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.
Best virus protection
there are dozens of antivirus programs on the market, only a few consistently
impress experts -- and year after year, Bitdefender comes out on top. As usual, (Est. $45 per year for 3 PCs) easily walks away with this year's
crown, acing tough tests at PCMag.com, TomsGuide.com and two independent
testing labs (AV-Test.org and AV-Comparatives.org).
praises its "nearly perfect malware-detection scores" -- with so many
bonus features "it would almost qualify as a security suite,"
PCMag.com says. Both name it their Editors' Choice.
test after test, Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2017 flawlessly (or nearly
flawlessly) protects PCs against every malware threat experts throw at it --
including the hundreds of real-world viruses, ransomware, worms and Trojan
horses that are currently attacking PCs -- with few false alarms. Even more
impressive? No annoying pop-ups. It runs on Autopilot mode by default, silently
slaying malware in the background. In fact, it's so stealthy that at first,
seasoned tester Neil J. Rubenking at PCMag.com thought Bitdefender wasn't doing
anything. "But then I realized -- it's on Autopilot!" Bitdefender had
actually caught 90 percent of his malware samples without a murmur.
packs some impressive extras. Those include a file shredder, password manager
and a SafePay hardened web browser that provides an extra layer of protection
for your online financial transactions. This year, Bitdefender adds a new
ransomware-defense feature: You can designate which files on your computer can't
be encrypted without your permission -- as many files as you want; a
particularly useful feature given recent news, and Bitdefender claims to be
able to block WannaCry ransomware infections.
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. Finally,
Bitdefender does it all without bogging down your computer, testers say.
said, our runner-up, (Est. $20 per year for 3 PCs or Macs),
proves even lighter on its feet -- because it runs largely in the cloud. In
PCMag's tests, Webroot's 2016 version blocks phishing websites nearly as well
as Bitdefender 2017, and actually blocks 100 percent of malware (we didn't find
any tests of Webroot's 2017 version yet). Webroot boasts most of the same bonus
features as Bitdefender, and Amazon.com customers award it 4.1 out of 5 stars. The
only downside, Rubenking says, is that Webroot's cloud-based strategy doesn't
jibe with the way AV-Test.org and AV-Comparatives.org test, so they simply
don't test Webroot -- and therefore, Webroot can't point to a trophy case full
of awards like Bitdefender can.
(Est. $15 per year for 1 PC) lags behind Bitdefender at PCMag. "Year after year, Kaspersky blows it out of the
park with the labs, but doesn't do as well in my tests. It's puzzling,"
Rubenking says, and he names it an Editors' Choice anyway, based largely on
those labs' more in-depth tests. Still, even at AV-Comparatives.org, Kaspersky
doesn't protect against malware or malicious URLs quite as thoroughly as
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
Free antivirus software is
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 2017 (Free) to the top spot, with thousands
of rave reviews at CNET's Download.com.
"A great free
antivirus" with surprising bonus features, PCMag.com's Neil J. Rubenking
says, awarding Avast Free Antivirus 2017 his Editors' Choice award. Avast blocks
87 percent of malware in Rubenking's test. It performs better in independent
labs' tests, blocking 98.8 percent (or more) of malware.
That's not quite as good
as the best paid antivirus programs -- but it's better than other freebies, and
way stronger than the puny 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 first-place Bitdefender.
Avast includes nice
extras, including a password manager and router security scan, for free.
Downsides do crop up here and there in tests: Avast slows computers down noticeably
at AV-Test.org (but not AV-Comparatives.org), and it annoys users with a bunch
of false alarms at AV-Comparatives.org (but not AV-Test.org). Still, 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.org. "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 2017 (Free)
wins PCMag.com's Editors' Choice award.
TomsGuide.com prefers a
third choice, Avira Free Antivirus 2017 (Free).
Avira detects malware about as well as Avast and AVG in tests. Traditionally,
Avira's Achilles' heel has been its sluggishness. Although TomsGuide.com loves
its 20-second "quick scans," a full scan really bogged down the
computer, in test after test -- but Avira may have alleviated that problem. In the
latest tests at AV-Test.org and AV-Comparatives.org, Avira now refrains from
hogging the CPU and earns high scores for performance.
Mac computers need virus protection, too
Bitdefender wins again:
It's experts' favorite antivirus software for Macs, as well as Windows. Bitdefender Antivirus for Mac (Est. $40 per year for 3 Macs) is the only program that detects 100 percent of Mac and
Windows malware across all tests at AV-Test.org and AV-Comparatives.org (so
your Mac won't become Typhoid Mary, blithely passing along Windows infections
to your friends with PCs).
Bitdefender for Mac is
light and quick -- it won't slow down your computer perceptibly, tests show -- "so
you can forget that it's running in the background," says Henry T. Casey
at TomsGuide.com. It's elegant and easy-to-use, too: "Bitdefender Antivirus
for Mac has the best-designed interface of any Mac antivirus product we've
reviewed this year," Casey writes.
Bitdefender for Mac boasts
few bonus features, but that's common for Mac antivirus programs. You can
download Bitdefender's TrafficLight browser extension for free, to protect
yourself against suspicious websites, phishing and malware when using Chrome,
Firefox or Safari. This year, Bitdefender Antivirus for Mac 2017 adds malware
protection for Time Machine backups ("handy when dealing with ransomware
that targets backup drives," Casey says). That's pretty much it for extra
As was the case with
Windows antivirus software, our runner up paid option for Mac users is (Est. $20 per year for 3 PCs or Macs). This cloud-based antivirus program performs
beautifully on Windows computers in PCMag.com's tests, but it doesn't
participate in independent tests at AV-Test.org and AV-Comparatives.org (its
cloud-based strategy doesn't jibe with the independent labs' test design). We
didn't find any expert tests of the Mac version, but it does earn a few 5-star
reviews from happy Mac owners at BestBuy.com and Amazon.com. We saw a handful
of bad reviews from Mac owners, but most of those simply needed to download the
proper installer -- a fix promptly suggested by Webroot customer service
representatives monitoring the review page. (We saw several comments
particularly praising Webroot's customer service and tech support.)
Free options work OK in
tests. Avast Free Mac Security (Free) detects
100 percent of Mac and Windows malware in AV-Comparatives.org's latest test,
same as Bitdefender -- but it bogs down the computer in tests at AV-Test.org
and TomsGuide.com. Its stablemate, AVG AntiVirus for Mac (Free)
proved quicker and about as effective as Avast in last year's Mac tests; the
two should perform identically in the future, now that Avast has bought AVG.
Avira Free Antivirus for Mac (Free),
once TomsGuide.com's favorite Mac antivirus, fell
from its perch in late 2016 when it slipped up in AV-Test.org's tests. Avira
for Mac failed to detect nearly 7 percent of malware in that test, and it was
pretty slow at doing it.
says, "you're best off spending $39.95 per year for Bitdefender Antivirus for Mac, which has top-notch malware protection and a much
lighter system-performance impact."
Expert & User Review Sources
Respected antivirus test labs AV-Test.org, AV-Comparatives.org and MRG-Effitas.com 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; the best, led by PCMag.com (with separate
lists of the best paid and free antivirus software) and TomsGuide.com,
add their own hands-on tests to judge for themselves. Owner reviews at Amazon.com, BestBuy.com and CNET's Download.com reveal antivirus programs'