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Mac computers need virus protection, too

The question for many Mac users is: Do I even need antivirus software, given that most viruses target PCs? Experts say the answer is a resounding "yes."

Best antivirus software

Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2016
Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2016

TomsGuide.com states it flatly: "You need an antivirus program on your Mac. That statement may cause some Apple users to shake their heads in disbelief, but with the amount of Mac malware on the Internet today, this fact is no longer up for debate."

PCMag.com agrees: "We encourage all Apple desktop and laptop users to install Mac antivirus apps."

As Apple computers (not to mention iPhones and iPads) get more and more popular, they're attracting more attention from increasingly sophisticated troublemakers. "Apple's operating system is facing more malware in 2015 than in the past five years combined," security firm Bit9 + Carbon Black found in October.

And then there's the Typhoid Mary argument. Macs can carry Windows viruses. Even though your Mac might not show any symptoms, you could inadvertently spread disease to your Windows friends when you share files.

You could pay for Mac antivirus software -- but experts say you don't need to. Free programs do a fine job in tests, led by Avira Free Antivirus for Mac. "For antivirus software on the Mac, Avira Free Antivirus for Mac is all you need," says TomsGuide.com, where it leapfrogs all other free -- and even paid -- Mac antivirus software to earn the Editors' Choice award.

Avira for Mac isn't fancy, but reviews say it does exactly what it should: It slinks along unobtrusively in the background, sniffing out possible malware and quarantining it (or immediately annihilating it -- your choice). You can set Avira to run scheduled scans -- an important feature you won't find on many Mac antivirus programs -- and you can also manually run a full scan, although that will slow down your Mac, tests show.

Protection is outstanding. When AV-Test.org threw an arsenal of new, unknown malware threats at the latest version in December 2015, Avira Free Antivirus for Mac detected 100 percent of them.

Avira for Mac earns an "Outstanding" rating from editors at CNET's Download.com. It does get mixed reviews from users there, but most of the reviews are for past years' versions, which were slower. This year's Avira Free Antivirus for Mac is simple, effective and (usually) snappy, earning it top honors in reviews.

Another free brand, Sophos, typically gets good reviews for its Mac antivirus program. But in December 2015, Sophos introduced a new free product -- Sophos Home (Free) -- that can protect both Windows and Mac computers. PCMag.com tested it on a Windows PC, but tester Neil J. Rubenking wasn't impressed with its malware blocking.

A paid program, Bitdefender Antivirus for Mac (Est. $40 per year for 1 Mac), is the biggest challenger to Avira's free software. Bitdefender does have one advantage: It doesn't bog down the system at all on a full scan, unlike Avira (although on regular scans, they're equally quick).

However, Bitdefender lags behind Avira in other ways. You can't schedule regular scans with Bitdefender, and it doesn't detect malware any better than the free Avira software. Bitdefender doesn't offer any extra features, either (no parental controls, digital wallet for online shopping, etc.). Bottom line? Avira Free Antivirus for Mac delivers better protection -- and you can't beat the price.

Mobile antivirus software: iPhone says 'No thanks'

Creators of malware designed to extract money or information from unwary users -- or to just generally mess up their day for the heck of it-- like to go after the juiciest prizes. That's one reason why Windows PCs are more vulnerable to attacks than Macs: There are simply far more Windows computers out there than Macs, making Windows a more tempting target.

Now, the large and ever-growing population of mobile devices has given Internet pirates new booty to plunder. Users can find their smartphones and tablets attacked in a number of ways, including file transfers, visiting web sites that force downloads, or downloading apps from third-party app stores.

Risky behavior? Yep, and that's how most users get infected with mobile malware. Traditionally, experts -- including ConsumerReports.org -- have said you're probably safe as long as you stick to the straight-and-narrow, downloading apps "only from the approved app marketplaces run by Apple, Google, and Microsoft."

But occasionally, even that can be dangerous. Troublemakers have finally cracked these bastions of safety, and rashes of malware-infected apps have broken out on Google Play and the Apple App Store over the past year.

Android users can protect themselves with an antivirus app. There are plenty available on Google Play, and several of them work well. Most are full-fledged security apps with extra features to track your device, remotely lock it or wipe its data if lost or stolen, block unwanted calls and contacts, and more. Many are free, too. We delve into mobile security suites in more detail in our report on Internet security software.

For basic, bell-and-whistle-free Android antivirus protection, AVL is a free app that performs beautifully in tests.

"Some of you are probably just looking for malware protection that's as barebones as possible," says Simon Hill at DigitalTrends.com. "If you don't want anti-theft tools, or identity protection, or any of the other possibly superfluous features that come in many security apps then AVL will suit you."

In the latest AV-Test.org showdown, AVL detects 99.9 percent of the latest Android malware (3,476 samples of it). It raises only one false alarm when testers install legitimate apps from Google Play, and it doesn't slow down the device or drain the battery. Users like it, too: AVL earns 4.2 out of 5 stars, with more than 1,800 ratings posted on Google Play.

What about antivirus for iPhone and iPad? There isn't really any. You won't find any antivirus apps on the tightly controlled Apple App Store -- at least, none that actually block malware. You'll see a few "security" apps for iPhone and iPad, but they're all just variations on the "find my iPhone" theme in case it's lost or stolen -- they place your data behind an extra layer of password-protected encryption, help you find a lost phone, and let you wipe your device if need be.

However, experts such as Karen Haslam at MacWorld UK hold that despite an uptick in incidents, the iOS platform remains one of the safest around for the home user. "iOS is designed and built to only accept and install software that has been approved by Apple and run through the App Store," Haslam says. "As such Apple has pretty much guaranteed that you won't encounter any malicious software on your iOS device."

Elsewhere in this report:

Best Antivirus Software | Free Antivirus Software | Buying Guide | Our Sources

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