Every Windows PC needs to run one of the best antivirus programs, even if that program happens to be one of the best free antivirus programs.
The Windows Defender antivirus software built into Windows 10 is very good, but while it certainly holds its own against other free rivals, it still can't quite match the features of the best paid antivirus protection.
Paid antivirus suites offer you a plethora of features that often go far beyond basic malware protection.
You can get dedicated defenses against ransomware and webcam hijacking, extra functions such as file shredding or system optimization, and even features that compete with stand-alone services like password managers, cloud-backup solutions or identity-theft protection.
Antivirus makers normally offer multiple paid Windows products with identical malware protection but different numbers of extra features that get added as the retail price goes up.
For example, there's the basic Kaspersky Anti-Virus, the midrange Kaspersky Internet Security and the top-line Kaspersky Total Security. The different feature sets are aimed at different customers, and we explain further in our section about antivirus protection pricing and features at the end of this buying guide.
Don't forget to check out our list of the best free antivirus software halfway down this page.
What is the best antivirus software?
Our top pick for best antivirus software is Kaspersky Total Security, which gives you excellent malware protection, a full complement of extra features and an easy-to-use interface.
Right behind that are Bitdefender Antivirus Plus, an entry-level paid program that is perhaps the best bargain in antivirus software, and Norton 360 Deluxe, which offers excellent protection with unlimited VPN service and a ton of extra features, including the option to add LifeLock identity protection.
Any one of these three would serve you well, but the ideal choice would depend on what best fits your circumstances. For more, see our section on how to choose the best antivirus software below, or our stand-alone antivirus buying guide.
For the best free antivirus protection, we liked Kaspersky Security Cloud Free, which sailed past Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition for the top spot.
Both offered excellent protection against malware without slowing down your system, but Kaspersky lets you schedule scans, has a quick-scan option, adds a ton of useful extra features and had the smallest impact on system performance we've ever seen.
Our free rankings immediately follow our paid rankings below.
The best antivirus software you can buy today
Kaspersky's Windows products have excellent malware-detection scores and a moderate system-performance impact, which are the two most important criteria in our rankings.
The entry-level program, Kaspersky Anti-Virus, has dedicated ransomware protection, a virtual keyboard and a convenient online account portal. But at this level, it's beaten by Bitdefender Antivirus Plus, which has even more features.
Kaspersky Internet Security is our top choice among the midrange packages. It has decent parental controls, a secure browser, anti-theft protection for laptops, webcam protection and a limited-use VPN client that kicks in when you connect to an open Wi-Fi network. It also includes software for macOS, Android and iOS.
The premium antivirus suite, Kaspersky Total Security, adds backup software, file encryption, a file shredder and an unlimited password manager. We think it's the best antivirus software you can buy.
Read our full Kaspersky Total Security review.
Bitdefender Antivirus Plus is our top choice among entry-level antivirus products. It has very good, if not perfect, malware-detection scores and a very light system-performance impact during scans.
It also offers the most value, with an unlimited password manager, a secure browser, a Wi-Fi network scanner, a file shredder, protection against encrypting ransomware and Bitdefender's new web-privacy software. It can stop scans if you're playing a computer game.
The midrange Bitdefender Internet Security adds parental controls, file encryption, webcam protection and a two-way firewall, while Bitdefender Total Security tops off the lineup with an anti-theft feature for laptops, a system optimizer and licenses for Bitdefender Antivirus for Mac and Bitdefender Mobile Security for Android.
A new product, Bitdefender Premium Security, is basically Total Security with unlimited VPN usage and priority tech support. (The other programs limit you to 200MB of Bitdefender VPN usage per day.)
But the best deal is the Bitdefender Family Pack, which puts Total Security on up to 15 devices for (a frequently discounted) $120 per year.
Read our full Bitdefender Antivirus Plus review.
