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Sophos 2021 antivirus review

Sophos antivirus is efficient and very inexpensive

Sophos 2021 antivirus review
(Image: © Sophos)

Our Verdict

Sophos Home Premium provides decent protection against malware for a fair price but lacks many commonplace antivirus features.

For

  • Inexpensive
  • Encrypts keyboard data

Against

  • So-so malware protection in lab tests
  • Moderate performance penalty during scans
  • Lacks VPN, password manager, file shredder
Sophos 2021: Specs

Malware protection: Adequate
System impact, background: Moderate
System impact, scans: Moderate
Windows compatibility: 7 through 10
Anti-theft: No
Backup software: No
File encryption: No
File shredder: No
Firewall: Yes
Game mode: No
Hardened/secure browser: No
Parental controls: Yes
Password manager: No
Performance scanner: No
Ransomware rollback: Yes
System optimizer: No
Webcam protection: Yes
Virtual keyboard: No
VPN: No
Wi-Fi scanner: No
Support options: Business-hours chat, email

If you like your security software trim and without the fat, Sophos Home Premium should do the trick. Based on the company's business security software, Sophos Home Premium provides the essentials with very few extras, making it one of the least expensive, if not quite one of the best antivirus programs available.

With acceptable defenses against malware, hackers and identity thieves, Sophos pushes the envelope with an online management package that allows remote configuration and scanning.

That said, Sophos Home Premium is spare and shorn of many features we take for granted in a premium security suite, such as VPN access, a password manager or file shredding and encryption. And even though it's bare-bones, Sophos Home Premium moderately reduces a system's performance potential while it's scanning for malware.

If you want a full-featured, more expensive security suite, look to the likes of Bitdefender, Kaspersky or Norton. But if you like a bargain that can protect your PC, Sophos Home Premium might be for you.

Read on for the rest of our Sophos 2021 review.

Sophos 2021: Costs and what's covered

While its competitors each offer between three and five antivirus products with escalating numbers of features and price tags, Sophos concentrates on just two. The free Sophos Home product offers basic protection for three systems, Mac or PC, and the paid Sophos Home Premium, which covers up to 10 systems for $60 per year. There's no unlimited-device license.

Sophos offers a 30-day free trial of Home Premium, and the subscription is often discounted by 25% for the first year, but there's no single-compute option. This puts anyone who wants to protect only a couple of systems at a price disadvantage. On the other hand, because Sophos Home Premium costs about half what other antivirus brands charge for their flagship products, it's a genuine bargain, even if its sparse features make it more like the competition's mid-range programs.

Sophos Home Premium uses machine learning to block phishing and ransomware attacks and webcam and microphone snooping. There's no hardened browser, but Sophos can encrypt keystrokes, stop potentially unwanted applications (PUAs) and block known dangerous websites, and its online account lets you remotely scan your other computers as long as they're online.

Clearly, it's for antivirus customers who value price and simplicity over having every last security and privacy feature.

Sophos Home Premium is based on the company's business-minded Intercept X security software and works with Windows 7 (with Service Pack 1) through Windows 10.  Macs require macOS 10.12 (Sierra) through 10.15 (Catalina), but the latest macOS 11.0.1 (Big Sur) release only protects against malware; in the coming months, Sophos will add website blocking to its repertoire. There are Intercept X apps for phones and tablets that require at least Android version 5.0 or iOS version 11.

Sophos Anti-Virus for Linux is free and compatible with most major 64-bit Linux distributions, including CentOS, Debian, Red Hat, SUSE and Ubuntu, but it isn't integrated into the PC and Mac software. If that's not enough, Sophos offers free stand-alone security tools and utilities, including the Hitman Pro malware removal applications and two software firewalls.

Sophos 2021 antivirus review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Sophos 2021: Antivirus protection

In addition to scanning for known threats, Sophos Home 's heuristic monitor looks for early signs of an attack while new and unique threats are uploaded to the company's Security Lab for analysis. Several times a day, Sophos updates the malware-signature databases of its 3 million users. 

In return for this protection, you must let Sophos copy suspect items from your computer for threat analysis. Other antivirus brands, including Bitdefender, Kaspersky and Norton, let users opt out of this data collection while retaining full protection.

In addition, Sophos Home Premium protects against boot-sector malware, fileless malware and attacks on a PC's UEFI motherboard firmware.

