Panda Free Antivirus review: Bamboo-zle the hackers

Panda remains our top choice for free AV protection, with a fresh look and less pushy reminders

IT Pro Recommended
  • Great range of protection features; Upgrade prompts and ads can be disabled
  • Limited feature set; Comparatively high false positive rate; Stingy VPN allowance

Panda Free Antivirus has long been our favourite free security suite, but we've historically disliked the impenetrable interface, with its controls and links dotted all over the place. So we're pleased to see that Panda has now refreshed the front end with a much more easily graspable arrangement of buttons.

As is usual with free antivirus tools, the feature set isn't huge, but the core functions are all here, starting with on-demand scans. Be aware, a speedy scanner this is not: select a full scan and you're warned that it will take several hours to complete. Even a "quick" scan churns through the entire Windows directory, which in our case took just under five minutes.

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Happily, that's not something you'll need to do often, since the package also keeps an eye out for nasties in real time. Click on the appropriate icon and you can peruse a report of recent activity, and review and restore items that have been quarantined. The little settings cog exposes a decent set of options too: among other things, you can tell the program to automatically switch into game mode when an app is running full-screen, choose to be notified before a virus is blocked, decide whether or not to scan for potentially unwanted programs and configure cloud querying for unknown files.

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Keep exploring and you'll also find the USB Protection function, which "vaccinates" USB devices to prevent the spread of flash drive-borne worms; optionally you can set Panda to automatically do this to every drive that's inserted, though wisely this is disabled by default. You can create a USB recovery drive, as a safeguard against future problems, or click to launch Panda's free Cloud Cleaner scanner, which scans your system without needing to fully install itself on your PC, making it harder for malware to detect and defeat.

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For those who prefer to make their own investigations, Panda's process monitor tool lets you see at a glance which active processes are accessing the internet, and which sites they're talking to - potentially a very useful feature for advanced users. And if you spot a process doing something it shouldn't, you can send it to quarantine with a single click.

The software also includes simple device and licence management functions, though these are so basic as to be barely useful: you can view your active software licences and track mobile devices that are running Panda Anti-Theft software, but you can't do anything clever like remotely change settings on individual machines.

A final feature worth mentioning is the VPN. Like Bitdefender and Kaspersky, Panda comes with a branded VPN that's actually operated by Hotspot Shield, but here the terms are slightly different: you can select the location of your exit node, from a choice of 23 countries, but the data limit is even more tight, giving you just 150MB per day. Upgrading to an unlimited licence is expensive too at 57, though this does cover five devices.

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Leaving aside the "Security news" screen, which merely feeds you press releases from the Panda website, that's all the major functions - and it's really a bit cheeky that such a modest feature set is spun out across no fewer than ten buttons on the home screen (the bottom five are revealed when you click the down arrow). Honestly though, we can't help but admire the chutzpah.

And while Panda Free Antivirus may have a narrow feature set, it's far from limited when it comes to malware detection. AV-Comparatives recorded a faultless 100% score across its zero-day and known malware tests. Performance was strong too: the lab rated Panda as "fast" for archiving files and installing applications, and for all other activities - including web browsing and running apps - it proved "very fast".

At this point you're probably wondering what the catch is. The answer is that in its default configuration, Panda Free Antivirus pops up occasional adverts from the publisher - but these can be easily disabled from the general settings page. It also tries to install a slightly slimy "smart shopping" browser extension, but you can avoid this by simply unticking the relevant box during setup - or removing it from your browser post-installation.

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In fact our biggest caveat regarding Panda Free Antivirus is its false positive rate of 1.6%. That's one of the worst scores we've seen recently, ranking ahead only of Microsoft Windows Defender, and it makes us slightly hesitant to recommend Panda Free Antivirus for non-technical users, who rely on their security software to make the right decisions. For the more confident, however, it's easy enough to restore a wrongly flagged file, and add it to the exception list so it won't get blocked again.

Overall, the performance and effectiveness of Panda Free Antivirus make it a clear contender for our favourite free internet security suite - and the ease with which you can avoid pop-ups and pushy adverts seals the deal.

Verdict

The performance and effectiveness of Panda Free Antivirus make it a clear contender for our favourite free internet security suite – and the ease with which you can avoid pop-ups and pushy adverts seals the deal.

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