All eight of Norton's antivirus products offer excellent malware protection, and the once-heavy system-performance load is much lighter. The number of extra features each program has varies according to price, but the sweet spot in the lineup is Norton 360 Deluxe.
It includes a password manager, unlimited VPN service, dark-web personal-data monitoring, parental controls and up to 50GB of online storage space. Two retail-only offerings, Norton 360 Premium and Norton 360 Platinum, give you more online storage and expand the antivirus and VPN coverage to 10 and 20 devices, respectively.
If you want full-on identity protection, Norton offers three bundles with varying degrees of LifeLock service and even more online storage space. Their annual subscription prices run well into the triple digits, but still cost less than if you were to buy the identity protection, password manager, cloud-backup storage and antivirus software separately.
Unlike some of the other best antivirus software makers, Norton doesn't offer a file shredder, file encryption or secure web browser with any of its products. Yet every other digital-protection service you could possibly ask for is included with at least some of its bundles.
Read our full Norton 360 Deluxe review.
Trend Micro offers very good protection, but its malware-detection engine creates a heavy system load during scans and returns a fair number of false-positive results. The brand's entry-level product, Trend Micro Antivirus+ Security, is pretty basic in terms of extra tools though it does come with a secure web browser.
Parental controls, a system optimizer and a file shredder are bundled into the mid-range Trend Micro Internet Security. The top-end Trend Micro Maximum Security adds a password manager, a secure browser and file encryption.
However, none of Trend Micro's programs include a two-way firewall or webcam protection, which are standard with other brands' midrange offerings. Nor does the premium product have the cloud storage, backup software or VPN service that some of the best antivirus brands like to add as enticements to their flagship packages.
Read our full Trend Micro Maximum Security review.
Sophos Home Premium does its job economically, offering reliable protection from malware at a very affordable price.
As a spinoff from Sophos' enterprise software for business clients, Sophos Home Premium lacks many of the bells and whistles, such as a password manager, identity theft protection service or VPN, that other security suites offer to consumers.
What Sophos Home Premium does have is the essentials: ransomware rollbacks, webcam defenses, browser hardening and protection against keyloggers, malicious websites and boot-sector and fileless malware. It also has a web-filter system for parents and an online management console from which you can tweak most of the settings.
Some people might demand more from an antivirus suite, but anyone who would rather pay for only what they need will appreciate Sophos Home Premium's just-the-basics approach.
Read our full Sophos Home Premium review.
McAfee's malware detection has improved greatly in the past couple of years, but it's still not quite top-of-the-line.
Despite that, the entry-level McAfee AntiVirus Plus is a bargain: $60 per year buys software for up to 10 (in fact, unlimited) devices, whether they run Windows, OS X, iOS or Android, and the software comes with a file shredder and a two-way firewall.
McAfee Internet Security adds one of the best password managers in the business, but to get parental controls, you'll have to spring for McAfee Total Protection or its sibling McAfee LiveSafe, which comes pre-installed on many new PCs.
The multi-device licenses of those two security suites also come with an identity-protection service, but none of the McAfee products have a secure browser or webcam protection, which you often get with the best antivirus programs.
At the top is McAfee Total Protection Ultimate, which adds unlimited VPN service with no strings attached. Hardcore PC gamers may consider McAfee Gamer Security, which for $60 per year offers low-overhead protection for a single rig.
Read our full McAfee Internet Security review.
ESET is one of the biggest antivirus names in Europe, but while it has a small system-performance load and fast scans, its malware-detection rate isn't as good in lab tests as many of the best antivirus brands on this page.
The entry-level ESET NOD32 Antivirus is easy to use, but has few useful extra tools. ESET Internet Security adds webcam protection, parental controls and a browser-hardening extension, as well as ESET security-software licenses for Mac, Android and Linux devices. (The latter offers a 90-day free trial during the coronavirus crisis.)
The top-billed ESET Smart Security Premium tosses in file encryption, a virtual keyboard and a password manager. However, there's no VPN client, backup software or file shredder.
