Computer and mobile device users face myriad of threats from standard malware to ransomware, spyware, worms, and data-stealing Trojans. When it comes to the integrity of your data and your device, these threats are as scary as they sound.
Most experts recommend installing a third-party antivirus software program that can provide increased protection. We’ve evaluated several of the most popular and dug into expert ratings and reviews to discover which software programs give you the best virus defense for your dollar.
Avast Free is a solid choice for antivirus protection, with a fully customizable interface, intelligent threat detection, and a bonus password vault. Its multiple layers of security ensure that viruses get caught before they reach your computer. Security starts with an internet browser extension that warns you of potentially malicious websites and continues with download protection and file scanning. If something fishy does show up on your computer, Avast will quarantine it and send it to an online analysis lab for testing.
We really like the additional “behavior shield” feature that monitors the behavior of good applications on your computer to ensure they don’t go bad. Avast’s only shortcomings are a lack of a quick scan option and no phone or email support for non-paying customers—you’ll have to search the online help forums, which can be tricky to navigate.
As a close software cousin of Avast, it’s no surprise that AVG claims another top spot on our list. AVG has daily updates to protect against new malware threats, as well as alerts that tell you if any malware has been detected. While AVG doesn’t have a password vault like Avast does, it comes with its own bonus feature: a file shredder. You can get rid of files permanently with the same encryption technology used by the Department of Defense.
AVG can also identify old programs or temporary files that are dragging down your system, so you can take steps to lighten the load and speed up your device. While AVG won’t get rid of that dead weight for you, it does offer a variety of other free and paid products that can work together with your antivirus (including a VPN, Internet Security suite, and an automatic device cleanup program). Unfortunately, AVG doesn’t play well with Apple products—users report its anti-malware program for Macs is glitchy.
When it comes to speed, ESET NOD32 Antivirus is the Ferrari of the antivirus world. Scans can take as little as thirty seconds, and ESET’s cloud-powered scanning means the program can keep working quietly in the background without slowing down your device. ESET is also pretty minimalist, with an intuitive interface that barely makes a dent in the space on your hard drive.
ESET isn’t free, but it does come with a free thirty-day trial and a money-back guarantee, so you can try before you buy. It’s also affordable, with basic packages starting at around $40 a year. The only downside to this light, fast program is that it doesn’t offer quite the level of protection of other software programs, especially when it comes to anti-phishing protection. It also has a humanoid robot mascot that peers at you from the home screen, which might be off-putting to some users.
Most free trials for antivirus programs come with annoying pop-up ads for the company’s products. We love that the free trial for Norton Antivirus doesn’t have these and still offers top-notch protection. For around $30 a year, you’ll get a ton of features: real-time protection against viruses and phishing, an email spam filter, a file cleanup tool, a two-way firewall, a password manager, free 24/7 technical support, and an internet toolbar that ranks sites from safest to least safe. The only downside to Norton Basic is a slow first scan, and we thought the price was a little high to protect just one device.
Cloud-based computing makes Panda nice and light on your computer, and it also has useful features for your phone, like battery optimization and device location tracking. We like that it comes with a firewall and automatic USB drive scanning. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have ransomware protection or Wi-Fi network monitoring. But it does have a free limited VPN, so you can privately browse up to 150MB per day from a single virtual location. The scans run a little slow, and we wish there was a way to opt out of its computer data tracking system. But it scored high on real world malware blocking tests, so it’s a solid choice.
Sometimes basic is best, and Kaspersky shines when it comes to basic protection against malware and phishing. It achieved a perfect protection score from independent testing lab AV Comparatives, along with zero false positives. Firewalls, parental controls, and password managers are included only in Kaspersky’s pricier software, but the basic antivirus does come with an onscreen keyboard to thwart keyloggers, and it has a gaming mode. The price is comparable to the Norton Antivirus Basic but includes licenses for three devices, making it a good value. The only downside to Kaspersky’s performance was a noticeable lag when downloading videos and attachments while the antivirus software was running.
Bitdefender’s consistently stellar scores from independent testing companies earned it a spot on this list for superior protection, but its free version doesn’t come with many extras. It doesn’t have a gaming mode, and it doesn’t offer a quick-scan option or the ability to schedule scans; it just scans automatically during quiet periods. But we do like Bitdefender’s free rescue software available on the Bitdefender website, which will help remove malware and can help you fix your device if it becomes unresponsive. Keep in mind that Bitdefender Free is only available for PCs—Androids and Macs all require paid licenses. But you’ll also get quite a few additional features with the paid license, so it might be worth it.
Like ESET, Webroot uses cloud-based scanning, making it a lightweight, lightning-fast choice for antivirus protection. Webroot’s scans take approximately twenty seconds, and it stores its malware definitions in the cloud, leaving your computer space free. It has keylogging protection and network monitoring, but you’ll have to get a more expensive version of the software for a password vault. We like the 24/7 US-based support and the 70-day, no-questions-asked, money-back guarantee.
