How to build the ultimate free PC security suite

Editor's note: This article was updated in full in January 2015.

If you have a PC, you’re a target.

You need security software. That's as true today as it was a decade ago, despite significant security improvements to Windows over the years. But you have a choice—you can either continue paying the security software vendor of your choice an annual fee for protection or you can take matters into your own hands and build your own suite of security tools using free products. Here’s how to keep your PC protected without paying a dime.

The pros and cons of free

Going free can save you some cash, but it isn’t a panacea. When you buy a paid antivirus product, you usually get some form of customer support with it; with free products, you are often on your own when it comes to solving problems. Also, going free means that you have to stitch together a combination of utilities, so it sometimes takes a little trial and error to find the best tools for your needs. Premium suites offer seamless, relatively pain-free security solutions.

Free products also often include browser toolbars or other add-ons that you might not necessarily want. In some cases, freebies will include ads that help their makers pay the bills. In some cases, the ads and add-ons are a small price to pay for saving some dough; in others, though, they can be downright intrusive. As ever, be sure to be mindful while you're installing free programs to avoid installing bloatware you don't want, which is often marked for installation by default.

If you can put up with those caveats, going the freebie route might be for you—just think of all the money you’re saving.

Grab some antivirus software

Antivirus software is the key component of any security suite, and for good reason—it’s going to be your primary defense against malware. And when it comes to free antivirus apps, you have some good options.

Avast’s free antivirus provides good protection againsts malware—and has an easy-to-navigate interface to boot.

Avast Free Antivirus and Panda Free Antivirus are two free products that are worth your attention. According to recent benchmarks published by the German antivirus testing firm AV-Test, Panda’s freebie did and excellent job at stopping malware and it didn’t result in a single false-positive. Avast Free Antivirus put up solid all-around numbers, though it wasn’t quite as good as Panda’s showing.

No matter which antivirus app you choose, make sure you pick one that does a good job at catching so-called “zero-day” attacks. Antivirus programs that can stop zero-day attacks are going to be more effective at stopping brand new malware, which is very important given how quickly malware can evolve.

Have a secondary antivirus app

Even the best traditional antivirus software can have a hard time removing stubborn, deeply embedded malware. With that in mind, it’s good to have a secondary antivirus app at your disposal.

Malwarebytes can remove rootkits and other baddies that other antivirus products won’t touch. Best of all, you can run it alongside your traditional antivirus.

Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Free can provide an extra layer of security against Internet baddies. It isn’t really intended for use as your primary antivirus, but you can use it alongside most other antivirus programs, and it's earned its stellar reputation by offering above-average protection against cutting-edge zero-day attacks. In other words, it can sometimes catch infections that other antivirus software might miss.

Another utility worth downloading is Norton Power Eraser: This free tool targets so-called scareware—those annoying bits of malware that try to get you to buy phony antivirus programs—that traditional antivirus software may miss. Symantec warns that Norton Power Eraser is an aggressive scanner that may occasionally flag a legitimate program as malware, so you’ll want to use it as a last resort, but it’s a good weapon to have in your PC security arsenal.

Use a firewall

ZoneAlarm Free Firewall gives you options beyond what the built-in Windows firewall offers.

Windows comes with a built-in firewall that's turned on by default. it’s a good basic option, but if you want something with more flexibility, you have some options. Take a look at both Comodo Free Firewall and ZoneAlarm Free Firewall: These two utilities come with additional features and configuration options and offer more protection than the built-in firewall alone.

Windows Firewall should suffice for most people. It sits quietly in the background until it detects a suspicious connection attempt, and it’s as low-maintenance as low-maintenance can be—but it only flags inbound penetration attempts by default. That's where the more robust Comodo and ZoneAlarm tools come in handy, as they also monitor outbound connection requests, though they require a bit more manual labor as you teach them which processes and applications should be allowed to reach out to the Internet.

Next page: Browser security enhancements, parental control software, automatic software updating tools, and laptop protection.

Bolster your browser’s security

Of course, even with the best security software in place, you can still be taken for a fool online. 

Malwarebytes Anti-Exploit Free is virtually a must-install. This itty-bitty program monitors your browser and protects against zero-day exploits that your standard AV program might miss. It's highly recommended, especially with so many exploits specifically taking aim at browsers these days.

