Many Windows users believe they don't need to pay for antivirus software, and many Mac and Android users think they don't need protection at all. Windows' much higher profile makes it the biggest target, but the truth is that OS X/macOS and Android are equally vulnerable to malware.
We believe it's worth paying for Windows antivirus software, because even the best free software leaves out protection features we consider essential. But you don't have to spend a lot — many antivirus products are sold online for much less than their list prices. Mac and Android users have other options: Some of our favorite Mac AV products cost nothing, and most Android security apps have free versions.
Latest Security Alerts and Threats
— Microsoft and Apple pushed out major patches for all of their software on July 9 and 10, and several of the fixes disable known threats. ADVICE: If you don't have Windows Update set to run automatically, open the application and install the Windows patches. Your Mac will prompt you to install its updates.
— The usernames, dates of birth and email addresses of 21 million users were stolen in a data breach involving social-media archiving service Timehop. ADVICE: If you use Timehop, change the passwords on every social-media account linked to it, put a PIN on your mobile-phone account and consider instituting a credit alert or subscribing to an identity-protection service.
— A new scam email tells you that your password has been compromised, and that spyware on your computer recorded you watching porn online. The email demands $1,400 for the porn-watching video to not be released. ADVICE: Ignore this scam note. The passwords "revealed" are from data breaches that are years old. If you're still using that password, change it everywhere you use it.
How We Tested
Our evaluations were based on an antivirus product's interface, performance, protection and extra features. Was the product's interface intuitive and user-friendly, or did it make it hard to find important tools? How badly did malware scans slow down the computer's performance? How good was the program at detecting and removing malware? Does the program have any additional tools, and are they useful?
All of our Windows 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 processor, 6GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive containing 36GB of files. To assess a program's impact on system speed, we used our custom OpenOffice benchmark test, which matches 20,000 names and addresses on a spreadsheet. The longer it took the laptop to finish the test, the heavier the performance impact. For smartphones, we used the Geekbench 3 benchmarking app.
Our Mac evaluations were conducted on a late-2013 MacBook Pro running OS X El Capitan 10.11. The Mac had a 2.6-GHz Intel Core i7 CPU, 8GB of RAM and 23GB of data on a 512GB SSD. For Android, we used a Nexus 6P smartphone running Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow.
For malware-detection scores, we've turned to two independent testing labs, AV-TEST of Germany and AV-Comparatives of Austria. Each lab regularly subjects the major antivirus brands' flagship products to stress tests involving hundreds of previously unseen pieces of malware, with AV-TEST adding 20,000 instances of known malware. We use the latest results from both labs.
Windows Antivirus Software Types
Most antivirus makers have three or four tiers of Windows products, with each price bump adding extra features, such as parental controls or cloud backups. But because each company uses a single malware-detection engine for all its Windows antivirus software, the cheapest item — even a free one — in any product line usually finds malware just as thoroughly as the priciest.
Not all users will need premium suites, or even midrange products. If you don't have kids, or if you already have backup software, the basic product may be enough.
The least-expensive paid Windows antivirus products, which generally list from $40 to $60 per year depending on the number of PCs covered, have the essentials. Definition updates and scans are automatic; websites and email attachments are screened, and the products are mostly easy to use. Some basic AV programs toss in extra features, such as file shredders or system optimizers, that are normally found in pricier products.
Not only does Bitdefender Antivirus Plus have nearly perfect malware-detection scores, but it also offers great value, with a strong selection of extra tools. You'll find a built-in password manager, a secure browser, unique protection against encrypting ransomware and automatic profiles that optimize Bitdefender's impact on your system, depending on whether you're working, watching a movie or playing a game.
These products usually list from $60 to $80 per year. They generally build on the basic packages by bundling in parental controls and a two-way firewall to catch outgoing data, although many add other features. But for the full feature set each brand offers, you'll have to pony up for the premium products.
Kaspersky takes first place among midrange antivirus software products, thanks to its excellent malware protection, a moderate system load and a full assortment of extra features and tools. Kaspersky Internet Security includes a secure browser, a virtual keyboard, specialized protection against ransomware, webcam protection to shield your privacy from spies and creeps, and, uniquely, a virtual private network that automatically switches on when you connect to an unsafe Wi-Fi network.
