Internet Security Software Buying Guide

 

What the best Internet security software has

  • Easy installation and setup. The security software should be simple to install, and the interface should be easy to understand.
  • Outstanding malware and phishing protection. We found several top picks that regularly detect 99.9 or 100 percent of malware in expert tests, and do an even better job detecting phony "phishing" websites than Chrome, Firefox or Internet Explorer (all of which have very good built-in protection). There's no reason to settle for anything less.
  • Webcam and microphone protection. With a good Internet security suite on your side, you won't have to electrical-tape your webcam or disable your computer's mic to protect your privacy from spies.
  • Almost zero slowdowns or false alarms. The best Internet security software won't bog down your system, or bug you with annoying pop-ups.
  • Compatibility with multiple operating systems. Some of the Internet security software suites that we review run on both Windows and Mac operating systems, as well as iOS and Android tablets and smartphones.
  • Extra features that really matter. Internet security suites go beyond basic antivirus software (covered in our separate report), adding parental controls, automatic file backup, anti-theft features and more.

Know before you go

Do you need whole-enchilada Internet security software? Companies usually offer the same software at three price levels. Malware protection will be identical -- the pricey versions just include more extras. Rule of thumb: If you have kids, or need online backup, consider the top-tier versions (this is where you'll usually find the beefiest parental controls and backup features). If you don't have kids, and you already have a backup solution, check out the mid-level version; it may be all you really need.

Do you want to protect your phone, tablet and computer? Top-tier Internet security suites -- and the best mid-level versions, too -- spread a protective net around all of your devices, whether they're PC, Mac, Android or iOS. Cheap or free versions usually work on only one platform.

How many licenses are included? Sometimes, various versions of the same Internet security software suite will offer licenses for one, three, five or 10 devices. Be sure you are comparing apples to apples (and licenses to licenses) when looking for the best price.

Free security software? Prepare for ads on your phone. Although we didn't find any good, free Internet security software for PC or Mac, we did find some freebies for Android phones that work quite well. However, you'll see pop-up or banner ads on the software's screens (that's how the freebies make their money), which annoys some users.

Update Internet security software regularly. Be sure your security suite is set to check for updates automatically, preferably at least once a day. Most security software applications do this, but some free programs require manual updates.

Surf smart. Though you have security software installed, you must still monitor your Internet behavior. Research before clicking on an ad or download, and don't open emails or attachments that look suspicious. Steer clear of dodgy websites: Pirated content (movies, TV and sportscasts) and peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing are two biggies that can get you infected, the Federal Trade Commission warns. Stay up to date about the latest Internet dangers by browsing computer news sites or subscribing to email alerts.

Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it

"Shop around" is always good advice, but especially with Internet security suites. Prices swing wildly all over the map, to the point where some lower-priced versions were spotted selling for more than the same company's full featured suites, at least when comparing offerings that included the same number of licenses. You should keep an eagle eye out for sales or special promotions. For example, at the time of this report, we found our top-rated Kaspersky Total Security (2017) (Est. $60 per year for 5 devices) on sale for $60 (down from $100) at Kaspersky's site, but only $40 at Amazon.com -- thought that pricing, and which outlets offer the best deals, is subject to change at nearly a moment's notice. Also watch for rebates, which are sometimes valid only for products purchased from a specific store or website.