ESET's pricing is per device, which is optimal for users who might have more than a few devices to protect. But if your device count gets into double digits, ESET's costs can add up.
Read our full ESET Smart Security Premium review.
Best antivirus: News and updates
— A flaw in a widely used program lets hackers bypass Windows Secure Boot to install malware that's nearly impossible to detect.
— Netgear said that 45 router models known to be hackable will never get the security fixes they need.
— The infamous North Korean Lazarus hacking group has developed its own ransomware to steal huge sums.
The best free antivirus software
The best paid antivirus suites can do all sorts of things: shield your children from online unpleasantness, protect your personal details from identity thieves, optimize your system performance, manage your passwords and mobile devices, back up your files to the cloud and monitor your computer's firewall.
But many PC users don't want, or can't afford, to pay for all those extra features. They just want to have their computers protected from malware and other threats without having to pay for it.
Free antivirus protection used to be a trade-off. You'd either have to tolerate a lot of ads or allow your personal data to be collected to get malware defenses that nonetheless fell short of the best paid programs.
That's changed as of the past few years. Two of the best paid antivirus makers, Bitdefender and Kaspersky, now offer free programs. The two leading free-antivirus makers, Avast and AVG, have merged, and their now-combined malware-detection engine does a better job than either of its predecessors. And the rapid improvement of Windows Defender Antivirus has been astonishing.
The upshot is that it's now possible to get free malware protection that's just as good as anything you can pay for. So here are what we think the best free antivirus programs based on their malware protection, system impact, ease of use and useful extra features.
What are the best free antivirus programs?
There's no question: Kaspersky Security Cloud Free Antivirus may be the best free antivirus program we've ever seen.
It has excellent malware protection, a good number of extra functions and features, and a system-performance impact so small that our computer actually got a bit faster. It also lets you schedule scans and has a quick-scan option.
Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition, once our favorite, is still the best "set it and forget it" free antivirus option. It takes care of itself and doesn’t need user intervention. If you need to put antivirus software on your grandparents' PC, or you'd rather not have to think about antivirus software at all, this is the perfect solution.
The sleeper here is Windows Defender, aka Windows Defender Antivirus, which is built into Windows 8.1 and 10. It used to be a joke, but has rapidly improved to become one of the best antivirus programs out there.
Defender is still fairly short on features compared to paid antivirus programs, or even a few free ones, but its malware-detection rates beat those of many paid brands.
If you want features such as an unlimited password manager or a hardened web browser, then Avast Free Antivirus might be for you. But its malware protection isn't as good as the previous three, and its performance impact is heavier.
Its stepsister AVG has the same malware-detection engine, but lacks Avast's full slate of useful extra features. All AVG really has going for it is a file shredder and system optimizer.
We have to mention one thing that's not even an antivirus program, but which we recommend anyway: Malwarebytes Free.
While antivirus programs try to stop your machine from becoming infected by malware, Malwarebytes is the cleanup crew, brushing out any adware or potentially unwanted programs. It works well alongside any antivirus program.
The best free antivirus software you can get today
Kaspersky doesn't talk much about its free antivirus product, and you might have a hard time finding the free Kaspersky software download page on the company's website.
That's too bad, because Kaspersky Security Cloud Free is the best free antivirus product we've ever tested. We've never seen such a combination of excellent protection and extra features in a free antivirus program.
It's got a bright, comprehensible interface, a lot of customization potential and Kaspersky's unbeatable malware protection. The program also lets you schedule scans, and its performance impact was so small that it actually sped up our test machine a bit.
Kaspersky's useful extra features include a file shredder, an on-screen keyboard and an email scanner. The password manager and VPN service are fairly limited, however, unless you pay.
Read our full Kaspersky Security Cloud Free review.
