Security Starter Kit

Protect your computer with these eight essential freeware security programs. Perfect for a brand-new machine, or if you're looking to replace the software you've got.

With a new year comes new computers, and that means new security problems. Viruses, spyware, rootkits, hackers--a fresh machine can be susceptible to the most insidious of plots. Lucky for you, here in the CNET Download.com defense bunker, we've devised a list of essential and free top-rated security programs to protect the honor of your computer and ensure that your sanity will last longer than your resolutions.

Categories covered include Firewall, Antivirus, Spyware remover, Web-surfing adviser, Parental control, Pop-up blocker, and Encryption.

Firewall

Comodo Firewall Pro has eradicated most of its resource-hogging ways and gives users what they want: a flexible yet simple firewall that's great for beginners but also provides a smorgasbord of information and plenty of options for advanced users.

Comodo Firewall Pro

From the category tabs of Summary, Firewall, Defense +, and Miscellaneous to more specific headings, most security terms come linked to relevant security issues so users can drill down to learn more about how the firewall is performing. Although the app rears its head often when you first fire it up, once it learns your behavior, it becomes virtualy unnoticeable.

Antivirus

AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition provides all the necessities to destroy infections, including tools for scanning your hard drive and e-mail, as well as a real-time shield to prevent infections.

By default, it's set to update new virus definitions daily, but you always can use the scheduler to change this. Should a virus create serious system problems, AVG creates a rescue disk to scan your computer in MS-DOS mode. The program doesn't tax your system when scanning or when running in the background and always proved effective in our tests. The interface isn't pretty, but it isn't hard to navigate, either.

Avira Antivir does double-duty, protecting against spyware and viruses alike. For users who want backups or want to have their antivirus and antispyware separate, we've recommended alternatives. Antivir's scans are flexible, allowing the user to check all hard drives, choose a preloaded scan--for rootkits, for example--or customize. After testing on several machines, no viruses turned up, although several malicious hidden files did rear their heads. The heuristic scan can be turned on or off completely or partially, with three different intensity levels.

Avira AntiVir

The quarantine offers extensive support, too, although the definition file updater can be sluggish. Still, combining effective antimalware and antivirus tools into one is a freeware luxury.

Spyware remover

The tiny Trend Micro HijackThis examines vulnerable or suspect parts of your system and scrubs them clean of whatever malfeasance has infected them. It can be a complicated program to use, but also one that's extremely effective.

After a scan, don't check off an item and hit the Fix Checked button unless you're sure it's malware. Clicking Info will tell you why the entry was flagged, but to learn if it's malware you need to search the Web or check out a forum such as SpywareInfo or Computer Cops. Saving the log creates a text document you can post to these forums. HijackThis is a serious tool for any user who needs to root out a serious infestation, but wield it with caution.

Web-surfing adviser

McAfee SiteAdvisor for Firefox and Internet Explorer warns you about covert spyware and browser-hijack attempts as you visit a site.

McAfee SiteAdvisor

It operates as an unobtrusive signal in your browser's interface, turning green if the site is safe, yellow if it's suspect, and red if it senses threats. The same system applies to search results, inserting a colored icon next to each link. Clicking one provides threat diagnostics, including links to suspect sites, spam counts, and dangerous downloads. In our tests, SiteAdvisor turned out accurate and reliable results, and though it doesn't have a wide array of features, we encourage all users to try this extension.

Parental control

K9 Web Protection provides many options for customizing your remote Web supervision needs, but also comes with a handful of predesigned filters. With more than 50 categories for organizing Web sites, and a keyword-free rating system, the Web monitoring and blocking aspects of the software functioned well. Equally impressive--and a little bit scary--was the log that detailed not just blocked Web sites but also every Web site visited.

Installation and removal isn't easy: Be prepared for a multistep process. K9 does lack a chatware filter, leaving some holes for predation.

Pop-up blocker

No matter which browser you use, Pop-up Stopper Free Edition has you covered. You can specify different sound and text-bubble alarms or set your mouse to change colors when the program blocks a pop-up ad. Unlike some of its ilk, this utility doesn't affect the Open in New Window right-click context-menu command. You can allow individual pop-up windows by holding the Ctrl or Shift key.

The one drawback to the free edition is that it limits your configuration options and doesn't let you specify pop-ups you want to always allow. Despite those drawbacks, Pop-Up Stopper Free Edition is still a great weapon in the war against annoying pop-up pests.

Encryption

RoboForm might strike some as an odd choice for an encryption program, but it uses powerful encryption algorithms such as Blowfish and AES to protect your data. Combined with password generator technology, users choose one strong password instead of having to remember several. It reduces time spent filling out Web forms and logging onto subscription sites by remembering all your info.

You can set up multiple identities with different credit card numbers, passwords, and contact information. The trial limits the tab instances on each identity to three, but you can make plenty of identities. There's also search and hot-key support, and a one-click Login feature for submitting forms.

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