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Anti-virus and firewall software should fall into the same category of essential tools as a monitor or keyboard; it’s that important, computer experts say.

Programs protecting your system from malicious invasions are not hard to find, and in some cases, they won’t break the bank either. Most novice users are aware of excellent security software such as Norton, McAfee and Panda software.

However, some of the highly capable programs are free if you can tolerate tradeoffs such as advertising or limited access to advanced tools.

Free for all

Here are four free anti-virus programs with good reputations that have passed tests administered by certification labs. All four update automatically.

• Grisoft’s AVG Anti-Virus System: AVG includes memory scanners, plus e-mail scanners for Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora and Exchange client. The download is available from www.grisoft.com/us/us_dwnl_free.php

• Alwil’s Avast 4 Home Edition: Avast also offers memory scanning. It scans both Outlook and standard Internet mail (POP3/SMTP). Alwil offers support via e-mail even though the product is free. Download available at www.asw.cz/i_idt_153.html

• H+BEDV Datentechnik’s AntiVir Personal Edition: This utility includes memory scanning, but not e-mail scanning. It can be used in conjunction with AntiVir’s separate scheduler program to launch hard-disk scans, and fetch virus definition and software updates. The interface could be a bit more intuitive, but hey, it’s cheap. To download, visit www.free-av.com/index.htm

• Softwin’s BitDefender Free Edition Version 7: BitDefender Free Edition, like the other free tools, has memory scanning capabilities. It also downloads updates automatically. However, it does not scan e-mail for viruses when sending or receiving. Download at: www.bitdefender.com/bd/site/products. php?p_id=24

PC users running versions of Windows XP have a built-in Internet connection firewall that does a fair job for home PCs that are not on a network.

To activate the firewall, click the Start Menu, then Control Panel, then Network and Internet Connections. At this window, click Network Connections, highlight the connection you want to protect, then in the left panel of the window click Change Settings of the Connection or right click on the highlighted connection and click Properties. Next, click Advanced and then select Protect My Computer and Network by Limiting or Preventing Access to this Computer from the Internet. Finally, click OK and you’re set.

Several solid free firewalls are available that receive positive marks. All have modes of operation that let you choose which programs you’ll allow to access the Internet. They also operate in a learning mode, remembering your preferences for programs accessing a connection.

• Kerio Personal Firewall 2: This free firewall for power users allows fine-tuning of application rules to restrict access to and from specific IP addresses and ports. The 2MB download is at www.kerio.com/kpf_download.html

• Outpost Firewall Free: Agnitum’s free firewall includes features such as ad and pop-up blockers, Web content filtering, attachment filtering and a tool to speed up the DNS cache. To download the 2.5MB installation file, visit www.agnitum.com/download/outpost1.html

• Sygate Personal Firewall 5.1: The user interface of this 5.2MB program offers detailed control over how and when you allow applications to connect to servers. A version of this firewall is also included in one of the better utility suites featuring anti-virus, hardware and system diagnostic tools, VCOM’s System Suite 5. The Sygate download is at smb.sygate.com/download/download.php?pid=spf. System Suite is for purchase for $59.95 from www.systemsuite.com/product/ss_ind.html

• ZoneAlarm 3.7.202: Possibly the most popular free firewall is Zone Labs’ novice-friendly program featuring mail-scanning that quarantines dangerous Visual Basic Script (.vbs) attachments. The 3.6MB file is located at www.zonelabs.com/store/content/ company/products/znalm/freeDownload.jsp?lid= zadb_zadown

— Sources: Internet sites included in text, Microsoft.com, as well as benchmarks and reviews from CNET.com, MaximumPC.com and PCWorld.com.

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