Compared to premium paid antivirus programs that are big, heavy and loaded with extra bells and whistles, Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition is like a mid-'60's sports car, stripped to the essentials but still providing plenty of power.
Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition offers nothing but the basics. There's no password manager, no gaming mode, no quick scans and no scan scheduling. You can manage the software from the program's System Tray icon, but you don't really need to interact with Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition after installation.
Yet Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition has the excellent Bitdefender malware-detection engine, which sits just below Kaspersky and Norton in the lab-test rankings.
It's the best free antivirus software if you want a security solution that you can set up and then forget about. It's also perfect if you need to protect the computer of an elderly relative but don't have time to manage antivirus software from afar.
Read our full Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition review.
Microsoft's built-in antivirus software is now a heavy hitter. While Windows Defender doesn't quite beat Bitdefender or Kaspersky in malware-protection lab tests, it comes out ahead of Avast, AVG and most other free antivirus products while operating almost entirely behind the scenes.
You won't be getting many extra features with Windows Defender, yet Windows 10 does have parental controls, a gaming mode and protections for its own Edge and Internet Explorer browsers. There's no built-in password manager or VPN, but you also won't be bothered by pop-ups trying to upsell you to paid antivirus software.
We still recommend going for Kaspersky Security Cloud Free, which has even less of a system impact, better malware protection and useful extras, but there's absolutely nothing wrong with using Windows Defender as your primary antivirus solution.
Read our full Windows Defender review.
Avast Free Antivirus has the best assortment of extra goodies of any free antivirus program, including an unlimited password manager, a hardened browser, a gaming mode and a Wi-Fi network scanner.
The program is also very customizable, letting you tweak its appearance and functions to suit your style. It even offers limited access to Avast's VPN service.
However, Avast Free Antivirus caused a pretty heavy system load in our testing and its scans took a long time. It also kept nagging us to upgrade to Avast's paid antivirus protection, and played bait-and-switch with features that looked like they were free but weren't.
Most significant of all, the malware protection in Avast Free Antivirus is a peg down from Kaspersky's or Bitdefender's, whose free programs also bothered us less about paid upgrades and had lighter system loads.
Read our full Avast Free Antivirus review.
AVG shares a decent, if unspectacular, malware-detection engine with its corporate sibling Avast while having a much lighter system-performance impact.
But AVG AntiVirus Free also has far fewer useful extra features than Avast Free Antivirus. While the latter is almost a free security suite with lots of bells and whistles, AVG AntiVirus Free is the quiet, neglected child that gets the hand-me-downs.
The good news is that AVG's wide range of customization options and its file shredder and system optimizer are still available, and its interface is open and easy to use. The bad news is that like Avast Free Antivirus, AVG AntiVirus Free constantly bugs you to upgrade to paid antivirus software.
Worst of all, given its middling malware detection and dearth of extra features, there's no convincing reason to choose AVG AntiVirus Free over the built-in and overall better Microsoft Defender.
Read our full AVG AntiVirus Free review.
Malwarebytes Free, formerly called Malwarebytes Anti-Malware, is not antivirus software. Instead, it's a very useful malware-removal tool.
What's the difference? Unlike antivirus software, Malwarebytes Free can't prevent a PC from being infected. But it does an excellent job of cleaning out malware that's already on your system, as well as removing (legal) adware and potentially unwanted programs that antivirus software often ignores.
Malwarebytes Free doesn't interfere with any antivirus software that's already installed, so it's perfectly safe to install it alongside one of our recommended brands. (Just don't upgrade to the paid Malwarebytes Premium, true antivirus software that does poorly in lab tests and which will conflict with other AV programs.)
We recommend Malwarebytes Free as a complement to any of the best antivirus programs, free or paid.
Read our full Malwarebytes Free review.
How to choose the best antivirus software for you
Before you buy antivirus protection, figure out what you need it for. If you have young children, then consider midrange antivirus products, most of which include parental controls.
