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Do not pay for security software

PC makers should be offering free antivirus apps. But they're not doing that, and here's why.

After the recent disaster of an antivirus app update from security vendor McAfee, I took a quick look at what the laptop and PC companies--from whom most people get their security software--were offering in the way of security software on new computers.

Basic security protection can be enough.

Here's what I wanted to see: computers pre-packaged with with Microsoft's free antivirus software, Microsoft Security Essentials (download), which I've found to be robust enough for all users except the most cavalier sloppy clickers out there. MSE is also lightweight enough that it doesn't slow your computer and is largely invisible when doing updates. And it's free. Did I already say that?

It's not that free software is better by nature. The full-feature, paid security suites are robust computer and information protectors, especially for people who might otherwise get themselves into trouble online due to a lack of education on basic computing security practices. There's nothing wrong with saving these folks from trouble. But are you one of them?

McAfee-type flubs are also rare, and nothing's magically protecting Microsoft, AVG, Avast, and any other free antivirus apps from the same fate. But I say, given the problems that you might have with any antivirus app, why pay money for features you don't need? It's not like your money buys you complete peace of mind.

So where can you buy a computer with MSE pre-installed? Microsoft confirms that no top-tier computer maker is yet offering it pre-installed on new PCs. That's a shame. In Microsoft's own retail stores, though, MSE is part of the included software suite.

The standard offering now is a trial (time-limited) version of either Symantec's Norton security suite or McAfee's, for no charge, or the option to select either Norton or McAfee. On some product lines you can opt out of the pre-installation of either of these products and get a computer completely unprotected if you ask. Others will let you opt out of the setup of a pre-loaded security suite when you first power up your computer. On these machines, you can easily download MSE and install it yourself.

Keep in mind that connecting an unprotected computer to the Internet is not the smartest thing in the world to do. While I do not believe the hype that a new, unprotected computer will be instantly taken over and turned into a zombie for the Russian mafia, if it connects to the Net over Ethernet or Wi-Fi without running security software, you still don't want to do much, if any, surfing without a protection app installed. (One way to stay belt-and-suspenders safe: download the installer for MSE from a protected computer, put it on a flash drive, and then install it on your new computer before you let it connect to the Net.)

So why can't you get the excellent Microsoft app pre-installed instead of Norton or McAfee? Because the companies that make the paid apps pay the manufacturers for converting trial users to subscribers. Microsoft Security Essentials is free, and Microsoft pays computer makers nothing for installing it. So it's in the manufacturers' financial interests to keep offering you security suites that are too big, too expensive, and frankly too flaky.

A Dell rep even told me that the suite you're more likely to be offered depends on the "deal of the month" that Dell has with the security vendors (Symantec or McAfee). It's like walking into a Best Buy, she said: some days the big in-store displays push one product; some days another. It depends on the deal.

Sure, this is capitalism at work, and we can't really fault that. But in this case I call foul. Users' computer security is more important than making a few bucks from them, and not all security suites are created equal, certainly not equal enough to be swapped out based on the deal of the moment. It's time for computer vendors to do the right thing for users, and that means offering good free security apps if they're better for users. And for many users, they are.

See also: Why it's time to move away from McAfee.
See also: Top free security suites.