The question for many Mac users is: Do I even need antivirus software given that most viruses target PCs? The answer, according to experts, is a resounding yes.
Antivirus software programs for Macs are much less sexy than similar products for PCs, which may come as a surprise to Apple's users. The lack of bells and whistles seems to be standard for most Mac antivirus software. Apple after all has a limited market share, and viruses are usually designed to compromise PCs -- but Mac experts warn it's becoming increasingly important for Apple users to protect their devices as well.
As Apple computers (not to mention smartphones and tablets) grow in popularity, they're attracting more attention from increasingly sophisticated troublemakers. The Mac Flashback Trojan hit more than 600,000 Mac OS X computers in 2012, providing a wake-up call to Apple users that they too were vulnerable to attack and boosting sales for Mac security products. In February 2013, hackers infected some of Apple's own staff computers with malware via the Java browser plug-in, and in August 2013, Georgia Tech researchers reported that they were able to slip malware into apps on the Apple App Store (Apple fixed both vulnerabilities). More recently, headlines reported a new class of malware, WireLurker, a Trojan horse attack that can infect unprotected Mac systems, and then make its way onto a user's iOS device (iPhone or iPad).
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 Sophos Anti-Virus for Mac (Free). Launched in 2010, this software quickly soared to the top of the Mac antivirus class. It briefly lost its perch in 2012 when vulnerabilities were discovered in that year's version, but the current version is once again experts' favorite.
Sophos does two things most Mac antivirus programs can't. First, it blocks both Windows and Mac malware (so you won't spread viruses to your Windows friends). Second, it can scan silently, in the background. You choose: You can set Sophos to scan on a regular schedule, scan everything you try to open, or just scan on-demand.
Protection is impeccable. When AV-Comparatives.org throws an arsenal at it (65 recent malicious Mac apps and 500 "very prevalent" Windows malware samples), Sophos Anti-Virus for Mac blocks it all flawlessly. The app stays up-to-the-moment thanks to real-time updates. And when your app encounters a suspicious file (or installer, or other package), it automatically checks the SophosLabs database -- and quarantines the file even if it's not a known threat.
Some users do complain that Sophos slows down their Macs, however, and that performance costs Sophos first-place standing among free Mac antivirus software in the tests by AV-Test.org. That honor goes to Avast! Free Antivirus for Mac (Free). Though it's out done by some paid products, on balance, considering both protection and performance, Avast! is judged to be the best free Mac product in its test. "While the system watchdog did not work completely without a glitch, it still performed well, and it was quite economical with resources, AV-Test.org says."
Avast! also scores well at AV-Comparatives.org, and is judged to be just as effective in trapping malware. Both products also do a good job of stopping and squashing Windows viruses. While such viruses won't affect the host Mac, they can, if unchecked, spread to a PC if files are exchanged.
Various factors might make one or the other antivirus product a better choice for your needs. A big miss on the part of Avira! is the lack of a way to run scheduled scans -- something that Sophos has. AV-Comparatives.org calls Sophos's user interface "minimalist." That means that while it's fine for an experienced user, novices might find parts of it a little cryptic.
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 -- Windows' large edge in terms of total systems just make it 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 devices attacked in a number of ways, including file transfers, visiting web sites that force downloads, or downloading apps from third-party app stores -- and incidents of malware-infected apps appearing in authorized web stores, such as Google Play, are not unheard of.
Rather than simple antivirus, however, most mobile security products are all-in-one solutions with extra features designed specifically for the mobile environment. That might include features to track your device, to remotely lock it or wipe its data if lost or stolen, to block unwanted calls and contacts, and more. Versions generally are available for both Android and iOS. We delve into mobile security suites in more detail in our report on Internet security software.
Elsewhere in this Report:
Best Antivirus Software: Keep your computer safe from evil-doers with a top-notch antivirus program. The best programs for PC's and Mac's are named, including some effective options that are absolutely free.
Free Antivirus Software: There might not be such a thing as a free lunch, but some free antivirus programs perform nearly as well as the best paid products. These are some top choices.
Buying Guide: Not sure where to start to find the best antivirus software. Our editors fill in the blanks to help you make the right choice for your needs and your budget.
Our Sources: The recommendations in this report are based on expert reviews, independent testing, and user feedback. These are the sources we relied on, ranked in the order of their expertise and helpfulness.