Do you want an all-encompassing security solution? Many of the top-priced premium products include identity-theft protection, password managers, backup software and VPN service. Are you a techie who understands the risks of using the internet? A low-priced basic program might be all you need.
Then determine how many machines you'll need to protect. Most vendors offer single-device licenses for Windows PCs. But multi-device, multi-platform licenses for five, 10 or more desktops, laptops and mobile devices, whether they run Windows, macOS, Android, iOS or sometimes even Linux, are available in midrange and premium antivirus packages. Some vendors offer plans that cover an unlimited number of devices.
Gone are the days when you could walk into a store and pay a one-time fee for an antivirus product that came in a box off a shelf. All the vendors now sell their software licenses as yearly (or multiyear) subscriptions. The upside is that you'll always get the latest software, which you can download and install straight from the internet.
Antivirus pricing and features
Many antivirus products are sold online for much less than their list prices. But each brand offers basic, midrange and premium configurations of features and pricing, with every step up adding more features.
Think of autos at a dealership. You can get a base-model car that will get you from place to place just fine. For a few grand more, you can buy a car with satellite radio, but no heated side-view mirrors, alloy wheels or in-car Wi-Fi hotspot. Or you can spend a lot more to get a loaded car with all the fixin's.
Antivirus makers also hope you'll spring for extra options, whether you need them or not. The one thing you can't trade up to is a bigger engine: All the Windows antivirus products in a given brand's lineup will use the same malware-detection engine and provide the same level of essential protection.
Basic paid antivirus software is usually just called "Antivirus" or similar, and yearly subscriptions start at $40-$60. The software will have essential malware protection and maybe a password manager or a two-way firewall.
Midrange antivirus software packages are frequently nameplated as "Internet Security" and start at $60-$80 yearly. They generally add parental controls, some of which are very good, plus a few other features such as webcam protection. They often include multi-device licenses and antivirus software for Mac and Android devices.
At the top are the premium "security suites," which toss in all the extra security tools an antivirus brand can offer, such as password managers, VPN client software, backup software, online storage and even identity-protection services.
List prices start at $80-$100 per year, but make sure you really need those extra tools you're paying for. The password managers are often quite good, but the online storage can be paltry and the VPN services often don't give you unlimited data.
How we test the best antivirus software
Our evaluations were based on an antivirus product's interface, performance, protection and extra features. Was the interface intuitive and user-friendly? How badly did malware scans slow performance? How well did the program detect and remove malware? Does the program have any useful additional tools?
Most of our tests were performed on the same Asus X555LA laptop running 64-bit Windows 8.1 (later upgraded to Windows 10), with an Intel Core i3-4005U processor, 6GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive containing 36GB of files.
Some of our newer performance tests were done on a Lenovo ThinkPad T470 with a 2.5GHz Core i5-7200U processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of solid-state storage containing 43.3GB of files.
To assess a program's impact on system speed on both Windows and macOS, we used our own custom tests, which measure how long a CPU takes to match 20,000 names and addresses on an OpenOffice or Excel spreadsheet. The longer it took the laptop to finish either test, the heavier the performance impact.
For malware-detection scores, we use the results of three independent testing labs: AV-TEST in Germany, AV-Comparatives in Austria and SE Labs in England. Each lab subjects the major antivirus brands' products to stress tests involving thousands of pieces of malware, including hundreds of previously unseen samples.
Editors' note: Why we still recommend Kaspersky
Kaspersky antivirus products have been banned from U.S. government agencies and U.S. defense contractors. Because the company is Russian and antivirus software can peer deep into a PC, using Kaspersky software would create an unacceptable risk for persons and organizations involved in national security and critical infrastructure.
However, we think Kaspersky software is perfectly safe for home users. We've seen no evidence to convince us otherwise. Kaspersky researchers are well respected throughout the antivirus industry, and the company has publicly exposed Russian cyberespionage campaigns as well as American ones.