The best Internet security software typically includes three essential components -- antivirus, anti-spyware and a firewall -- along with optional features, such as a spam filter and parental controls. Some companies bundle additional components as well, including identity theft prevention, anti-phishing software and online backup. Smartphones and tablets are increasingly vulnerable to malware too, and we cover both PC/Mac and smartphone/tablet Internet security software in this report, as well as some double-duty products that protect both computers and mobile devices.
In naming the best Internet security suites, we look first to performance, but also ease of use and features. Of course, the most important feature of any Internet security software is its antivirus protection (and if that's all you are interested in, we review stand-alone antivirus software programs in their own report).
So what's the best, easiest way to shield all of your devices? Norton Security Premium (Est. $50 per year for 10 devices), reviews say. This software protects 10 PCs, Macs, Android and iOS devices -- and it does it masterfully. It's "a vastly better solution" than trying to find separate security software for all of your different gadgets, says Neil J. Rubenking at PCMag.com, where Norton Security Premium is the Editors' Choice.
In a nutshell, Norton Security Premium offers all the security you probably need, for every device you probably own. Malware rarely gets past Norton in tests -- whether it's on a PC, Mac or Android. Neither does spam. Norton's intelligent firewall outwits attackers.
For antiphishing (weeding out those phony websites that pretend to be your bank, etc.) protection, Norton is the gold standard. "It's the touchstone I use to measure antiphishing performance by other products," Rubenking says. And it won't bug you with a bunch of pop-ups, bog-downs and false alarms.
"Premium" means this is Norton's top-of-the-line security software, loaded with all kinds of goodies. Parental controls let you easily monitor (or block) what your children access on all of their devices (this feature is a PCMag.com Editors' Choice in its own right). Online backup includes 25 GB of free storage (you can buy more), and Norton automatically backs up your files. Norton's password manager keeps all of your passwords under lock and key, and its performance optimizer keeps your junky files cleaned up and your system purring along. (Norton products were once reviled as horrific resource hogs, but those days are now ancient history.)
Flaws are hard to find. One consumer testing organization flags Norton for being slow to update itself to find the latest malware -- but in test after test at AV-Test.org, Norton is flawless (or nearly so) at detecting zero-day (brand new) malware, before it's even known to exist. Amazon.com and Google Play customers give it good grades, too (4.1 and 4.5 out of 5 stars, respectively), a testament to its real-world prowess.
Norton can't do a whole lot to protect your iPhone or iPad against malware -- but neither can any other security software on the market, simply because of the way iOS is made. In iOS, apps are "sandboxed" -- restricted to their own individual areas -- so they can't get out and attack other parts of the system (or scan other parts of the system for malware). iOS users do get Norton Security Premium's anti-theft, password manager and cloud backup features.
Don't have 10 devices? Well, you could save $10 and step down to Norton Security Deluxe (Est. $40 per year for 5 devices), but you'll lose key features -- there's no free cloud storage, automatic backup or parental control in the Deluxe version. Norton Security Standard (Est. $30 per year for 1 device) includes just the firewall and malware protection, without any extras.
For half the price of Norton Security Premium, Kaspersky Internet Security (2016) (Est. $25 per year for 3 devices) will protect three devices (PC, Mac, Android or iOS). It doesn't pack quite as many extras as Norton, but security is top-notch. "No weak links in the protection ... an all-around great security suite," Rubenking says, awarding Kaspersky Internet Security (2016) a PCMag.com Editors' Choice prize.
It's a "Top Product" at AV-Test.org, too, just like Norton. Both are nearly flawless at detecting viruses, worms and Trojan horses (even unknown malware), without bogging down the system or bugging the user with false alarms.
Antiphishing and antispam protection are both are nearly as good as Norton in PCMag.com's test. Perks include rich parental controls and anti-theft protection to remotely locate your lost or stolen device and wipe it clean. You'll even get a couple of features Norton Security Premium lacks: a protected web browser for online shopping and banking, plus Gamer Mode to protect your PC without interrupting your fun.
Downsides: Kaspersky's firewall is weaker than Norton's. Some features only work on PCs, including a unique one that blocks malware from using your webcam. And some Amazon.com users are fed up with Kaspersky Internet Security (2016), complaining about sluggish systems and bad tech support.
For $10 more, you can the top-of-the-line Kaspersky Total Security (2016) (Est. $40 per year for 5 devices). It adds a password manager, automatic online backup, PC clean-up tools, even more parental control options and a file shredder -- but it gets the same complaints at Amazon.com as the cheaper version.
What about free Internet security software? Try as we might, we could not find a totally free security suite for PC or Mac that passes muster. Protection lags behind the best paid software in tests, and we see lots of reports of usability issues. However, if your main interest is antivirus protection -- and that's most users' biggest worry -- we did find some solid antivirus software that will do a terrific job of protecting your computer and not cost you one cent. For more on those, see our report on antivirus software.
However, we did find some great free Internet security software to protect Android phones and tablets, led by Avast! Mobile Security and Antivirus (Free). "This product's anti-malware protection is nearly perfect," say editors at TomsGuide.com, "but it was the breadth and scope of the extra features in Avast! Mobile Security & Antivirus that blew us away."
Avast! gives you more -- for free -- than some other apps charge up to $40 for. It blocks malicious websites, spam, and calls and texts from numbers you choose. It double-checks Wi-Fi security in those coffee shops. It scans your apps, to make sure they're not playing fast and loose with your personal info. It lets you lock apps, to keep your private data private. If you lose your phone or tablet, Avast lets you locate, lock and/or wipe it remotely. There's a password manager, a battery saver, a clean-up tool, automatic backup and more.
In tests, it proves to be extremely easy to set up and use, and it performs nearly flawlessly: At AV-Test.org, Avast! Mobile Security detects 99.9 percent of malware, with zero false alarms, without hurting speed or battery life.
And users love it, too. Avast earns 4.5 out of 5 stars, with a whopping 4 million-plus ratings at Google Play.
Most independent test labs only evaluate antivirus software or the antivirus component of security suites. AV-Test.org is particularly helpful because it also rates factors such as usability and a suite's impact on a computer's performance. Technology websites generally defer to these labs when it comes to rating effectiveness, but PCMag.com conducts its own testing as well, as does ConsumerReports.org (for both PC/Mac and mobile security software). Others, such as Tom's Guide and DigitalTrends.com focus their reviews on usability factors. User reviews at sites such as Google Play and Amazon.com are useful for evaluating how Internet security suites perform in the real world.