McAfee SiteAdvisor will check links in search results and indicate whether they’re safe to visit with a small icon next to the link. It also works on social networks like Twitter or Facebook, which tend to be security minefields thanks to the widespread use of URL shorteners as well as viral links of questionable origin.

The Web of Trust add-on lets you view a trustworthiness scorecard for each site you visit.

Web of Trust (WoT) is a browser add-on for all popular browsers that basically accomplishes the same thing, but since it’s crowdsourced, you can add your own ratings to the mix. And in addition to basic safe/unsafe ratings, WoT lets you see whether a site has been deemed safe for kids, as well as why it’s been flagged as problematic (it’s spammy, it distributes malware, it’s a trap, and so on).

If you’re on Firefox, check out NoScript, an add-on that blocks all JavaScript from running unless you approve it. It’s a bit of a power-user tool, and it can disable some features on websites you visit, but it can help protect you from all-too-common JavaScript attacks online, assuming you’re OK with the added hassle.

Meanwhile, the HTTPS Everywhere extension from the Electronic Frontier Foundation can automatically encrypt your connections to most websites—useful if you want to prevent others on your network from potentially eavesdropping on your Web browsing.

Keep the kiddies from seeing stuff they can’t unsee

No matter how responsible your kids are online, there’s always a chance they’ll inadvertently venture into parts unknown.

Luckily, recent versions of Windows come with a comprehensive suite of parental controls, so you don’t need to download anything. On Windows 10, open the Start menu and click Settings, then go to Accounts > Family & other users to get started. Note that the Family feature on Windows 10 requires you to sign in with your Microsoft account.

Windows 10 will step you through the process of setting up parental controls on your PC.

Beyond that, OpenDNS FamilyShield is work a look. FamilyShield isn’t an app; instead, it’s a service offered by OpenDNS that automatically blocks adult websites. You can set it up on individual computers on your home network if you want, or you can set it up through your router so that every device on your home is protected. Of course, FamilyShield won’t provide you with the full suite of parental controls, such as app restrictions and time limits, but you can use it in conjunction with other parental controls tools for added online safety.

Automatically keep your software up to date

Oftentimes, malware creators don’t target Windows itself—instead, they’ll target security holes in popular PC software such as Adobe Reader. To reduce this risk, you’ll want to keep all your software up to date. Doing this manually can be a pain, so an update checker can save you lots of time.

Secunia PSI will let you know if you need to install software updates. It looks like I have a bit of updating to do...

Secunia PSI is a free tool that does just that: It scans your PC for insecure older versions of popular programs and can even automatically install the latest security patches for them.

Lock down your laptop

Laptops get lost or stolen all the time. There are things you can do to reduce the risk, such as using a notebook lock or simply avoiding using your notebook in public, but nothing can mitigate the risk of theft entirely. You can keep your data from falling into the wrong hands, though.

Prey is a service that lets you lock down your laptop in case it’s been stolen. It consists of a piece of software that runs in the background and tracks your laptop’s location whenever it goes online.

The Prey Project provides various tools for tracking and locking down a wayward laptop.

If your laptop ever goes missing, you can use it to find its whereabouts, snap a photo of the alleged thief, and lock it down if necessary. For $5 per month, you can also remotely wipe your machine, and Prey says the option to retrieve files from a wayward laptop is “coming soon” to its $15-per-month tier. It may seem weird to suggest paying for something in an article about free security products, but in this case, you might find it to be money well spent.

Of course, you don’t have to pay to encrypt your files—Windows can do that for you. If you have a PC running Windows 8.1 or later that supports Microsoft’s InstantGo technology, you can encrypt your data simply by pairing it with your Microsoft account. But be warned: Tthis feature typically stores your encryption key on your OneDrive, as Ars Technica notes, which could be an issue if the entity trying to break your encryption is a government agency that could legally compel Microsoft to hand over the key. Typical users shouldn't worry about that too much.

If you’re on an older version of Windows or would prefer to customize your encryption setup, the BitLocker tool in Windows Vista and newer is for you. See our tutorial to get started. Alternatively, there's VeraCrypt, a free and open-source fork of the long-trusted (and now defunct) TrueCrypt software.

Go forth and be free

Granted, these are only a few of the free security options you have—there are countless other tools at your disposal. Do you have a favorite security freebie? Tell us all about it in the comments.

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