software provides all-in-one protection
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.
Do you even need Internet security software?
Keep in mind that you may
not want or use all the components of an Internet security software suite. A
firewall is essential to protect your computer from intrusion threats (that
look to steal data from your computer or hijack your identity), but you may
already have a firewall in your wireless router, and experts say that a
hardware firewall of that type is generally more effective than a software
firewall. You might not need a spam filter if your Internet service provider or
email program is already filtering spam.
Therefore, for many,
effective antivirus software could be all you need. In
addition, software vendors have been packing in more and more features into
antivirus software, largely blurring the lines between those and products that
are marketed as Internet security suites. Also, Windows includes Windows
Defender antivirus, but that security software, while it has improved mightily
in the past year, still throws too many false alarms in independent tests. See
our report on antivirus software for our recommendations of dedicated antivirus
programs -- including free products -- that perform better.
However, if you do need
more than what a typical antivirus program can provide, buying an Internet security software suite is usually
cheaper than buying separate stand-alone programs. It also reduces the
likelihood that security programs will refuse to work together. You can also assemble
your own security software system by choosing the top-rated software in each
category, though getting them all to "play nice" together might be a
tall order for many users.
Finding The Best Internet Security Suites
To find the top performing,
most effective Internet security suites, we looked to both expert and user
guidance. On the expert side of things, we consulted the top independent
testing laboratories, as well as sites and publications that do at least some
unique testing on their own. User reviews posted at retail sites and elsewhere
are particularly helpful in addressing usability, especially in how well suites
perform in real-world settings rather than dedicated testing situations. With
that research completed, we look first to performance, but also ease of use and
features to name the best Internet security suites.
Kaspersky rates best, but controversy swirls
So what's the best, easiest
way to shield all of your devices? (Est. $50 per year for 5 devices), reviews
say. This software protects 5 PCs, Macs, Android and iOS devices -- and it does
But controversy plagues
Russian-made Kaspersky, which allegedly is linked to Russian spy agencies. We
address this more fully in our antivirus software report, but the take of most experts, and
many users, is that while it probably should be avoided by those that store
sensitive materials (government or industrial) on their computers, for typical
users -- absent any real proof of a threat to them -- the benefits outweigh any
risks. "Until we see real evidence that Kaspersky software is a threat to
consumers, we will continue to recommend it," Tom's Guide writes, and other
experts offer similar advice.
In a nutshell, Kaspersky
Total Security offers all the security you probably need, for every device you
probably own. Malware rarely gets past Kaspersky in tests. In fact, it's the
only security software that earns highest honors from independent labs for all tested
platforms -- PC, Mac and Android – and the only one 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).
protection is nearly perfect" and false alarms are rare, says Brian Nadel
at Tom's Guide, awarding Kaspersky Total Security his Best Premium PC Security
Suite prize. Not to mention its mega-suite of goodies: Kaspersky Total Security
"lives up to its name with just about every feature you could want," Nadel
Besides absolutely slaying
malware, Kaspersky delivers superb protection against phishing (those phony
websites that pretend to be your bank, etc.). For years, PCMag's Neil J. Rubenking
has used Norton Security Premium as the gold standard in his antiphishing test
-- but this year, Kaspersky actually beats Norton in the test (only Bitdefender
-- covered below -- did better). Like all top security suites, Kaspersky
protects against ransomware, too.
A step-down version, (Est. $40 per year for 3 devices),
offers equally powerful protection and an almost as robust set of features -- including
a firewall, spam filter, VPN (virtual private network) to browse the web
anonymously, a hardened Safe Money browser to protect your financial
transactions, app safety adviser, webcam and microphone protection, the aforementioned
awesome anti-phishing protection and more. But for or $10 more, Kaspersky Total
Security adds coverage for two additional devices, file backup and encryption,
a password manager and a free subscription to the outstanding Kaspersky Safe
Kids parental control system (it costs $15 if you buy it separately).
Rubenking can't get the
password manager to autofill forms in Windows – and when he calls
Kaspersky for help, he gets a runaround – but he's deeply impressed by
the Safe Kids feature. "Kaspersky Safe Kids goes way beyond the parental
control available in most security suites," Rubenking writes. It includes child
location monitoring, app- and content-blocking and time limits, and it works
across all of the family's devices and platforms.
Most Amazon buyers like Kaspersky
Total Security: Two out of three award it 4 or a perfect 5 stars. However, about
15 percent of Amazon users slap Kaspersky Total Security with the lowest
possible 1-star rating, usually because it slowed down their computer or
they're worried about Kaspersky's possible ties to the Russian government.
If despite expert
reassurances you're still concerned about Kaspersky, the best alternative is (Est. $50 per year for 5 devices). Bitdefender runs neck-and-neck with Kaspersky in
independent malware-busting tests, year after year. Like Kaspersky Total
Security, Bitdefender Total Security runs on PC, Mac or Android (its
anti-theft, account privacy and parental advisor features work on iOS, as well).
