Getting a Web browser, e-mail program or photo organizer as free software on a computer is routine, but an anti-virus utility for Windows...

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Getting a Web browser, e-mail program or photo organizer as free software on a computer is routine, but an anti-virus utility for Windows, the target of tens of thousands of viruses and worms? That seems the kind of thing for which you’d want to pay.

But you don’t have to. For several years, two Czech software developers have offered free versions of their anti-virus programs to home users. These no-charge downloads don’t offer every feature provided by McAfee and Symantec, the two security developers whose programs come pre-installed on most Windows PCs. But when put to the same tests as software from the Big Two, they did the job almost as well and with less fuss.

Both of these freebies — Avast 4 Home Edition, from Prague’s Alwil Software, and AVG Free Edition, from Brno-based Grisoft — can be installed only on home computers that aren’t put to any business or commercial use. (Income from sales to businesses and organizations covers the cost of this exercise in Internet charity.)

These two programs share a few welcome traits. Both are relatively small downloads — almost 10 megabytes for Avast, less than 15 for AVG — that tout compatibility with systems as old as Windows 95. And both automatically download updates every day and allow quick manual updates.

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With Avast (www.avast.com/eng/free_virus_protectio.html), the major selling point is a greater sense of security. After a refreshingly fast install, Avast automatically scans your computer for trouble before allowing Windows to boot up — a helpful precaution if the computer is already infected.

From then on, Avast’s virus warnings are quick and unambiguous, if thoroughly annoying. When you try to run a virus, a large window, illustrated by a flashing radioactivity icon, will alert you as a warning siren sounds and a recorded voice intones: “Caution, a virus has been detected.”

Avast’s scanning stopped viruses delivered through e-mail (in the Outlook, Outlook Express and Mozilla Thunderbird e-mail programs), Web downloads and instant messaging (old and new releases of AOL’s AIM software). It also stopped me from sending out copies of viruses via e-mail in all three of those programs, but it didn’t block one transferred via IM.

Avast’s systemwide scans went by relatively quickly, taking 27 minutes to do a routine check of a well-used ThinkPad and an hour and 40 minutes for a full scan. It took just nine minutes and 37 minutes to run the same tests on a barely used Toshiba.

You can also verify an individual file by right-clicking it and selecting Avast’s “Scan” command. But it’s hard to know that it’s been judged safe until you realize that Avast’s scan window closes instantly if it doesn’t spot any trouble.

Avast offers tech support only via e-mail. AVG (free.grisoft.com) doesn’t even offer help via e-mail. But it makes up for that in other ways.

This program installed quickly and then blocked access to every virus without any goofy sound effects. Unfortunately (just like in Avast), AVG’s “Virus Detected!” window fails to make deleting or at least quarantining a virus the normal action — and if you do elect to delete it, the default choice in a second dialog is “no.”

Microsoft Outlook users need not worry about that problem, though; AVG’s Outlook plug-in automatically quarantines viruses as they show up in e-mail.

This program wasn’t quite as disciplined with Outlook Express and Thunderbird.