Editors’ Note: We are aware of the allegations of Kaspersky Lab’s inappropriate ties to the Russian government. Until we see some actual proof of these allegations, we will treat them as unproven, and continue to recommend Kaspersky’s security products as long as their performance continues to merit our endorsement.
Everybody needs the protection of powerful, accurate antivirus software, even those who think they can’t afford it. The brand-new Kaspersky Free offers all the company’s malware-fighting technology, minus the frills and bonus features. It doesn’t cost anything, and independent testing labs give its protection excellent marks.
Like most free antivirus software, Kaspersky Free is only free for noncommercial use. During installation, you create or log into your My Kaspersky account for full activation. The product also installs a toolbar for Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer, providing markup for dangerous links in search results and access to the on-screen keyboard.
Kaspersky Free automatically updates its antivirus database signatures in the background, but it couldn’t hurt to manually call for an update right after installation.
You might expect that this product would look a lot like its premium antivirus cousin, but in fact the main window looks just like that of the full Kaspersky Internet Security suite, with one significant difference. It displays the same six icons as the suite does: Scan, Database Update, Safe Money, Privacy Protection, Parental Control, and Protection for All Devices. However, only Scan and Database Update are enabled in Kaspersky Free. Dimmed-out icons with a shield overlay indicate that access to these features requires a premium upgrade.
Settings and Scans
Kaspersky’s settings are simpler than in my earlier review. The Protection tab lists six types of protection, including scanning for malware in files, on the web, and in mail and instant messages. There’s also the System Watcher component, a behavior-based system that can detect even zero-day malware. Note that the first release of Kaspersky Free didn’t include System Watcher. And the Network Attack Blocker aims to prevent dangerous network activity. All six features are enabled, and you can’t disable them.
Normally I would test System Watcher by disabling real-time malware protection and trying out some ransomware samples. However, the free edition doesn’t let users change the state of malware protection, so that test will have to wait for my review of the non-free Kaspersky Anti-Virus.
A full scan with Kaspersky Free ran in 36 minutes, which is good given that the current average is almost 50 minutes. Like many antivirus products, Kaspersky can perform optimization during the initial scan to speed subsequent scans. When I tested this feature last time, the second scan finished in a speedy four minutes. This time around, after a short while it alarmingly displayed “About 3 hours left.” It finished a minute quicker than the first scan, but I didn’t see any optimization.
I had to dig several levels deep in Advanced Settings to find that indeed, “Scan only new and changed files” is turned off by default. With that feature enabled, a repeat scan finished in just two minutes.
In any case, once you perform that initial full scan, the real-time protection and System Watch components should take care of any new attempts to subvert your computer. If you wish, you can set a schedule to run a full scan every so often.
Perfect Lab Scores
Independent antivirus testing labs devote tremendous resources to evaluating antivirus products. I follow four labs that release regular reports on their findings. Kaspersky earned the best possible score in the latest results from all four labs—a clean sweep! I should point out that the labs didn’t specifically test the free edition, but given that free users now get all antivirus features, including System Watch, results should be comparable.
The experts at AV-Test Institute rate antivirus products on three criteria, powerful malware protection, low performance impact, and small number of false positives (valid files or URLs identified as dangerous). A product can earn six points in each category, for a maximum possible score of 18. That’s just what Kaspersky did.
Tests by SE Labs simulate the actual user experience as closely as possible. Researchers capture real-world malicious websites and use a replay system to hit every product with the same attack. This lab offers certification at five levels: AAA, AA, A, B, and C. Kaspersky took AAA in the latest test, along with quite a few others.
Of the many tests regularly reported by AV-Comparatives, I follow four. In all four of those tests, Kaspersky took the highest possible rating, Advanced+.
Where most of the labs offer a range of scores, tests by MRG-Effitas use more of a pass/fail model. Kaspersky was among the minority that passed this lab’s banking Trojans test. Another test aims to measure protection against all kinds of malware. Level 1 certification identifies a product that directly prevents all malware infestations, while Level 2 goes to antivirus utilities that remediate all attacks within a day. Kaspersky earned Level 1 certification.