Sophos 2021 antivirus review

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Sophos can also prevent attacks on the Windows Encrypting File System (EFS) and thwart PowerShell and side-loading exploits. It's the rare antivirus software that goes to special lengths to lock down its own code and those of other high-privilege applications that might be a tempting target for hackers.

Sophos 2021 antivirus review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Home Premium runs in the background with little or no user intervention. While many features can be turned on or off, there's no single place to adjust the overall security level and the program lacks an interruption-reducing gaming mode.

Sophos 2021: Antivirus performance

Sophos Home Premium hasn't been recently evaluated by two of the third-party testing labs whose results we use, AV-TEST and AV-Comparatives. But they do evaluate Sophos' business-oriented Intercept X Endpoint software, which uses the same underlying technology and scanning engine as Home Premium. 

Those tests aren't quite the same as the consumer tests, but the results give us some insight into Sophos' strengths and weaknesses.

Latest lab-test results as of January 2021
AV-Test zero-dayAV-Test widespreadAV-ComparativesSE Labs
Bitdefender100.0%100.0% 99.6%n/a
ESET100.0%100.0%99.3%n/a
Kaspersky100.0%100.0%99.7%100.0%
McAfee100.0%100.0%98.5%100.0%
Microsoft100.0%100.0%99.5%97.0%
Norton100.0%100.0%99.5%100.0%
Sophos100.0%100.0%99.5%86.0%
Trend Micro100.0%100.0%100.0%92.0%

Overall, Sophos Intercept X Endpoint was stronger at finding and removing known, widespread malware threats than brand-new "zero-day" ones. It detected 100% of the widespread malware in all of AV-TEST's 2020 evaluations from January through October but missed quite a few of the zero-days. 

In AV-TEST's November-December 2020 enterprise round, Sophos finally aced all four tests, the first time it had done so in a year.

In the same tests, the enterprise software of every other premium antivirus brand we regularly review detected 100% of zero-day malware from July through October. So did Microsoft's enterprise software.

The testing of Intercept X by AV-Comparatives in August through November mirrors these results with an overall 98.3% score.  Bitdefender, ESET, Kaspersky and Microsoft all got 99.8% or 99.9% detection scores in the enterprise tests.

In October-December 2020 tests by London-based SE Labs, Sophos fell well behind the pack with an 86% protection score, letting eight out of 100 pieces of malware infect a test machine. That's even worse than Sophos' 88% score in the previous round. By contrast, Kaspersky had perfect 100% scores both times.

Sophos 2021: Security and privacy

Most antivirus products use their own browser extensions to block known malicious websites, but Sophos Home and Home Premium go old-school, with a database of malicious sites built right into the core antivirus software. 

Instead of one firewall to replace the Windows one, Sophos has two free downloadable firewall options: XG Firewall Home Edition and Sophos UTM Home Edition. It takes about five minutes to install either.

Other antivirus brands reserve parental controls for their priciest products, but Sophos includes web filtering with both Home and Home Premium. Parents can choose from 28 blockable topics, from adult content to weapons. However, the software can't filter sites by age group, lock out apps or schedule online time.

Sophos 2021 antivirus review

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Whether you use the free or premium software, Sophos includes one of the best online-management interfaces in the business. It can protect new systems and allows remote configuration.

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The most outstanding feature is the ability to remotely scan another system, something you don't often find with home antivirus software. Just open the Sophos Home online portal, pick the computer you want to scan and click on Clean. If the receiving system isn't online, the software will perform the task when the computer reconnects.

Sophos 2021 antivirus review

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Sophos's online account lets you use two-factor authentication (2FA), an extra level of account security that is still rare among antivirus programs. This option requires that you enter a time-limited code you receive on your phone or email when logging in from a new computer.

Sophos 2021 antivirus review

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Sophos Home Premium lacks a hardened browser for secure online banking and shopping, but it can foil a keylogger program by encrypting the data flow from the keyboard to the system. This should go a long way toward keeping your password and username away from prying eyes.

The program's CryptoGuard ransomware defenses can spot an encrypting ransomware attack and stop it in its early stages. Should any damage result, CryptoGuard can replace partially encrypted files with copies, rolling back any changes made.

Sophos 2021 antivirus review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Sophos engineers have integrated its Hitman Pro software into the Home Premium product. This allows the program to perform deep scans and wipe clean malware that other antivirus products, including spyware, rootkits and Trojans.

