Free anti-virus and anti-spyware compared: Google Pack vs AVG Free

The Google Pack — Google’s neatly packaged bundle of useful free applications — was quietly updated this week with a new offering of system protection tools superceding the previous offering of Norton AntiVirus 2005 SE.

Google has now struck a deal with Symantec to include Norton Security Scan and PC Tools Spyware Doctor (interestingly from a Sydney-based software company.)

Between these two applications Google Pack now offers basic (and free) antivirus and anti-spyware protection in addition to the fun stuff like Picasa and Google Earth.

And of course it’s now Windows Vista compatible whereas the previous Google Pack security offering certainly wasn’t.

But how does Google’s free pack stack up against the other popular free anti-virus application AVG Free?

AVG has been offering its free Vista-compatible antivirus and anti-spyware solutions for a while now and they’ve proven to be very popular. It recently added AVG Anti-Rootkit Free to its free download arsenal which detects and removes rootkits on Windows systems.

1. Anti-virus compared

In the anti-virus stakes Norton Security Scan is an extremely lightweight application. It’s a downloadable version of Norton Security Check which is an online system scanner.

The version of Security Scan included with Google Pack is slightly different from the one offered direct from Symantec. According to Symantec’s website:

“Norton Security Scan is a software tool designed to help you understand if your computer is currently protected from known threats. Norton Security Scan will scan your computer and identify if there are existing viruses worms spyware unwanted adware or Trojans residing on your computer. Norton Security Scan checks to see how your computer is currently protected.”

In other words the one offered by Symantec directly just checks but can’t remove viruses if found. The version bundled with Google Pack does remove viruses if it finds them.

However whatever its antivirus capabilities Windows isn’t aware of them. Neither Windows XP nor Vista recognise Norton System Scan as an antivirus application and after installing it Windows Security Center will bug you incessantly with alerts saying that no AV products are installed and that your computer is at risk.

Google also warns that it’s an on-demand virus scanner only: it does not do any scanning in the background as you use your computer. Ouch.

“Norton Security Scan provides on-demand scanning and removal of viruses Trojan horses and hack tools. The product includes free protection updates and scheduled weekly scans. Norton Security Scan is not a replacement for continuous real-time protection from the latest security risks” says Google in its Google Pack FAQ.

Really the only thing Google Pack’s Norton Security Scan does offer is the most basic scanning and removal of viruses when you remember to do it; automatic virus database updates and program updates via Google Update.

AVG Anti-Virus is by comparison a more mature and fully-featured product. It has realtime virus scanning floppy drive email and heuristic scanning automatic updates and scheduled tasks.

It’s lightweight enough not to bring your system to its knees but powerful enough to give very decent protection.

2. Anti-spyware compared

AVG Anti-Spyware and PC Tools Spyware Doctor are much closer together.

PC Tools Spyware Doctor has two big advantage: it offers automatic updates and it’s Vista compatible whereas AVG Anti-Spyware only extends the updates feature to paying customers – everyone else needs to update manually and it’s not yet Vista compatible.

Spyware Doctor also offers realtime protection via PC Tools File Guard but that’s all – for the other realtime features like Site Guard or E-Mail Guard you have to upgrade to the paid version.

AVG Anti-Spyware also gives you realtime protection by scanning executed files and application memory blocking self-termination and automatically removing tracking cookies. It also gives much more control over the system itself letting you tweak Windows apps and disable services which can be exploited.

The winner?

Google’s addition of system protection apps is a step in the right direction and certainly adds weight to the already excellent Google Pack.

However while PC Tools Spyware Doctor is quite a respectable and competent anti-malware package it doesn’t offer quite enough to sway users away from AVG Anti-Spyware.

The inclusion of Norton System Scan looks rather like Symantec begrudgingly tossing Google a bone after finding the conversion rate between free and paid customers of its previous Norton AntiVirus 2005 SE was too low.

There’s really no comparison between the Google Pack’s new Norton System Scan and AVG Anti-Virus.

So while it will be interesting to see how Google Pack develops in terms of system protection for a comprehensive and powerful solution our advice is to head straight for AVG’s suite of free goodies.

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