Guide to Antivirus and Malware Protection Software

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Viruses and malware not only wreck your computer or phone but can also steal your identity—and possibly even your money. Once you realize what’s at stake, it’s clear that antivirus and antimalware software is a worthwhile investment.

We’ll help you understand what you’re up against, how antimalware and antivirus software works, and how to choose the best one for you.

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What are computer viruses and malware?

We went straight to IT security expert Pete Canavan to get the scoop on this nuanced topic. According to Pete, computer viruses are programs designed to “destroy, delete or damage computer files and entire computer systems.”

They’re called viruses because they “replicate themselves to infect other programs and systems,” Pete explains, adding that viruses tend to come from “email attachments and files transferred via external drives or network shares.”

Malware definition

Malware is short for “malicious software.” According to Pete, malware is “any software installed on a system that performs unwanted tasks for the benefit of a third party.” That benefit could be to steal your passwords (like the infamous Trojan malware), mine bitcoins, or make it impossible to access certain files.

What about worms?

Worms are a type of malware that replicates to slow down your device until it’s virtually impossible to use.1 

Learn more about the different types of malware.

Antivirus vs. antimalware software

Antivirus software doesn’t need to be too fancy because viruses are, according to Pete, “known, lingering threats.” Software engineers know what to expect from viruses and how to keep them at bay.

Malware, on the other hand, is constantly changing thanks to artificial intelligence and machine learning. Malware protection has to be capable of combating zero-day exploits—meaning brand-new, never-before-seen malware.

Getting antivirus software alone won’t protect you from malware, and vice-versa. Fortunately, many companies bundle antivirus and antimalware protection into one product.

(We go into more detail about what to look for when choosing an antivirus or antimalware program below. Jump there now.)

How do antivirus software and malware protection work?

Because viruses usually enter your computer through an infected file, antivirus software scans all files before you download them. Just like a biological virus has unique DNA, computer viruses have unique codes that set them apart. Antivirus software cross-checks a file’s code with known virus codes to find threats quickly.

Hackers may try to disguise a virus’s code, so the best antivirus software also includes some form of artificial intelligence—such as heuristics—to look for hints of a hidden virus.

How antimalware works

Because malware is full-fledged software and not a parasitic code, antimalware protection looks for an entirely different set of clues when scrutinizing attachments and links.

One popular approach is to run new software in a quarantined environment called a sandbox. If everything looks okay in the sandbox, the antimalware program lets you use the software on your device. But if something suspicious starts happening in the sandbox, it’s dealt with before your device or information is at risk.

You don’t have to request the sandbox or do anything else out of the ordinary—the antimalware program handles it all automatically.

How can I tell if my device is already infected with a virus or malware?

Viruses and malware may cause your device to run slower. Battery-powered devices may fail to hold a charge, and you might see a constant barrage of pop-ups. Sometimes it’s impossible to open files or run applications when a device is infected.

Because viruses and malware can be used to steal your identity, passwords, and banking information, you might see the signs elsewhere. If your passwords aren’t working or you’re seeing weird bank transactions, the problem might be traced back to a virus or malware infection.

Do all devices need antivirus and antimalware programs?

Apple products—including Mac computers, iPads, and iPhones—and Android phones tend to be less susceptible to viruses and malware because of the way their operating systems are designed. Plus, around 75% of all devices in the world use the Windows operating system,2  making this the most lucrative system for hackers to focus on.

That doesn’t mean your Android or Apple devices aren’t at risk. It’s just not as likely for them to be hit.

We go into more detail on this page: Can Macs Get Viruses?

What should I look for when choosing antivirus software and malware protection?

Pete Canavan recommends looking for antivirus software that does the following:

  • Detects known viruses
  • Detects unknown virus behavior
  • Integrates with email
  • Integrates with Wi-Fi network
  • Integrates with web browser
  • Scans all file types, including zipped files
  • Cleans, removes, or quarantines infected files automatically
  • Updates itself via the cloud at least once per day

On the malware side of things, the software should be capable of these actions:

  • Detect the behavior of various types of malware (such as crypto-mining programs, ransomware, and keyloggers)
  • Detect changes to computer’s DNS records
  • Detect real-time malware infections
  • Learn about new threats through heuristics
  • Perform a deep scan of the Windows registry
  • Updates itself via the cloud at least once per day

User experience matters too

Once you’ve found antivirus and antimalware software that meets the above criteria, ask a few more questions to make sure you won’t have a frustrating experience when using it:

  • Will it slow down your computer when it runs?
  • How long do scans take?
  • How much computer memory does it use?
  • Can the software’s reminders be paused for gaming or streaming?

Extra features add value—sometimes

The antivirus and antimalware industry has gotten really competitive over the years, and companies throw in extras to grab your attention, like VPNs, parental controls, password managers, and identity theft protection.

Try to keep blinders on—these add-ons aren’t always high-quality.

For example, some of the parental controls are nothing more than website blockers and pale in comparison to our favorite parental control software.

Check out our other recommendations:

What’s the best antivirus and antimalware protection on the market?

Best antivirus and antimalware
Bitdefender online security box
Bitdefender Total Security
/first year

Info current as of post date. Offers and availability may vary by location and are subject to change.

We like Bitdefender Total Security best overall for antivirus and antimalware protection. It packs a punch, offering the artificial intelligence, deep scans, and integrations that Pete Canavan recommended, plus a host of extras like a password manager and parental controls. It performs well in third-party tests, catching 99.7% of threats without slowing down your devices.3 

Best of all, Bitdefender Total Security is affordable. It costs just $20 to protect five devices for a year. You could easily pay three to six times that amount for similar coverage from other brands.

Learn more in our Bitdefender Antivirus Review and check out our top antivirus and anti-malware software review other recommendations.

Is free antivirus software any good?

Yes, some free antivirus software is good, but it’s rarely as proactive or rigorous as the paid software. For example, you can download the free version of Malwarebytes for a quick clean-up if you think your device has already been infected, but you’ll have to pay for real-time protection.

Windows Defender—the antivirus and antimalware software that automatically runs on every Windows computer—also offers sufficient protection for most threats. But it’s likely to drag down your computer’s speed during its scans. You might be tempted to turn it off to improve computer speed and performance, but that leaves you vulnerable to viruses.

If you spend a lot of time online for work or fun, the sheer number of links and files you encounter makes it worth looking at other kinds of protection besides Windows Defender. 

Related articles on SafeWise


  1. Geeks for Geeks, “Difference between Virus, Worm, and Trojan Horse,” June 2020. Accessed March 29, 2022.
  2. Statcounter Global Stats, “Desktop Operating System Market Share Worldwide,” September 2021. Accessed March 29, 2022.
  3. AV-Comparatives, “Real-World Protection Test July–October 2021,” November 2021. Accessed March 29, 2022.
Cathy Habas
Written by
Cathy Habas
With over eight years of experience as a content writer, Cathy has a knack for untangling complex information. Her natural curiosity and ability to empathize help Cathy offer insightful, friendly advice. She believes in empowering readers who may not feel confident about a purchase, project, or topic. Cathy earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Indiana University Southeast and began her professional writing career immediately after graduation. She is a certified Safe Sleep Ambassador and has contributed to sites like,, Hunker, and Thumbtack. Cathy’s pride and joy is her Appaloosa “Chacos.” She also likes to crochet while watching stand-up comedy specials on Netflix.

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