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
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, (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
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, (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
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
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
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
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.