Finding the best antivirus software
This report covers antivirus software, which scans your hard drive, removable media, incoming and outgoing mail, email attachments and instant-messaging chats for malware such as viruses, worms and Trojan horses. Antivirus software is not just for PCs, either. Mac users, who were sheltered from malware and other threats for decades, are increasingly at risk for attacks, as are smartphones.
Keeping a computer free from malware has become more difficult over the years as threats now emerge from multiple sources including computer files, USB drives, email attachments and websites. Antivirus software makers have responded by beefing up their "antivirus" software with extra features and defenses. In addition to fighting malware, the best antivirus programs now protect you from spyware, phishing, identity theft, threats delivered over USB and more. This still falls short of the all-in-one protection found in Internet security suites, which typically add in still more safeguards and features such as a software firewall, parental controls, file encryption and backup, plus more. If you think that a suite's more encompassing protection is something you are interested in, we name some top choices in a separate report on Internet security software.
That said, full-fledged internet security suites typically cost more than more basic antivirus programs from the same company and a security suite's extra features might be redundant, or not needed. For example, experts say that the hardware firewall in most modern routers is usually much more effective than a software firewall. Besides, some of the best antivirus programs are free -- and you can't beat that.
Also, the industry trend is to load up antivirus software with so many extras that they are nearly as full featured as a full-blown security suite. Symantec has taken things one step further. It has discontinued Norton Antivirus, and virtually every other security product it previously offered, including Norton 360, in favor of an all-encompassing solution, Norton Security (Est. $35 and up). Various versions include a file backup utility, free cloud storage, and licenses to cover up to 10 PCs, Macs, smartphones or tablets.
Finding the best antivirus programs
As with most computer products, professional tests are usually the best guide to finding useful, quality products. Respected test labs include AV-Test.org, AV-Comparatives.org and Dennis Technology Labs; all rate programs' abilities to thwart malware, and some also judge user-friendliness. For example: Is the program easy to install? Easy to use? Does it bog down the system? Usually, test results (or at least summaries of them) are available for free online. Other expert reviewers rely on these tests; the best, led by PCMag.com, add their own hands-on tests to judge for themselves.
Customer reviews are a good guide to problems that users encounter in the real world. Professional reviewers usually test programs on virtual machines instead of real-world computers, so they sometimes don't encounter the issues that some users experience. That's why average user ratings often fall below professional ratings.
We look at all of these sources to make our recommendations for the best paid and free antivirus software for PCs, Macs and mobile devices. We base our recommendations on performance (including how well a program blocks attacks and how well it cleans up the mess if a system is already infected) as well as usability. Extra features are evaluated both on performance, and how helpful -- or in some cases harmful -- they potentially are. Modern antivirus software is a lot easier to set up and use than older programs, but it's not always smooth sailing.
Bitdefender: Best virus protection for Windows
Antivirus-only software programs -- once the standard of the industry -- are becoming less common as threats emerge from multiple sources including computer files, USB drives, email attachments and websites. Antivirus software makers have responded by beefing up their "antivirus" software with extra features and defenses. In addition to fighting malware, the best antivirus programs now protect you from spyware, phishing, identity theft, threats delivered over USB and more.
Although there are dozens of antivirus programs on the market, only a few consistently impress experts -- and it's usually a neck-and-neck race between two top companies, Bitdefender and Kaspersky. This year, Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2016 (Est. $35 per year for 1 PC) narrowly captures the crown. "This is the best $40 you can spend on protecting a PC," says Brian Nadel at TomsGuide.com, where Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2016 beats Kaspersky to win the Editors' Choice award.
In test after test, Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2016 flawlessly (or nearly flawlessly) protects PCs against every malware threat experts throw at it -- including hundreds of real-world viruses, ransomware, worms and Trojan horses that are currently attacking PCs -- with zero false alarms. Even more impressive? No annoying pop-ups, thanks to Autopilot mode. "Bitdefender quickly and quietly" annihilates malware in Neil J. Rubenking's test at PCMag.com. "The only sign something was happening ... was the upward creep of the widget's event counter."
Bitdefender packs some impressive extras, too. Those include a file shredder, password manager and a SafePay hardened web browser that provides an extra layer of protection for your online financial transactions.
Phishing protection is outstanding. "Where many products can't even outperform the phishing protection built into modern browsers, Bitdefender handily beat all three," Rubenking says. "That's quite an impressive performance!"
Finally, Bitdefender does it all without bogging down your computer, testers say. It addition to earning top honors at Tom's Guide, it earns the Editors' Choice award at PCMag.com. Finally, the antivirus engine used in both it and the company's full internet security suite delivers excellent antivirus protection and performance in independent tests at AV-Test.org and AV-Comparatives.org.
Kaspersky Anti-Virus 2016 (Est. $20 per year for 1 PC) lags behind Bitdefender at TomsGuide.com. "Its malware protection was less than perfect," and Nadel gets annoyed with its "disorganized" interface. Kaspersky lacks some of Bitdefender's extra features, too -- there's no password manager, file shredder or hardened web browser for online banking and shopping. But at PCMag.com, Kaspersky does share the Editors' Choice award with Bitdefender -- although Kaspersky doesn't do as well blocking malware-hosting URLs (Kaspersky blocks 58 percent, versus 74 percent for Bitdefender) or detecting phishing URLs (Bitdefender beats Kaspersky by 6 percentage points).
Both Bitdefender and Kaspersky get mixed owner reviews, but not for failed antivirus protection. Owners say that works fine. But both brands have dismayed their share of users by automatically renewing the software at the end of the year by default, or annoyed them with unresponsive customer support. Kaspersky gets more complaints for irritating pop-ups and bogging down the computer, though.
It should be noted that for PC users, Windows Defender (or Microsoft Security Essentials for Windows 7 and earlier) comes with the tech giant's operating system. It provides basic antivirus security, but testing reveals that protection levels are far below that of the best paid antivirus software. Even many free antivirus programs outperform Microsoft antivirus software by a substantial margin -- and we cover the best free antivirus software elsewhere in this report. Be aware that if you install a separate antivirus program, you may need to disable Microsoft's tool first to prevent performance issues.
Elsewhere in this report:
Free Antivirus Software | Best Mac Antivirus Software | Buying Guide | Our Sources