Viruses big, little make bug-killing software a must

Threat: Between small nuisances and worldwide, fast-traveling problems, every computer should have safeguards installed.

November 26, 2001|By Lou Dolinar | Lou Dolinar,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Even the most casual computer user needs some kind of anti-virus software. A few years back, you might have survived without it, particularly if you didn't spend a lot of time online and routinely backed up your material. But the advent of broadband connections, along with various fast-moving, e-mail-based viruses, makes anti-virus software a necessity.

There are two kinds of attacks by viruses or worms that you have to worry about. There's a constant background noise of about 50,000 known viruses, the vast majority of them readily detectable by software and unlikely to spread beyond a handful of unprotected computers.

The real problems are the new viruses - the ones for which no scanners have yet been written. Over the past two years, we've seen critters like the I Love You and Nimda viruses spread within days to a significant fraction of the computers connected to the Internet.

Anti-virus software tries to pick up on these viruses by watching what they do, but absent a preprogrammed definition, isn't always successful. Once one of these gets into your computer, you can easily kill a day or two cleaning up the mess and fielding angry letters from folks you've helped to infect.

To put it another way, there's no amount of money you can spend to be absolutely safe, so the question becomes: Do you want to be semi-safe with a freebie, or pay a few more bucks for better protection?

Your first anti-virus option is an online scanner. You go to a Web page, register an account by providing your e-mail address, and a mini-program is downloaded to your PC that will scan it for viruses. Most of the smarts, including virus definitions, reside on the Web. Thus, on the plus side, you have current virus definitions at all times. In addition, these take up little memory or other resources on your computer and rarely conflict with existing programs on your PC.

The downside is that these sites can't monitor your computer full time for signs of virus activity, and if your Internet connection dies, you're without a scanner. Their ability to repair files is usually limited - they either delete or quarantine them. Still, in most cases the price - free - is right. And they're certainly worth knowing about if you ever need a quick virus check on a PC that lacks software.

Central Command (www. and Trend Micro's HouseCall ( pc-cillin) are two free examples of this genre that I've used successfully. A third that I haven't tried is Symantec's Scan for Viruses ( avcenter), which can detect, but not repair, viruses, although you can, of course, delete the suspect files manually.

As an aside here, one of the best ways to block viruses is to get your Internet service from a provider that runs anti-virus software on its servers. AT&T WorldNet, Critical Path, Earth Link and Yahoo e-mail all incorporate virus protection.

A step up from online scanners are free programs you install directly on your computer.

In the case of VCatch ( .html) the company sells ads that run when you use the scanner. It doesn't pick up on every virus - it looks at Web and e-mail downloads and deletes infected files. It does not repair files, however. AVG (www.grisoft. com/html/us-downl.html) has a free version and a professional version with more customization options.

And then there's the stuff you buy. The big two anti-virus firms are McAfee and Symantec. They've been around the longest and are consistently at or near the top of various comparison tests, so you can't go too far wrong with any of their wares. Both provide a fair amount of freebies to nonsubscribers, with deeply informative Web sites and downloadable programs that deal with the most critical viruses of the moment. You can download free trial copies, or get the full package for $34.49 at and Symantec virus definition updates cost $9.95 per year.

Computer Associates used to have the best deal on the Internet, with no-strings-attached software, InoculateIT, free for personal use. While they're still supporting the product with new definitions, new users now get charged $19.95 for a new product, eTrust EZ Antivirus, plus $9.95 per year for updates, which is still a pretty good deal. You can get it online at, and there's a free 60-day trial version as well.

With a $30 purchase price for the download version plus a $30 annual fee, Panda Antivirus Platinum ( is a tad pricier but was the top-rated product in PC World's most recent reviews.

You can see what it has to say about this and other anti-virus software at,aid, 55803, pg, 4,00. asp.

Lou Dolinar writes for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.