Best Antivirus 2018

By: Tara Tuckwiller on April 25, 2018

Editor's Note:
For features and performance, Kaspersky and Bitdefender are the best antivirus programs money can buy. If your budget is tight, however, Avast is a good, and free, alternative. Mac users, we have you covered as well and name the best paid and free antivirus protection for Apple computers.

Kaspersky Anti-Virus 2018 Review
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Paid or free: Paid PC or Mac: PC

Best antivirus software

Kaspersky Anti-Virus 2018's near-flawless malware protection – with no annoying pop-ups or computer bog-downs – proves unbeatable in tests. It includes terrific extras, too, including a stalwart barricade against ransomware and a vulnerability scanner to detect weaknesses in the system and apps. Although controversy swirls around the Russian-made software's alleged links to spy agencies, top experts continue to recommend it as the best antivirus software for home users.

Buy for $23.25
Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2018
Also Consider
Specs that Matter Paid or free: Paid PC or Mac: PC

Best alternative to Kaspersky

If you're wary of Kaspersky, experts point to Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2018 as a fine alternative. Although it suffers from more false alarms and slows down a bit while loading websites in a leading test, Bitdefender slays malware and is a whiz at unmasking phony "phishing" websites. Nifty extras include ransomware defense, a file shredder, password manager and SafePay hardened web browser to protect you while banking or shopping online.

Buy for $89.99
Avast Free Antivirus
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Paid or free: Free PC or Mac: PC

Best free antivirus software

If you can do without a few extras, Avast Free Antivirus defends against malware and phishing better than other freebie antivirus programs (although not nearly as well as the best paid programs). It even includes some useful pluses, such as a password manager and router security scan feature. This year's version proves speedier than ever, and users and experts give it strong reviews.

Avast Security for Mac
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Paid or free: Free PC or Mac: Mac

Best antivirus software for Macs

Experts say you need antivirus software on your Mac, too -- and Avast Security for Mac is the program they recommend most. It detects both Mac and Windows malware (so you won't unwittingly infect your Windows friends' computers). It's easy and intuitive to use, and it won't bog down your Mac. Bonus features include a network security scanner, basic password manager, active Do Not Track feature and website ratings, to help you steer clear of dangerous links.

Paid or free, these programs chase malware away

This report covers antivirus software, which scans your hard drive, removable media, incoming and outgoing mail, email attachments and instant-messaging chats for malware such as viruses, worms and Trojan horses. Antivirus software is not just for PCs, either. Mac users, who were sheltered from malware and other threats for decades, are increasingly at risk for attacks.

Keeping a computer free from malware has become more difficult over the years as threats now emerge from multiple sources including computer files, USB drives, email attachments and websites. Antivirus software makers have responded by beefing up their "antivirus" software with extra features and defenses. In addition to fighting malware, the best antivirus programs now protect you from spyware, phishing, identity theft, threats delivered over USB and more. This still falls short of the all-in-one protection found in Internet security suites, which typically add in still more safeguards and features such as a software firewall, parental controls, file encryption and backup, plus more. If you think that a suite's more encompassing protection is something you are interested in, we name some top choices in a separate report on Internet security software.

That said, full-fledged Internet security suites typically cost more than more basic antivirus programs from the same company, and a security suite's extra features might be redundant, or not needed. For example, experts say that the hardware firewall in most modern routers is usually much more effective than a software firewall. Besides, some of the best antivirus programs are free -- and you can't beat that.

Finding the Best Antivirus Programs

As with most computer products, professional tests are usually the best guide to finding useful, quality products. Customer reviews, on the other hand, are a good guide to problems that users encounter in the real world. Professional reviewers usually test programs on virtual machines instead of real-world computers, so they sometimes don't encounter the issues that some users experience. That's why user ratings often fall below professional ratings. Taking feedback from these sources into consideration, we base our recommendations on performance (including how well a program blocks attacks and how well it cleans up the mess if a system is already infected) as well as usability. Extra features are evaluated both on performance, and how helpful -- or in some cases harmful -- they potentially are. Modern antivirus software is a lot easier to set up and use than older programs, but it's not always smooth sailing.

Kaspersky: Best virus protection, but controversial

Year after year, Kaspersky and Bitdefender duke it out for the antivirus championship. This year, Kaspersky Anti-Virus 2018 (Est. $30 per year for 3 PCs) grabs the title, after edging out Bitdefender in AV-Test's latest malware-busting shootout.

