Look for antivirus reviews backed by independent testing
This report covers antivirus software, which scans your hard drive, removable media, incoming and outgoing mail, email attachments and instant-messaging chats for malware -- 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. There's also software that protects smartphones and tablets.
Antivirus software is just one component of digital security. Reviewers say Windows computer users should also use a spyware scanner and a firewall to keep their computers safe. ConsumerSearch has separate reports on anti-spyware software, spam filters and firewalls. You can save time by choosing a security suite, which bundles all these features into one program. Internet security suites are increasingly popular as cyber security becomes increasingly critical for consumers who prefer to handle their financial transactions online. See our report on Internet security software for more information.
With most computer products, comparative professional reviews can be the best guide to the usefulness and relative quality of a product. However, with antivirus software, professional reviews only provide guidance regarding some of the major buying considerations. Few reviewers answer all three major questions: How effective is the program at preventing malware relative to the competition? Will the program slow down my computer? What problems am I likely to encounter if I buy and install this software? Common problems include installation and un-installation difficulties, software conflicts and incompatibilities (especially with other security programs) and inadequate tech support.
Most major technology reviewers have stopped conducting their own tests on antivirus software. Instead, they rely on one or more of the third-party test labs, such as AV-Test.org, AV-Comparatives.org and Virus Bulletin, to gauge effectiveness. Those test labs are now the best sources for comparing the relative effectiveness of antivirus programs, although most don't offer details on the program's installation, interface or tech support. AV-Comparatives.org is one testing lab that provides comprehensive reports. In addition to effectiveness, AV-Comparatives.org discusses factors such as installation, ease of use and interface in its summary report.
PCMag.com and Download.com (a service of CNET) also stand out. Although most tech-review sites rely on results from independent labs, PCMag.com and Download.com often conduct their own tests. In some cases, their malware testing results differ markedly from the independent labs.
User reviews are a good guide to problems. Professional reviewers usually test programs on virtual machines instead of real-world computers, so they often don't encounter the problems that many users experience. That's why average user ratings often fall below professional ratings, making user reviews as valuable as many professional reviews in this category: If a program won't work on your computer, it doesn't matter how effective it is. Amazon.com and Download.com's user reviews are all good sources, though the latest versions are only starting to attract feedback. Some antivirus products also don't generate many consumer comments.