Every Windows PCs needs the best antivirus software, even if that software is free. The Windows Defender software built into Windows 10 is very good, but while it holds its own against other free rivals, it still can't quite match the features or protection of the best third-party paid antivirus offerings.
Our top pick overall for best antivirus is Kaspersky, which gives you excellent malware protection, a full complement of extra features (including a hardened web browser, webcam protection and file encryption) and an easy-to-use interface.
Right behind Kaspersky are Bitdefender, whose entry-level paid program is the best bargain in antivirus software, and Norton, which offers excellent protection with optional LifeLock identity protection and unlimited VPN service.
For the best free antivirus software, we liked Kaspersky Free Antivirus, which barely edged out Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition for the top spot. Both offer excellent protection against malware without slowing down your system, but Kaspersky lets you schedule scans and has a quick-scan option. Our free rankings immediately follow our paid rankings below.
The best antivirus software you can buy today
1. Kaspersky Total Security
The best antivirus software overall.
Kaspersky's Windows products have excellent malware-detection scores and a moderate system-performance impact, the two most important criteria in our rankings.
The basic program, Kaspersky Anti-Virus, has dedicated ransomware protection, a virtual keyboard and a convenient online account portal. But at this price 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.
2. Bitdefender Antivirus Plus
Strong protection on the cheap.
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 licences 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. (All 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.
3. Norton 360 Deluxe
Almost everything you could ever need.
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.
4. Trend Micro Maximum Security
Heavy scans yield many false positives.
Trend Micro offers very good protection, but its malware-detection engine creates a heavy system load during scans and returns a lot of false-positive results. The entry 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 come with the mid-range Trend Micro Internet Security. The top-end Trend Micro Maximum Security adds a password manager, a secure browser and file encryption.
But none of Trend Micro's programs include a two-way firewall or webcam protection. 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.
Read our full Trend Micro Maximum Security review.
5. McAfee Internet Security
Good but not perfect
McAfee's malware detection has improved greatly in the past couple of years, but it's still not 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. (A single-device license costs $40.)
McAfee Internet Security adds one of the best password managers in the business, but to get parental controls, you'll have to spring for the 10-device license of 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 + VPN, which adds unlimited VPN service. 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.
6. ESET Smart Security Premium
ESET is one of the biggest antivirus names in Europe, but while it has a small system-performance load, its malware-detection rate isn't as good 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 Macs and Android devices. The top-billed ESET Smart Security Premium tosses in file encryption, a virtual keyboard and a password manager.
ESET's pricing is per device, optimal for users with several but not too many systems to protect. But if your device count gets into double digits, the costs can add up.
Read our full ESET Smart Security Premium review.
The best free antivirus software
The best paid antivirus suites can protect children, manage mobile devices and monitor a computer's firewall. But some users can't afford to pay for those extra features.
We've evaluated the best free antivirus programs based on their malware protection, system impact, ease of use and useful extra features.
Kaspersky Free Antivirus barely edged out Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition for the top spot among best free antivirus programs. Both offer excellent protection against malware without slowing down your system, but Kaspersky lets you schedule scans and has a quick-scan option.
Bitdefender 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, this is the perfect solution.
If you want features such as a 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 top two and its performance impact is heavier.
1. Kaspersky Free Antivirus
Lean and mean
Kaspersky Lab doesn't advertise that it has a free antivirus product, and doesn't make it easy to find the download page.
Too bad, because this is one of the best free antivirus products we've ever tested, with a no-nonsense but comprehensible interface, a light-to-moderate system-performance impact and Kaspersky's unbeatable malware protection.
The only reason we're not giving Kaspersky Free Antivirus a 4.5/5 rating is because it offers no extra features. But its successor, Kaspersky Security Cloud Free, does, and we're looking forward to reviewing it very soon.
Read our full Kaspersky Free Antivirus review.
2. Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition
No muss, no fuss
Like Kaspersky, Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition offers nothing but the basics, and its malware protection is just as good, if a bit more prone to false-positive malware detections.
Bitdefender's scans are lighter on the system than Kaspersky's, but it offers fewer options — you can't even schedule a scan. It's the best free antivirus software for users who want a set-it-and-forget-it security solution for themselves, or for a loved one.
Read our full Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition review.
3. Avast Free Antivirus
Nearly a free suite
The malware protection in Avast Free Antivirus is a peg down from the best free antivirus software, but it's got the best assortment of extra goodies for a free program, including a password manager, a hardened browser and a network scanner.
The program is also very customizable and offers limited access to Avast's VPN service. However, it caused a pretty heavy system load in our testing.
Read our full Avast Free Antivirus review.
4. Microsoft Windows Defender
Finally good enough
Microsoft's built-in antivirus software has finally reached the big leagues. Windows Defender won't beat Bitdefender or Kaspersky in malware protection, but it holds its own against other free antivirus products while delivering a small system-performance impact.
There's also a surprising number of extra features built into Windows, including parental controls and protection for all browsers, making up for Defender's no-frills approach. Overall, we can recommend using Windows Defender as your primary antivirus solution.
Read our full Windows Defender review.
5. AVG AntiVirus Free
Not enough oomph
AVG shares Avast's decent, if unspectacular, malware-detection engine while having a much lighter system-performance impact. But AVG AntiVirus Free has far fewer useful extra features than Avast Free Antivirus.
The good news is that AVG's wide range of customization options and its file shredder are still available. The bad news is that there's no convincing reason to pick AVG over Windows Defender.
Read our full AVG AntiVirus Free review.
6. Avira Free Antivirus
Not what it once was
Avira Free Antivirus was the best free antivirus option just a few years ago, before Bitdefender and Kaspersky jumped into the ring and Avast, AVG and Windows Defender raised their game.
Now Avira's malware protection is in the middle of the pack. Its numerous extra features are mostly just teases for paid services, and its system-performance impact is remarkably heavy. We do like that it's still got a wide range of customization options.
Read our full Avira Free Antivirus review.
7. Panda Free Antivirus
Has its ups and downs
Panda doesn't take part in every lab test whose results we use, so its malware protection is a bit of an enigma. We liked Panda Free Antivirus' high degree of customization options and its appealing interface. We didn't like the constant ads for other Panda products, the attempts to hijack your web browser, and the fact that unlike every other antivirus company, Panda won't let you opt out of automatic system-data collection.
Read our full Panda Free Antivirus review.
Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Free
Essential side piece
Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Free is not antivirus software. It's more of a malware-removal tool. Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Free can't protect a PC from infection, but it does an excellent job of cleaning out malware that's already on your system. Plus, it doesn't interfere with any antivirus software that's already installed. We recommend Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Free as a complement to any of the best antivirus programs, free or paid.
Read our full Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Free review.
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.
Antivirus buying tips
Before you buy antivirus software, figure out what you need. 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 backup software and VPN service. Are you a techie who understands the risks? A low-priced basic program might be all you need.
Then determine how many machines you'll protect. Most vendors offer single-device licenses for PCs, but multi-device, multi-platform licenses for all your desktops, laptops and mobile devices are available in midrange and premium 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. 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.
Editors' note: Why we still recommend Kaspersky
Kaspersky antivirus products have been banned from U.S. government networks. Because the company is Russian, its 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.