As far as paid licenses go, McAfee gives you the most bang for your buck. Licenses start at around $60 a year for ten devices. The software received a 100% rating from AV Comparatives, but it also registered three false positives during testing. McAfee stands by its products, with a Virus Protection Pledge that promises a remote computer cleaning if any malware gets through. The antivirus software comes with a file shredder, password protection, and parental controls, but we found that the Mac version of the software has fewer anti-malware tools than the PC and Android versions.
Vipre Advanced Security gets top marks for usability. We like its clean interface, and you can easily access all of its handy features, including internet monitoring, spam filter, firewall, and scan scheduling. It also has a social media scanning function, which checks your social media accounts for potentially harmful malware. Its spam filter goes a step further than most by putting any suspicious emails into quarantine, so you can safely check them without putting your device at risk. But with all of these features and a higher price tag than many other antivirus programs, we were surprised to see that Vipre lacked a basic password manager. And it wasn’t great at catching malware through Google Chrome. Vipre does offer a free 30-day trial, so you can check it out for yourself before you buy.
If your antivirus software doesn’t come with a password manager, we recommend Dashlane. The free version lets you store up to fifty passwords on one device, and it has instant form autofill capabilities. If you want to pay a little bit more for a license, you can add unlimited passwords, secure storage for sensitive files, automatic syncing across your devices, and a VPN. Dashlane’s paid services also include credit monitoring and identity theft insurance.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I get anti-malware apps for my mobile devices?
Yes, many antivirus suites come with versions that act as anti-malware applications for your mobile devices. But keep in mind that not all antivirus apps are created equal—be sure to do your research before committing.
What if my antivirus program fails and malicious software gets on my computer?
Although antivirus software is designed to be adept at virus detection and malware removal, test results show that even the best programs have anywhere from a 0.1% to a 0.5% fail rate, so it’s possible that some threats could still slip through.1 Look for companies like McAfee Antivirus that have guarantees that include a failsafe malware removal tool, just in case its product fails.
How are ransomware attacks different from malware threats?
Malware is a general term referring to a type of software that corrupts your computer, causing your device to glitch, freeze, or lose data. Ransomware is a threat that’s just surfaced on the cyber-attack scene in the past five years. It’s when a hacker seizes control of data on your computer and then demands that you pay a monetary ransom before they’ll restore your access. Ransomware hackers often use phishing techniques to gain access to your device, then typically encrypt the files, making them unreadable without an encryption key. Unfortunately, just like real kidnappers, ransomware hackers can’t always be trusted to give your files back, even after you’ve paid the ransom.
How does Windows Defender stack up against other antivirus software?
While Windows Defender hasn’t gotten great scores in the past, recent tests from independent labs show that it’s gradually improving. AV Comparatives’ August 2018 Factsheet shows that it blocked 99.5% of malware, but with twenty-one false positives, it still had more error than we’d like to see for top anti-malware products.
Does a VPN help protect against malware?
It can. Antivirus software protects your devices, but a VPN (virtual private network) protects your internet connection, whether it’s hardwired or wireless. It’s kind of like the difference between sitting in the library working on your computer—where anyone could walk behind you to watch what’s happening on your screen—and working in a private room. It essentially makes you invisible to hackers online, so you’ll be a less likely target for phishing and other hacking scams.
Things to Consider
Antivirus software is the muscle behind your machine that keeps threats at bay. While most PCs come equipped with basic software that addresses rudimentary malware, experts insist a more robust antivirus software is the best way to keep you and your family safe online.
Level of Protection
Most antivirus software has been tested in order to guarantee a certain amount of protection against threats. Ideally, you want a program this addresses not only viruses, but also malware, ransomware, spyware, adware, worms, and data-stealing Trojans.
While you want something robust that will address a wide range of issues, you also don’t want to bog down your computer to the point that it affects functionality. Look for a program that is agile and light, taking up minimal disk space.
Much of the software that’s out there does a fantastic job of blocking threats, but it’s also annoying and meddlesome to constantly be harassed by warnings and alerts. The best antivirus programs are the ones that can address issues, but do so quietly in the background with minimal disruption to your online activities.
A few of the software programs we reviewed offered additional features that, while helpful, are not essential for the basic function of antivirus software. The following features may not protect your PC from malicious intent, but they could offer functionality depending on your online activities.
Kasey Tross is a stay-at-home mom with four energetic kids, and she's married to a security expert, so safety is a top priority in the Tross home. When she's not writing, she enjoys reading, hiking, playing the flute, helping out at church, and eating far more chocolate than she should. Learn more