Panda Free Antivirus is a solid, albeit unspectacular, choice for keeping your Windows systems secure, ranking near the back of a pretty strong pack in both malware protection and system performance impact.
Panda also plies you with suggestions to upgrade to a paid product, it won't let you opt out of sending your personal usage data back to Panda's servers, and it wants to change your browser's home page and search engine. Both Avast Free Antivirus and Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition offer better protection and a lighter system impact without such annoyances.
Costs and What's Covered
The protection provided with Panda Free Antivirus is effective, but there are four upgrade options available to extend its defenses.
Panda Antivirus Pro (starting at $40 per year) includes a virtual keyboard, a firewall and Wi-Fi protection. Panda Internet Security (starting at $50 per year) also has parental controls, backup software, the ability to securely share files and Panda's Data Shield feature, which locks down file access to stymie ransomware encryption or file theft.
Panda Global Protection (starting at $70 per year) extends the protection with file encryption, file shredding, a password manager and a system optimizer. Finally, the Gold Protection package (starting at $95 per year) adds premium support and 20GB of online storage space. The first year of any of these subscriptions is 30 percent off.
Panda's Windows antivirus software runs on Windows XP (with Service Pack 3) through Windows 10. Not many other antivirus vendors still support XP, or Windows Vista for that matter.
The protection scheme offered by Panda Free Antivirus relies on the standard trio of antivirus defensive layers. First, Panda's malware engines try to match suspect code with digital signatures of known malware. It also continually scans for behavioral anomalies that might indicate a new infection.
Finally, any items of concern are uploaded to the company's cloud servers for analysis. If a sample is determined to be a new form of malware, a fix is distributed to users.
Unlike most antivirus brands, Panda does not allow you to opt out of this data collection, which also captures details about your computer system. Panda says it will only share data that's been scrubbed of personal information.
Panda Free Antivirus can examine compressed files and stop potentially unwanted programs from being installed. On the other hand, there's no specific defense against ransomware, such as locking down folders from being encrypted.
Panda Free Antivirus has a gaming/multimedia mode that reduces intrusions when you're watching your favorite show or battling aliens. You can customize the malware protection by turning a variety of optional features on or off.
You can manually start a malware scan with just two clicks from the main interface screen. You can choose from Full Scans (for all drives), Critical Area Scans (for the most pressing dangers) and Custom Scans (for the folders you designate). You can also scan any file or folder by right-clicking on it in Windows Explorer.
Panda Free Antivirus' Task Tray icon lets you turn the gaming or multimedia mode on or off as well as quickly schedule scans. You can pick where to scan or investigate the entire disk at any time, day or night. Recurring scans can be set up to run daily, weekly or monthly.
Panda lets you "vaccinate" your USB drives to prevent them from inadvertently infecting your system. It also automatically scans USB drives when they connect to the system.
Panda's malware scanner does a decent, albeit unspectacular, job of finding and isolating malware, but too often, it alerts the user about items that are perfectly safe. Such false positives can not only irritate you but also lower your confidence that the software is working.
In evaluations conducted in September and October 2016 by German independent lab AV-TEST, Panda Free Antivirus' behavioral monitoring aced the zero-day test, with perfect 100 percent detection of brand-new malware in each month. (Panda has not submitted any software to AV-TEST for evaluation in 2017.)
That said, the software's malware-signature scanner identified only 99.7 percent and 99.5 percent of widespread, well-known malware during the same months, respectively, which is good but not great. The malware engine kicked up a total of 14 false positives in March and April, much more than the average of five registered by the 22 products AV-TEST evaluated.
Panda Free Antivirus' Windows 7 performance in July and August 2016 was less stellar. It caught only 98.8 percent and 96.2 percent of 162 samples of zero-day malware in July and August 2016, respectively. The latter score indicates that six pieces of malware got through that month. In antivirus software, it's how much got through that matters most.
Panda's defenses against widespread malware were more effective but not perfect, stopping 99.8 percent in each month. Again, Panda's weakness was false positives, with 12 reported in July and August, which is double the average among all 23 products evaluated.
In five rounds of evaluations conducted from February through June 2017 by Austrian lab AV-Comparatives, Panda Free Antivirus stopped an average of 99.8 percent of online malware originating on malicious websites. It registered a total of 11 false positives over those five months — exactly the median score among the 21 products evaluated.
Security and Privacy Features
Panda Free Antivirus lacks the kind of luxuries you get in some other free antivirus products, such as Avast Free Antivirus' password manager or Wi-Fi network scanner. As with most antivirus products, you'll need to rely on the Windows 10 firewall. However, Panda does not have Avira's direct access to the Windows firewall controls.