Sophos 2021: Performance and system impact

Sophos Home Premium uses the same scanning technology as the company's industrial-grade business program, Intercept X. Neither has a quick-scan option, but the full-system scanner is so fast that you'll hardly miss it. On the downside, these speedy scans eat up a lot of system resources.

To measure system load, we used our custom benchmark test, which measures how long the CPU takes to match 20,000 names and addresses in an Excel spreadsheet. Our Lenovo ThinkPad T470 test machine had a 2.5GHz Core i5-7200U processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of solid-state storage with 61.2GB of files.

System performance impact as of January 2021
System hit Post-installation Full scan Quick scan
Bitdefender 19% 33% 31%
ESET 2%12% n/a
Kaspersky 12% 26% 22%
McAfee 9% 96% 37%
Norton 5% 51% 22%
Sophos 6% 47% n/a
Trend Micro 4% 57% 35%

Before we installed Sophos Home Premium on the ThinkPad, the benchmark test finished in 10.2 seconds, which we used as a baseline. This rose to 10.8 seconds after Sophos was installed, a 6% drop in performance potential that's a bit below the average (in a good way) of all the 2021 antivirus we've seen so far. At the other extreme, Bitdefender's background hit was a large 19%.

During full system scans, the benchmark completion time rose to an average of 15 seconds, a 47% performance shortfall from the baseline and a 39% increase on the background load. That’s heavier than ESET's very light scans, but about average for the category and much better than McAfee's full scan, which nearly doubles the system load.

Sophos Home Premium's first system scan took a speedy 8 minutes and 32 seconds, although it didn't tell us how many files it examined. Subsequent full scans averaged 4:37 indicating that Sophos had learned which files to skip. This speediness is likely why Sophos engineers didn't feel the need for a quick-scan option.

Sophos 2021: Interface

Sophos Home Premium's home screen displays a green checkmark to show that everything is safe and secure.

Sophos 2021 antivirus review

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The main Status page provides access to everything the program offers, from reassurance that all the defenses are in place to starting a scan. There's no quick-scan option, however.

Sophos 2021 antivirus review

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Home Premium's interface mixes local with online interaction when it comes to configuring the program. In fact, the Status page is a portal to the online management account. Overall, this two-fisted approach can cause confusion between the local and online presentations. For example, My Activity, Settings and Add Device are all online-management services.

Sophos 2021 antivirus review

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It's easy to miss, but Sophos sneaks in a diagnostic utility program that the company's support personnel can use to troubleshoot a problem on your PC. It took about two minutes to scan my system and a moment to upload the results to Sophos for analysis.

Sophos 2021 antivirus review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The Sophos icon in the Windows Taskbar shows you only when the last malware-definitions update took place. Other antivirus brands let their Taskbar icons do lots of tasks, such as starting a scan, pausing the firewall or blocking all network traffic.

Sophos 2021 antivirus review

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Sophos has phone and tablet apps for Android and iOS that help round out protection. The Intercept X app scans for Android malware and can block dangerous websites and prevent man-in-the-middle Wi-Fi attacks on both mobile platforms.

Sophos 2021 antivirus review

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The new Sophos Home app for iOS and Android lets you manage computers running Sophos Home Premium right from your phone. In addition to displaying alerts and adding new systems, it can show the last 90 days of security happenings.

Sophos 2021 antivirus review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Sophos 2021: Installation and support

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Sophos 2021 antivirus review

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Sophos 2021 antivirus review

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After you download the 292MB full installation file for Sophos Home Premium and start it up, it's time to pay for the service and set up a Sophos online account. The software installs itself with no intervention, then scans your system. There's nothing else you need to do during the installation process.

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Sophos 2021 antivirus review

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Sophos 2021 antivirus review

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There's no 24/7 live tech support, and no telephone support at all, but Sophos does have staffers standing by from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday, to communicate via email or Sophos Home Premium's built-in chat window. The Sophos site has lots of self-serve help, including videos and a deep database of problems and fixes.

Sophos 2021 antivirus review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Sophos 2021 review: Bottom line

Lean and mean, Sophos Home Premium is among is the least expensive of the major security suites. But it lacks many of the mainstays we now take for granted, including a password manager, VPN access and file encryption. Its malware protection is adequate, though it provides an extra level of security by encrypting the flow of keystrokes from the system's keyboard.

At $60 to protect 10 systems, Sophos Home Premium is a bargain. If you want more bells, whistles and features, look to the top suites from Bitdefender, Kaspersky and Norton. But if basic protection at a great price is appealing, Sophos Home Premium may do the trick.