What the best antivirus software has

  • A good detection rate. Several third-party companies test how well antivirus software can detect malware. Some of the most comprehensive testing comes from AV-Test.org, AV-Comparatives.org, Virus Bulletin, and West Coast Labs. Some of the details can be overly technical, but a certification from one of these testing organizations is worth looking for.
  • An intuitive interface. Because antivirus software can be customized, it's important that the interface guides users through the various settings. Many companies have redesigned their antivirus software to be compatible with Windows 8 (including touch-screen functions) and experts are pleased with the results. If you have an earlier version of Windows, however, make sure the interface works on your computer.
  • Daily updates. Virus signatures are specific strings of binary code that can be detected by antivirus software. Most programs will automatically check for updates on a daily or even an hourly basis. Some free software relies on a manual check.
  • A light touch that won't slow you down. While any antivirus program will use some of your computer's resources, a good antivirus program should keep your system free of malware without significantly slowing down your system's performance.

Know before you go

Antivirus alone or security suite? Antivirus software comes as a stand-alone program, but you can also purchase it as part of a comprehensive security suite. Security suites are more expensive, but they include a range of protections, including antivirus, anti-spyware and anti-spam programs, identity-theft protection, firewalls and parental controls (see our separate report on Internet security software). If you opt for an antivirus program that doesn't include these features, experts recommend supplementing it with other components, especially a firewall and anti-spyware software.

Check the system requirements. If you are using Windows XP or later, any current antivirus software will work. If you have an older computer, however, a large antivirus software program can consume a huge percentage of your computing power and you may run into compatibility problems.

Mac owners: Find out what's covered. Many antivirus programs don't provide as many (or any) products or features for Mac users. Some multi-device software suites have limitations for Apple products but are upgrading their features constantly. Mac users should be vigilant about understanding what they're getting before they pay; discuss the issue with customer service if the information on the company's websites is unclear. This is particularly true of multi-device software suites.

Antivirus software is a recurring expense. Most antivirus programs provide updates only for one year, so be prepared to pay annual renewal fees.

Don't expect free telephone support, especially with free software. Although some antivirus programs come with free telephone support, it is rare to find this feature with free software. Even online or chat support isn't guaranteed.

With paid antivirus software, start with a free trial. AV-Comparatives.org recommends downloading a free trial of your chosen antivirus software to ensure you like how it works. Most companies offer at least a 30-day free trial.

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