rules that group, with 9.9 of 10 possible points. Bitdefender, tested by three labs, holds the top score overall, a perfect 10. Once again, these results reflect the commercial Bitdefender antivirus; the free edition may not have fared as well in testing.
Good Malware Protection
I always run my own hands-on testing, just to get a feel for the way a product handles malware. If I don’t get enough data from the labs, my hands-on malware protection test is the only way I can rate antivirus accuracy. In this case, the labs have already made it very clear that Bitdefender is a winner.
When I opened my folder of samples, Bitdefender started picking off those it recognized. It took a few minutes to get through them all, but in the end the results were almost identical to those of the commercial Bitdefender. In two instances, the free antivirus left samples present but blocked all access, where the commercial edition removed them. The effect is the same.
Other differences cropped up when I launched the surviving samples. The additional protection layers of the commercial edition caught a few nasties that the free edition missed. In the end, the free edition scored 7.7 points to the paid edition’s 8.0 points. Neither of these scores is very good, but I give more weight to Bitdefender’s amazing lab scores.
For comparison, Webroot detected 100 percent of this same sample set and scored 9.7 of 10 possible points. Avast, McAfee, and Ashampoo all scored above 9.0. And Symantec Norton AntiVirus Plus matched Webroot’s score when tested with my previous collection of samples. Again, when my results don’t jibe with the findings of the labs, I yield to the labs.
My malicious URL blocking test takes an hour or more to run. In this test, I challenge the antivirus’s Web-based protection to keep the browser safe from 100 very fresh malware-hosting URLs. I also give credit if the real-time antivirus eliminates the malicious payload during the download process.
The free Bitdefender blocks access to nasty URLs below the browser level, so it doesn’t have to install a browser extension. It blocked 76 percent of the malware-hosting URLs, and the on-access scan wiped out another 8 percent, for a total of 84 percent. That’s pretty good, but its commercial cousin managed 92 percent. At the top of the heap, Trend Micro blocked 99 percent of the malware downloads, while McAfee and Sophos Home Free blocked 97 percent.
Good at Phishing Detection
The most accurate malware-detection system in the world can’t help you if you fall for a scam and give away your precious passwords. Phishing websites masquerade as banks, online merchants, and even gaming websites, and they do their best to steal your login credentials. They get caught and blacklisted quickly enough, but the fraudsters just grab their winnings and move on.
To test a product’s ability to keep users safe from this kind of fraud, I scrape phishing URLs from a variety of reporting sites. I try to get URLs so new that they haven’t been analyzed and verified. I run the test simultaneously on the product under testing and on instances of Chrome, Edge, and Firefox, relying on the phishing protection built into the three browsers.
For each suspected fraud, I launch the URL in all four browsers and record the results. If any of the four can’t load the URL, I discard it. If the page doesn’t actively attempt to capture login credentials, I discard it. When I have 100 or so data points, I run the numbers.
Bitdefender detected 91 percent of the verified frauds, which is pretty good. However, 10 recent products have scored even better, with 100 percent scorers Kaspersky and McAfee AntiVirus Plus at the top. The commercial Bitdefender is right up there too, with 99 percent.
What’s Not Here
At this point, I’ve described the entirety of what Bitdefender Free does. The feature list of the full, premium Bitdefender Antivirus goes way, way beyond this. Please read my review (linked above) for full details on what you get by paying for the full edition. I’ll list the bonus features here.
The Bitdefender Wallet component is a complete, if basic, password manager. It captures and replays passwords, imports passwords from your browsers, generates strong passwords, and fills Web forms. It doesn’t try for advanced features like two-factor authentication or automatic password update.
Bitdefender SafePay is a hardened separate desktop designed to keep your sensitive online transactions safe. Processes running under SafePay are isolated from processes on the regular desktop. The Wi-Fi Advisor both checks your home network’s security and warns when you connect to an insecure network. If the antivirus can’t eliminate a particularly nasty malware specimen, you can reboot in Rescue Mode to handle the threat outside of Windows.
Using the File Shredder you can delete sensitive files permanently, beyond the possibility of forensic recovery. A Search Advisor add-in marks up dangerous websites in search results. And the Vulnerability Scan checks for missing security updates and for weak Windows passwords. A new ransomware protection layer aims to protect your important files. And none of these bonus features are present in the free edition.
The Anti-tracker browser extension is new for the 2020 product line. It aims to keep advertisers, analytics, and all other trackers from snooping on your browsing activity. When you visit a page, its toolbar icon displays the number of trackers blocked. You can click for details, including an estimate of how much blocking the trackers sped up page load time. This, too, isn’t in the free edition.
As you can see, Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition doesn’t have the wealth of features that makes its for-pay sibling such a powerhouse. It does contain the same basic protection against malware, malicious websites, and fraudulent sites, though it lacks some of the premium edition’s additional protective layers. If you want every drop the famed Bitdefender malware protection, and you can spare the cash, it’s worth paying for Bitdefender Antivirus Plus. But if the budget won’t budge, the free edition is still very good.
Avast Free Antivirus offers password management, vulnerability scanning, system cleanup, and an unusual scan for network and router vulnerabilities. Kaspersky Free gets excellent scores from the independent labs and comes with a free, feature-limited VPN. Admittedly Kaspersky Free lacks one malware detection component found in its premium cousin, but my tests showed no difference. These two are our Editors’ Choice free antivirus utilities. Of course, since they’re all free, you can give each of them (and Bitdefender, too) a try before settling on your favorite free protection.