Walt Mossberg

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Finding Free Antivirus Software

There’s no other major item most of us own that is as confusing, unpredictable and unreliable as our personal computers. Everybody has questions about them, and we aim to help.

Here are a few questions about computers I’ve received recently from people like you, and my answers. I have edited and restated the questions a bit, for readability. This week my mailbox contained questions about free antivirus software, different versions of the Palm Treo and emails that claim to be from financial institutions.

My computer is a virus-infected mess. I sometimes have to close over 20 pop-ups just to access the PC. Taking your advice, I tried to download the “free” AVG Anti-Virus, but there is nothing free about it. They ask for your credit-card info. What am I missing?

The company that makes AVG, Grisoft, offers both paid and free versions of the product. The free version must be downloaded from a separate Web site, free.grisoft.com. Most of the first few results in a Google search for “AVG” or “AVG anti-virus” point to this free version. Also, the free version is prominently featured at Download.com, the big site for downloading software that is owned by CNET.

Is there a significant difference between the Palm Treo 700p and the 700w phones — or is it just preference of software? Do they have the same ease of use?

A. The 700p uses the Palm operating system and the 700w uses the Windows Mobile operating system. The hardware is essentially the same, except for one big difference — the 700p’s screen has a significantly higher resolution than the 700w’s. There are also some different buttons on the keyboard.

But asking if two devices differ in “just preference of software” is like asking if living in a similar home in North Dakota or Florida differs “just” in terms of your preference in weather. The software is every bit as important as the hardware, and makes a huge difference in how the two Treos work.

I have reviewed both devices, and I find that the Windows Mobile software on the 700w is considerably inferior to the Palm operating system software on the 700p. Too many common actions in the Windows version take more steps than the same actions on the Palm OS version, and often require navigating menus. You are likely to use the stylus more often in the Windows version as well.

And, even though the software on the Windows version was made by Microsoft, it is actually worse at handling Microsoft Office and Adobe PDF email attachments than the built-in software for that purpose on the Palm OS version.

For my review of the 700p, see: ptech.wsj.com/archive/solution-20060607.html. For my review of the 700w, see: ptech.wsj.com/archive/ptech-20060105.html.

Last week, you advised readers never to trust any email from a financial institution because online criminals have gotten so good at faking such emails. Does that include emails from institutions where you have accounts, such as receipts for transactions at brokerages?

Yes and no. If you get an unexpected email from a bank, or brokerage, or payment service like PayPal, where you do have an account, I’d still advise ignoring it and never clicking on any link it contains. This is even true if the email suggests some problem with your account or advises that you need to log onto a web site to “verify” your account information. Such emails are very often just attempts to steal your passwords and account numbers. To double-check on such an email, phone the bank or brokerage, or manually call up its Web site.

However, if you have just bought or sold a stock, or performed an online banking action, and you get an email confirming the transaction, it could well be legitimate — provided it contains enough detail of a type criminals might find hard to replicate, and it arrives very quickly after the transaction was completed. I still wouldn’t click on any links in such an email, however. Remember, most financial institutions don’t have to ask you to supply account information they already have.

It’s really too bad that people have to look on such emails with such suspicion. Email could be a great tool for communications between banks and their customers. But, despite some strides, the technology and financial industries have so far failed to find a way to make email truly trustworthy and secure. And law-enforcement agencies have failed to stop the thefts of money and identities. So far, the crooks are winning in this arena. So you have to be extra careful.

* * *

Because of the volume of e-mail I receive, I can’t routinely answer individual questions by e-mail, or consult on individual problems or purchasing decisions. I read all questions I receive and select three each week to answer in the column.

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