But controversy swirls around Russian-made Kaspersky and its alleged links to Russian spy agencies – a charge Kaspersky has denied. The U.S., U.K. and Lithuania have banned Kaspersky software on certain government computers. Best Buy, Office Depot and Staples have yanked Kaspersky software from their shelves.

Is it safe to use Kaspersky software at home? It depends who you ask. Some experts say they'd steer clear. Others argue that while big-name antivirus software would be a great government spying tool, it wouldn't pose any risk to ordinary home users.

Top testing organizations still recommend Kaspersky. "Until we see real evidence that Kaspersky software is a threat to consumers, we will continue to recommend it," Tom's Guide writes, and PCMag adds a similar note to all of its Kaspersky coverage.

Undoubtedly, Kaspersky works. It's the only home antivirus software that earns the highest possible scores for everything at AV-Test – protection, performance and usability – for all commonly used versions of Windows (7, 8/8.1 and 10).

Kaspersky offers a free version with the same impeccable protection, but PCMag says it's worthwhile upgrading to the paid version. Paid users get phone and live chat support, System Watcher (an extra barricade against ransomware that's "a doozy," PCMag praises), vulnerability scanner to check for weaknesses in the system and apps, Microsoft Windows troubleshooting and a bootable Kaspersky rescue disk.

Despite all of that, if you're wary of Kaspersky, Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2018 (Est. $40 per year for 3 PCs) is a good alternative. Bitdefender boasts more extra features than Kaspersky, including a file shredder, password manager and a SafePay hardened web browser that provides an extra layer of protection for your online financial transactions. Malware protection is outstanding, and Bitdefender's phishing protection is, quite simply, the best you can buy. Bitdefender handily wins PCMag's antiphishing test, protecting you from fake websites (the kind that pretend to be your bank, PayPal, etc.) better than anything else. PCMag names Bitdefender and Kaspersky co-Editor's Choices. But it's not all smooth sailing. Bitdefender suffers more false positives than Kaspersky at AV-Test, and it slows down the computer more when opening websites.

It should be noted that for PC users, Windows Defender (or Microsoft Security Essentials for Windows 7 and earlier) comes with the tech giant's operating system. It provides basic antivirus security, but testing reveals that protection levels are far below that of the best paid antivirus software. Even many free antivirus programs (covered next) outperform Microsoft antivirus software by a substantial margin. Be aware that if you install a separate antivirus program, you may need to disable Microsoft's tool first to prevent performance issues.

Free antivirus software is very effective

Free antivirus programs from Avast, Avira and AVG all protect admirably against malware in professional tests. (All work better in tests than Microsoft Windows Defender/Security Essentials, the antivirus software that comes pre-loaded on Windows computers.) But adoring users boost Avast Free Antivirus (Free) to the top spot, with thousands of rave reviews at Download, which is a CNET site.

"A great free antivirus" with surprising bonus features, PCMag's Neil J. Rubenking says, awarding Avast Free Antivirus his Editors' Choice award. Avast blocks 87 percent of malware in Rubenking's test. It performs better in independent labs' tests, blocking 99.9 to 100 percent of malware – as long as it's connected to the Internet. (Avast uses cloud technologies to help it recognize malware, so when the computer is offline, detection drops to less than 90 percent.)

That's not quite as good as the best paid antivirus programs -- but it's better than other freebies, and way stronger than the built-in malware safeguards on your computer and web browser. Ditto for anti-phishing: Avast beats all other freebies in PCMag's test, but it can't quite match the best paid antivirus programs, Kaspersky and Bitdefender.

Avast includes nice extras, including a password manager and router security scan, for free. Speed is up and false alarms are down compared to previous years in 2018's tests, making Avast equally as convenient as the best paid antivirus programs. For free, you can't beat it.

Late in 2016, Avast bought its biggest rival, AVG. The company continues to offer both products -- although they now perform identically in tests at AV-Comparatives. "For our consumer customers, the Avast and AVG brands will remain the same, as we know some of you out there prefer one brand over the other. The underlying engine will be stronger than ever for both user groups," Avast said after the buyout. AVG AntiVirus Free (Free) wins PCMag's Editors' Choice award alongside Avast.

