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Best antivirus software 2020: Free and paid

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All Windows systems need the best antivirus software, even if it's free. The Windows Defender software built into Windows 10 is very good, but it still can't quite match the features and protection of the best third-party paid offerings.

Our top pick overall is Kaspersky's Windows antivirus lineup, which combines excellent malware protection, a full slate of extra features (such as a hardened web browser, webcam protection and file encryption) and an easy-to-use interface.

Right behind it are Bitdefender, whose cheapest paid product is the best bargain in antivirus software, and Norton, which offers excellent protection with optional identity protection and unlimited VPN service.

For 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.

Jump straight to:

Many of the top antivirus developers routinely offer steep discounts, and right now Bitdefender, Kaspersky, McAfee, Norton, Sophos and Trend Micro are doing so.

Best paid antivirus software at a glance

  • Kaspersky Total Security
  • Bitdefender Antivirus Plus
  • Norton 360 Deluxe
  • Trend Micro Maximum Security
  • McAfee Internet Security
  • ESET Smart Security Premium

Kaspersky Total Security 2020 Box Art

(Image credit: Kaspersky)

1. Kaspersky Total Security

The best Windows antivirus software overall.

Nearly perfect malware protection
Backup software, rich parental controls, unlimited password manager
Two-factor authentication for online account
Heavy system impact during full scans
VPN data usage capped unless you pay extra
File shredder

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. It's our favorite among all the premium security suites.

Bitdefender Antivirus 2020 Box Art

(Image credit: Bitdefender)

2. Bitdefender Antivirus Plus

Strong protection on the cheap.

Very good malware protection
Small performance penalty
Fast scans
Lots of useful extra features
Malware protection not quite perfect

Bitdefender Antivirus Plus is our top choice among basic antivirus products. It has very good, if not perfect, malware-detection scores and a very light system performance impact. 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 also automatically stops scans if it senses 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.

Norton 360 Deluxe

(Image credit: Norton)

3. Norton 360 Deluxe

A security and privacy Swiss Army knife.

Great malware protection
identity-protection options
excellent privacy bundles
Slowdowns during scans
skimps on security features

All of Norton's antivirus products offer excellent malware protection, and the once-crushing system-performance load is now much lighter. But Norton's packages come with fewer security features than competing products, even after a recent overhaul that resurrected the old Norton 360 nameplate and added identity-protection options and unlimited VPN service.

The bare-bones Norton AntiVirus Plus has a password manager, but no webcam protection. You'll get that, plus a VPN client and more online storage, with the otherwise identical Norton 360 Standard. Norton 360 Deluxe adds parental controls and licenses for up to five devices, plus more online storage.

For an extra $50 per year, you can gets Norton 360 with LifeLock Select, which adds LifeLock identity protection plus even more storage space. Topping out the list are Norton 360 with LifeLock Advantage and Norton 360 with LifeLock Ultimate, which expand the identity-protection services but offer the same malware-protection features as Norton 360 Deluxe. If you're looking for just an antivirus solution, however, even a midrange Bitdefender or Kaspersky package will give you more useful security tools.

Trend Micro Maximum Security

(Image credit: Trend Micro)

4. Trend Micro Maximum Security

Heavy scans yield many false positives.

Fast full scans
Very good malware protection
Secure browser to protect online shopping
Too many false positives
Heavy performance hit during scans
Lacks extras that many other brands offer

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 other antivirus brands like to add as enticements.

McAfee Internet Security 2020 Box Art

(Image credit: McAfee)

5. McAfee Internet Security

Lots of devices covered for low fee.

Very good malware protection
great password manager
bargain price
No parental controls
lacks some useful security tools

McAfee's malware detection has improved greatly in the past couple of years, but it still slows down PCs a lot during scans. Despite that, McAfee AntiVirus Plus is a bargain; $60 per year buys software for up to 10 (in fact, it's 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.

ESET Smart Security Premium

(Image credit: ESET)

6. ESET Smart Security Premium

Nothing fancy.

Moderate system impact
firmware scanner
B-list malware protection
no software for other platforms

ESET is one of the biggest antivirus names in Europe, but while it has a moderate system-performance load, its malware-detection rate isn't as spectacular as those of the other 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 a network scanner, webcam protection, parental controls and a hardened web browser.

The top-billed ESET Smart Security Premium tosses in file encryption, a virtual keyboard and a password manager. To get software for multiple platforms, you'll need the ESET Multi-Device Security Pack, which oddly offers the midrange Windows product instead of the premium one, but does include antivirus software for Linux.

Best free antivirus

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. 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 might be 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.

Best free antivirus software 2020 at a glance

  1. Kaspersky Free Antivirus
  2. Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition
  3. Avast Free Antivirus
  4. Microsoft Windows Defender
  5. AVG AntiVirus Free
  6. Avira Free Antivirus
  7. Panda Free Antivirus

Kaspersky 2020

(Image credit: Kaspersky)

1. Kaspersky Free Antivirus

Lean and mean

Excellent malware protection
Moderate performance hit
Fast scans
Some customization options
Bare-bones with few extra features

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.

Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition

(Image credit: Bitdefender)

2. Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition

No muss, no fuss

Top protection against malware
Super-easy to use
Small performance impact
No customization options
No quick scans or scan scheduling

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. Its scans are lighter on the system than Kaspersky's, but it offers fewer options — you can't even schedule a scan. It's best for users who want a set-it-and-forget-it security solution for themselves, or for a loved one.

Avast Free Antivirus

(Image credit: Avast)

3. Avast Free Antivirus

Nearly a free suite

Loaded with extra features
Highly customizable
VPN client
So-so malware protection
Heavy performance hit
Possible privacy concerns

The malware protection in Avast Free Antivirus is a peg down from the top, but it's got the best assortment of extra goodies for a free antivirus 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.

Microsoft Windows Defender

(Image credit: Microsoft)

4. Microsoft Windows Defender

Finally good enough

Good malware protection
Built into Windows
Small performance impact
Bare-bones

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 and a surprising number of extra features, including parental controls and protection for all browsers. For the first time, we can recommend using Windows Defender as your primary antivirus solution.

AVG AntiVirus Free

(Image credit: AVG)

5. AVG AntiVirus Free

Not enough oomph

Small performance impact
File shredder
Customizable
Middling malware protection
Few extra features
Possible privacy issues

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 compelling reason to pick AVG over Windows Defender.

Avira Free Antivirus

(Image credit: Avira)

6. Avira Free Antivirus

Not what it once was

Highly customizable
Lots of add-ons
Firewall manager
Mediocre malware protection
Most extra features are trialware
Heavy performance impact

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.

Panda Free Antivirus

(Image credit: Panda)

7. Panda Free Antivirus

Has its ups and downs

Very customizable
Moderate performance impact
VPN client
Spotty malware protection
No opting out of data collection

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.

Honorable Mention

Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Free

(Image credit: Malwarebytes)

Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Free

Essential side piece

Complements antivirus software
Removes adware, other unwanted software
Installs trialware of paid version
Manual definition updates

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 antivirus program.

How we tested 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.

MORE: How to buy antivirus software

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.