I use a formula to come up with an aggregate lab score, up to a maximum of 10 points. With perfect scores across the board, Kaspersky naturally has 10 points. Bitdefender is very close, with perfect scores in almost all the tests, A tiny slipup involving false positives brought it down to 9.9.
Our Editors’ Choice free antivirus products, Avast and AVG, also get results from all four labs, and their scores are quite good, 9.7 for AVG AntiVirus Free and 9.4 for Avast. Avira, too, earned 9.4 points based on results from all four labs.
Hands-On Malware Protection Testing
When the labs unanimously praise an antivirus, you know it’s very good indeed. Even so, I always run my own hands-on malware protection tests, to get a feel for each program’s style. For most products, the test starts when I open a folder containing my current collection of malware samples. Kaspersky got ahead of me on this one, working to remove malware even before I opened the folder.
When the flurry of popup notifications ended, Kaspersky had eliminated 79 percent of the samples on sight. In a couple cases, it disinfected a file to remove a virus. It identified a few others as “legitimate program that can be used by criminals to damage your computer.” I let it delete those as well.
Proceeding with the test, I launched the surviving samples. Kaspersky caught some of those as they tried to install, but let other pass by unmolested. It scored 8.5 of 10 possible points, a decent score, but not a great one. Cylance Smart Antivirus£3.99 at Cylance – per month and F-Secure both managed 9.3 points against this same set of samples, while Bitdefender earned 9.2 points. However, as I mentioned, when the labs unanimously praise a program I defer to their judgment.
Tested with my previous sample set, Norton and Webroot SecureAnywhere AntiVirus both earned a perfect 10 points. Since they’re different samples, results aren’t directly comparable, but 10 is surely a good score.
It takes a substantial investment of time and effort to prepare a set of malware samples for my detailed analysis, so I don’t change that collection often. My malicious URL blocking test, on the other hand, uses the latest URLs discovered by MRG-Effitas, typically just a day old.
The test itself is simple. I launch each URL, discarding any that are already defunct, or that don’t truly point to malware. I note whether the antivirus blocks all access to the URL, eliminated the downloaded malware, or fails utterly. When I have 100 data points, I run the numbers.
Kaspersky blocked all access to more than half of the URLs, It kicked in at the beginning of the download process for almost another 40 percent. In just two cases, it analyzed the file after download and eliminated it. Its overall score of 92 percent protection is very good.
However, Bitdefender recently owned this test, with a near-perfect 99 percent protection. Symantec Norton AntiVirus Basic£24.99 at Symantec UK managed 98 percent, Trend Micro took 97 percent, and Avira managed 95 percent.
Perfect Phishing Protection Score
Where malware seeks to sneak past your computer’s security, phishing attacks aim to sneak past your own common sense and awareness. The fraudsters prepare websites that look exactly like PayPal, or eBay, or your bank. Sometimes the URLs are even close, like pyapal.com or bankofamorica.com. If you miss the warning signs and log in with your username and password, you’ve just given away your account to the bad guys.
Modern browsers have phishing detection built in, but the best security products outperform the browsers in my antiphishing test. To prepare for this test, I scour the web for the newest reported phishing URLs, preferably those so new they haven’t hit the blacklists. I launch each URL simultaneously in Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer, and in a browser protected by the product under test.
Phishing Protection Results Chart
In the past, Kaspersky has earned good-not-great scores in this test. Last year, for example, it detected and blocked 89 percent of the phishing sites, a better score than any of the three browsers. When I first tested the latest edition of Kaspersky Free, the results were shocking. It only detected 44 percent of verified fraudulent websites, and all three browsers did better. My Kaspersky contact explained that the developers were working on the phishing servers during that test. When I ran the test again, Kaspersky achieved something I haven’t seen before—100 percent detection. And of course it beat all three browsers.
Until Kaspersky’s triumph, Bitdefender had the top spot in this test, with 99 percent detection. Trend Micro and ZoneAlarm are right up there, with 98 percent. And the free Avast Free Antivirus antivirus managed 90 percent. But for phishing protection, Kaspersky beats them all, free and paid.