A third choice, Avira Free Antivirus (Free) detects malware about as well as Avast and AVG in the latest independent tests. Traditionally, Avira's Achilles' heel has been its sluggishness. In 2017 tests at both PCMag and Tom's Guide, Avira dragged its feet while scanning and bogged down the whole system -- but Avira may have alleviated that problem. In the latest tests at AV-Test and AV-Comparatives, Avira now refrains from hogging the CPU and, like its rivals, earns decent performance scores.

Mac computers need virus protection, too

Reviewers' favorite Mac antivirus just happens to be free: Avast Security for Mac (Free). "A rare breath of fresh air in a sea of anti-virus products that haven't worked hard enough to keep up to date with current threats," says Macworld, naming it "Best Free Antivirus" for Mac. It's Tom's Guide's favorite freebie, too: "Avast Free Mac Security caught 99.9 percent of all malware, packs in a password manager, barely leaves a smudge on system impact and doesn't charge a dime." the editors say.

Avast for Mac aces tests at AV-Comparatives and AV-Test, blocking 99.9 to 100 percent of Mac malware and 100 percent of Windows malware (so your Mac won't become Typhoid Mary, blithely passing along Windows infections to your friends with PCs). Zero false positives and zealous squashing of PUAs ("potentially unwanted applications," like adware) keep users happy: More than 1,600 Download users award it an average of 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Avast for Mac is light and quick, so it won't slow down your computer noticeably (Tom's Guide measures a 10 percent reduction in speed during a full scan). Only AV-Test found it slow – but then testers discovered that their test version had a default setting that Avast has since changed (downloads are now validated after downloading instead of during), "which saves lots of time." You can schedule daily, weekly or monthly scans, or start scans manually.

Avast for Mac boasts a few bonus features, too. There's a network security scanner, basic password manager, website ratings (Avast marks up your search results – green for safe, red for dangerous and gray for unknown), an active Do Not Track feature and excellent protection against fraudulent "phishing" websites on Chrome and Firefox (during PCMag's anti-phishing test, Avast's phishing protection was not yet fully functional in Safari).

Runner-up is another freebie, Sophos Antivirus for Mac (Free). Like Avast, it squashes 100 percent of Mac malware in AV-Test's latest test (it's not tested at the other independent lab, AV-Comparatives), and it doesn't bog down the computer or bug users with false alarms. Sophos is the top free pick at Macworld (UK), where editors really love its always-on protection (other freebies scan on-demand or by schedule).

On this side of the Atlantic, Sophos's paid version, Sophos Home Premium (Est. $50) wins the Macworld (U.S.) test – but editors there say Sophos's free version isn't quite as full-featured as Avast's free version. Users at Download don't like Sophos as well, either, awarding it 3 out of 5 stars (although the latest reviews there are more than a year old).

No paid Mac antivirus program stands out in reviews as better than the free Avast for Mac. Last year's winner, Bitdefender Antivirus for Mac (Est. $50 per year for 3 Macs), still sails through tough tests at AV-Test and AV-Comparatives, flawlessly slaying both Mac and Windows malware. It also earns an Editors’ Choice award from PCMag, despite catching only 75 percent of Windows malware (in contrast, Avast for Mac caught it all). But more concerning, it misses three out of 10 Mac malware threats in Macworld (U.K.)'s test. And in Macworld (U.S.)'s test, Bitdefender catches browser-based malware just fine – but it lets downloaded malware sneak through. "Bitdefender may have sterling marks from security labs, but it's not nearly so effective during real-world use," Macworld's Glenn Fleishman concludes.

Expert & User Review Sources

Respected antivirus test labs AV-Test, AV-Comparatives and MRG-Effitas rate programs' abilities to thwart malware, and also judge user-friendliness. For example: Is the program easy to install? Easy to use? Does it bog down the system? Usually, test results (or at least summaries of them) are available for free online. Other expert reviewers rely on these tests, but the best, led by PCMag (with separate lists of the best paid, free and Mac antivirus software) and Tom's Guide, add their own hands-on tests to judge for themselves. Consumer Reports also tests antivirus software, but only for Windows computers (not Macs). Macworld and Macworld (UK) conduct their own head-to-head tests of Mac antivirus programs. Owner reviews at Amazon, Best Buy and Download reveal antivirus programs' real-world chops.

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