It boasts many of the same features, and PCMag names Bitdefender Total Security
an Editors' Choice.
However, Bitdefender lacks
some trimmings. There's no VPN, and no backup software or online storage, Tom's
Guide notes. Another leading test organization knocks Bitdefender's lousy help
system. Like Kaspersky, Bitdefender boasts robust anti-ransomware protection.
If you need to protect a
ton of devices, consider another alternative: (Est. $50 per year for 10 devices). Flawless (or
near-flawless) malware and ransomware protection in every independent test
– across every platform (it works on Windows, Mac, Android and iOS)
– and a whopping 10 licenses make it an incredible value for those with
more than the usual assortment of PCs, laptops, smartphones and/or tablets.
PCMag picks Norton Premium
as its cross-platform Editors' Choice, and Consumer Reports names it a Best
Buy. "All of its components do their jobs well, some brilliantly," PCMag's
Rubenking says. Norton even blocks maddening adware and other PUAs (potentially
unwanted applications) better than Kaspersky and Bitdefender, MRG-Effitas' test
shows. And Norton includes sophisticated parental controls (although those
don't work on Macs) and both local and online backup with 25 GB of cloud
Rivals boast more features,
though. Norton lacks a hardened web browser, and it can't encrypt or shred your
files. Norton also slows the computer a tad and suffers a handful of false
alarms at AV-Test, dropping it just behind Kaspersky and Bitdefender in the
rankings. In tests at AV-Comparatives, Norton struggles with 90 false alarms
– compared with Kaspersky's nine and Bitdefender's two – but that
doesn't happen in tests anywhere else.
Secure your Android -- for free
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 suites to protect Android phones and tablets, led by Symantec Norton Mobile Security (Free). It performs perfectly at both AV-Comparatives and
AV-Test, blocking 100 percent of malware with no slowdowns, battery-gobbling or
false alarms – just as it has for years.
"Some antivirus apps
fluctuate in their lab-test detection rates, but not Norton Mobile Security,"
says Sean Riley at Tom's Guide. "Only Bitdefender Mobile Security (Est.
$15) has a
better track record." These two mobile champs -- Norton and Bitdefender -- are
co-Editors' Choices at both Tom's Guide and PCMag.
Norton Mobile is actually a
"freemium" product. You have to pay $15 if you want to unlock a few of its
features: App Advisor (which flags risky apps in the Google Play store), Link
Guard (which flags risky links you get via email or text) and Privacy Report
(which warns you if apps leak your personal data).
"It's worth paying a bit
extra for," Riley says. Still, the free version is "an even better deal."
Norton's free Android version
delivers the same impeccable defense against malware and phishing, the same strong
call and text blocking, contacts backup and – importantly – the
same robust anti-theft features as the paid version.
If your phone or tablet is
lost or stolen, you'll be able to issue remote commands with any cell phone:
Locate (you'll get the phone's coordinates), "Scream" (the phone sounds an alarm
to help you find it), Lock and Wipe. You can also set the phone to automatically
lock if the SIM card is removed, "an obvious move for a potential smartphone
thief," Riley says.
In tests, Norton proves to
be extremely easy to set up and use. Users love it, too. Norton Mobile earns
4.5 out of 5 stars, with a whopping 1 million-plus ratings, at Google Play.
You could pay for Android
security software, but it won't work better than Norton. Runner-up Bitdefender
Mobile Security proves lighter on its feet than Norton in Tom's Guide's
test, barely slowing down the phone at all – but Norton only slows it by
2 to 5 percent, Riley says, which "is not likely to be noticeable." Malware-wise,
Bitdefender falls just a hair behind Norton at AV-Test, detecting 99.8 percent
of malware in real time (Norton detects 100 percent) with zero false alarms in
the latest test. And Bitdefender lacks a call/text blocker.
Also, keep in mind that if
you are paying for an Internet Security Suite for your laptop or computer, many
-- including (Est. $50 per year for 10 devices) and (Est. $50 per year for 5 devices) -- protect mobile devices as well. That said, using a free
mobile app means fewer used slots on your license, letting you protect
additional devices or save a little money (opting for a license that covers
Expert & User Review Sources
Most independent test labs,
including Austria's AV-Comparatives and the U.K.'s MRG-Effitas and SE Labs -- only evaluate antivirus software or the antivirus
component of security suites. Germany's AV-Test is particularly helpful
because it also rates factors such as usability and a suite's impact on a
computer's performance. Technology websites like Tom's Guide generally
defer to these labs when it comes to rating effectiveness, but PCMag conducts
its own testing as well (for both PC/Mac and mobile security software), as do Consumer Reports and (for Mac software) Macworld and Macworld (U.K.). User
reviews at sites such as Google Play, Amazon and Best Buy are
useful for evaluating how Internet security suites perform in the real world.