Top-tier packages are often called suites because they do much more than catch malware. They might also offer file encryption, secure online storage, a password manager or an ad blocker. As most suites cover multiple devices, they also frequently bundle in licenses for Mac and Android antivirus software. For all this, you're meant to pay between $80 and $100 per year — but as with all paid antivirus software, steep discounts can often be found online.
Kaspersky Total Security has it all for those who are looking for more than just excellent malware detection. This one rose to the top because it eliminates threats without generating many annoying false positives. We also like the included secure browser, which is ideal for online banking and shopping. Other highlights include a seriously secure file shredder, Windows backup and recovery software and even webcam protection.
Free Windows antivirus products generally offer only bare-bones protection. Malware updates and scans must often be manually initiated, and there is seldom any protection against malicious websites or email attachments. We can recommend some free Windows antivirus software, but please don't rely on Microsoft's own products, Windows Defender (for Windows 8, 8.1 and 10) and Microsoft Security Essentials (for Windows XP, Vista and 7). Those two products are getting better, but for now, they simply don't stop enough malware.
Avast and AVG have combined their malware-detection engines, and the result is greater than the sum of its parts. Avast Free Antivirus keeps its user-friendly interface, minimal system load and useful password manager and network scanner, but adds nearly perfect antivirus protection. It's as good as some paid antivirus products.
Despite what Apple's marketing has implied, Macs do get infected, and the amount of Mac malware keeps rising, with more seen in the first half of 2017 than in any previous year. But there's less money to be made in the Mac antivirus market than in the Windows one, and the products are less standardized. Some Mac antivirus products are free, and some are paid. Of the products we recently evaluated, one of our No. 2 choices, Avast Free Mac Security, doesn't cost a dime.
Kaspersky Internet Security offers both the lowest system impact and some of the best malware-detection rates recorded. It even provides extra security features, including parental controls and options to lock down your webcam and stop websites from tracking your browsing activity. If you're willing to pay to protect your Mac from malware, Kaspersky Internet Security is the best option available.
Every Android device, whether it's a smartphone, tablet or TV stick, should have antivirus software. Usually, that software comes with an all-encompassing security app that also includes anti-theft and remote-locating features, and many apps have both a basic free version and a premium version with more features.
The free versions of the Android security apps we reviewed are pretty solid. The paid versions, which cost between $15 and $30 per year, range from being just a bit better than the free ones to becoming practically separate products, with a wide range of capabilities. You'll have to decide what you need and select accordingly.
The Bitdefender Android security app has flawless malware protection, a small performance hit, privacy-protection tools and Android Wear integration. Yet there are no scheduled malware scans, and no freemium option. (The separate Bitdefender Antivirus Free for Android only scans for malware.) Still, at $15 per year per device, Bitdefender Mobile Security is worth the expense.
iOS Antivirus Apps
A lot of people want iOS antivirus software for their iPhones and iPads. The truth is that such software doesn't exist. Apple won't let third-party apps examine other iOS apps, or even inspect new apps as they're installed. Anything that claims to be antivirus software swiftly gets kicked out of the iTunes App Store.
Many major antivirus vendors, including F-Secure, McAfee, Norton and Trend Micro, do have "security" apps in the App Store. But these check web links for known malicious sites, locate lost devices or pretend to protect your privacy. None scans an iPhone for malware.
There has been real iOS malware that affects non-jailbroken devices, but it's very rarely cropped up. In each instance, Apple has pushed out a new version of iOS to stop the malware in a matter of days or weeks. Generally, if you keep your Apple mobile device updated to the latest version of iOS, you should be safe.
[Editor's Note, Oct. 11, 2017: Best Buy has removed Kaspersky Lab products from its shelves, citing concerns regarding Kaspersky's alleged (but as yet undocumented) ties to the Russian government. Top U.S. newspapers have run stories in which anonymous sources say Kaspersky software helps Russia spy on American spy agencies. However, until we see real evidence that Kaspersky software is a threat to consumers, we will continue to recommend it. Here is further clarification of our position.]