Panda Free Antivirus scans email attachments as they are opened and uses the company's Safe Web reputation system to help you avoid phishing- and malware-laden websites. One downside is that this feature works only with the Internet Explorer, Firefox and Chrome browsers, and not Edge.
Software to create a SafeDisk rescue disk on a USB flash drive or a DVD is only a couple of clicks away. Panda's Cloud Cleaner can help your machine recover from a serious infection if the installed software can't. These require downloads of 80MB and 38MB of data, respectively, to get started.
Performance and System Impact
Our performance tests indicated that Panda Free Antivirus had a moderate impact on system performance. To determine this, we used our custom benchmark test, which matches 20,000 names with 20,000 addresses in an OpenOffice spreadsheet. Our test machine was an Asus X555LA laptop with an Intel Core i3 processor, 6GB of RAM and 36GB of assorted files on a 500GB hard drive.
Without any third-party antivirus software installed, our Asus laptop completed the OpenOffice test in 6 minutes and 58 seconds. After Panda Free Antivirus was installed, the OpenOffice completion time rose 4.5 percent, to 7:17. That indicates a moderate passive system impact; only Avast's was heavier.
During active scans, Panda Free Antivirus' system slowdowns were in the middle of the pack. The OpenOffice test finished in 9:10 during a full scan — a performance hit of more than 31 percent. Avira Free Antivirus and Microsoft's Windows Defender did worse, but Avast, AVG AntiVirus Free and Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition did much better.
During a Panda Critical Area Scan, which looks only at the files and folders most likely to be infected, the OpenOffice test finished in 7:52. That’s only 13 percent longer than the baseline score, and ahead of the scores from AVG and Avira.
Panda took a long time — 1 hour, 4 minutes and 42 seconds — to look at 432,129 files on its initial full scan. This dropped significantly on subsequent scans, as the software learned what it could safely ignore, but it still had an average of 42:37 on subsequent full scans.
If that seems like too much of a commitment, Panda's Critical Scan took an average of only 1 minute and 39 seconds — one of the fastest quick scans among the free antivirus software we reviewed.
Panda's cute stylized bear logo hasn't changed, but the main antivirus interface has. Once bright and airy, it's now very dark, with white type. The good news is that many of the subsidiary screens are brighter.
The main screen has a green circle around a shield emblem to show that everything is OK, but the half-screen windows can't be resized; they can only be moved around on the desktop.
On the left of the main windows are buttons linking to My Products (including Panda add-ons), Scan (which leads to the scanning page) and Antivirus (which shows whether the protection is activated). In large type below those is the number of files most recently scanned.
The main window's top row has icons for support, notifications and security news items. The upper-left area contains a way to add Panda software to more computers, and a menu link.
When you click the Scan link, a new window pops up that lets you pick among Full, Critical Area or Custom scans. As the program scans your system, the Scan window displays the name and file path of the file under consideration, and ticks off the number of files scanned and the number of pieces of malware detected.
A circle shows the scan's progress, and there are buttons to cancel or pause the scan. You have the option to instruct the system to shut down when the scan ends.
The Antivirus subsection lets you turn antivirus protection on and off, as well as schedule periodic scans. Scans can happen daily, weekly or monthly, and can examine the entire computer, only a predetermined area or only critical folders and files.
If you click on the settings gear icon on the upper right, you get a cornucopia of choices for customizing protection. The choices include behavioral blocking, compressed-file scanning and a place to exclude files from scanning.
You can set up the machine to scan newly added drives. The Process Monitor lets you keep an eye on your computer's micro-operations and any URLs being accessed; the results page classifies the threats by the damage they can do.
Sadly, Panda's interface is not as customizable as it was in the past. No longer can you move items around the windows to make the interface exactly the way you want it to be. The current Panda interface is as static as any other company's antivirus products.
Panda technicians are on call 24/7, but Panda Free Antivirus customers are allowed to interact with them only via the online support forum, which does have lots of tips and FAQs.
Installation and Support
The first step is to download the 1.9MB installer program, but unfortunately, Panda begs you to upgrade to a paid version before the software even loads. You select where you want the Panda program to be installed on your PC, and the downloader pulls down the rest of the files and installs the full program.
At this point, you should read the user agreement carefully, because Panda wants to change your default web browser's search engine and home page, and also add its Safe Web browser toolbar.
Start to finish, it took us 4 minutes and 22 seconds to install and set up Panda Free Antivirus.
It may not have all the bells and whistles of other free malware programs, but Panda Free Antivirus does a decent job of protecting a system and slows the system down only moderately. But be aware that Panda collects your usage information and puts many ads for upgrades in your face. Both Avast Free Antivirus and Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition offer better protection and lighter system impacts, and Avast also has extra features that most free antivirus products lack.
Credit: Brian Nadel/Panda
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