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. There's also software that protects smartphones and tablets.
With most computer products, comparative professional reviews are usually the best guide to finding useful, quality products. However, with antivirus software, few pro reviews 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. However, AV-Comparatives.org is one testing lab that does publish 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.
We look at all these sources to make our recommendations for the best paid and free antivirus software for PC or Mac users. Those recommendations are based on performance of course, including how well a program blocks attacks and how well it cleans up the mess in the case of a system that's already infected. 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. We examine the user experience when everything goes right and how easy it is to get back on track when something goes horribly wrong.