Kaspersky Secure Connection
All programs in the current Kaspersky product line come with a bandwidth-capped copy of Kaspersky Secure Connection VPN. You can use 200MB of secured connectivity on each device, and the VPN chooses the server you’ll use. For $4.99 per month you can upgrade to the premium edition, which removes the bandwidth cap and lets you choose the country you want to use for your connection. Please read our review of the VPN for full details.
Bitdefender’s product line now offers a very similar VPN arrangement, with 200MB and no server choice for free, or unlimited bandwidth and choice of servers for a premium. It’s no surprise that the two are similar, since both are backed by the server network of AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite. We have dinged Hotspot Shield in recent reviews for some iffy privacy policies. Both Bitdefender and Kaspersky put severe limits on the user info they share with AnchorFree.
Since my last review, Kaspersky has added System Watch to the free edition, so its basic antivirus capabilities are equal to those of the premium antivirus. But if you run across a pernicious and malicious program that resists removal, or that prevents installation of the antivirus, you don’t get the bootable Rescue Disk feature that comes with the full Kaspersky Anti-Virus.
Several other useful but not antivirus-central features show up in the premium edition. These include: Vulnerability Scan, to find missing security patches; Browser Configuration check, in case your browsers aren’t secured; Privacy Cleaner, to wipe away traces of your computing and browsing activity; and Microsoft Windows Troubleshooting. You also gain the ability to turn protection components on and off.
If you need help using Kaspersky Free, you can poke around in the FAQs and online documentation, or ask around in the forums. Those using the paid edition can get support via phone or online live chat, which can be very helpful.
What’s Not Here
You might expect purveyors of free antivirus products to reserve the best features for paying customers, but some competing products offer quite a lot at the free level. AVG comes with the Zen remote management tool, a secure deletion shredder, and a web protection component that marks up dangerous search results and actively foils trackers. With Avira, the bonus features come as separate installations, including a free, bandwidth-limited edition of Avira’s Phantom VPN, a privacy-centered browser, a vulnerability scanner, and a price comparison tool.
Avast Free Antivirus really piles on the bonuses, at no charge. Its Wi-Fi Inspector checks all networks, wired or wireless, for security problems, and recommends fixes. It includes a full-featured (if basic) password manager, a vulnerability scanner, and an ad-stripping browser that switches to hardened Bank Mode for financial transactions. It marks up dangerous links in search results, watches for URL typos, and (like Avira Antivirus) seeks better prices when you’re shopping online.
As with Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition, Kaspersky’s bonus feature collection is sparse by comparison. You can activate its on-screen keyboard to type passwords without any chance of capture by a keylogger, even a hardware keylogger. As noted, it installs a free, bandwidth-limited edition of Kaspersky Secure Connection VPN. Rounding out the free edition’s bonus features is a simple search markup system that flags dangerous links and, with a click, identifies the relevant type of danger.
Excellent Free Antivirus
If you’re a Kaspersky enthusiast or a security-conscious person on a tight budget, you’ll love the fact that Kaspersky Free gives you all the basics of antivirus protection (along with a VPN) at no charge. This is the same malware-fighting technology that gets top scores from the independent labs, and now includes the System Watch component previously reserved for paying customers. It’s true that Kaspersky didn’t do quite as well in our hands-on tests, but when the labs all praise a product, we listen. Now that it has all the malware-fighting power of the commercial Kaspersky antivirus, the free edition, too, is an Editors’ Choice for free antivirus protection.
This product is completely free, so you can install it and kick the tires without spending a penny. But if you do, we suggest you also check out Editors’ Choices Avast Free Antivirus and AVG AntiVirus Free. Both get great lab scores (though not quite as high as Kaspersky’s) and they also pack a bundle of useful security bonus features at no charge.
Bottom Line: Kaspersky Free offers full-scale malware protection that gets perfect scores from the independent labs, and it won’t cost you a penny.