The Internet offers unlimited possibilities for cybercriminals to deceive, trick, steal, rob, and manipulate unsuspecting users through ever-mutating viruses, worms, Trojans, and other malware. In both real-life and the virtual world, inattention and ignorance are the two greatest allies criminals have: Everyone knows that burying your nose in a huge city map is the easiest way to paint a target on your back when traveling abroad. Accordingly, most tourists try to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible, or even to 'blend in' with locals, doing anything to deflect the attention of pickpockets and thieves elsewhere. This is because criminals prey on those who are the least prepared or present the easiest opportunity. The same holds true in the digital world, with antivirus programs being one crucial component of any formidable digital defense.
Antivirus programs identify and neutralize threats before they can damage your computer and/or device. Since malware is constantly evolving, antivirus programs offer a reactive, rather than proactive solution. The number of providers is huge, with each promising the best, most user-friendly, or efficient security solution. We examined 11 of the most popular antivirus programs carefully to see how they stack up against one another.
After presenting the three winners, we'll go into more detail concerning our evaluation criteria.
Winner: Bitdefender Antivirus
Only a handful of antivirus programs impressed us across the board, however, Bitdefender was certainly one of them. Across its various subscription packages, the program is absolutely packed with features, however, you wouldn't know since it's also intelligently and sensibly designed. The only area where we weren't awestruck was in regards to extras, such as a VPN and password manager, which are relatively blasé in comparison to stand-alone software.
Bitdefender is intuitive to use, chock full of features, and its security aspects have consistently received high ratings from independent test labs. Adding to the service is its good chat, email, and phone support, and mobile app. In our minds, Bitdefender is the gold standard in terms of antivirus protection.
Price-Performance Winner: Sophos Antivirus
In addition to its very generous free version, a paid subscription to Sophos Antivirus is a real bargain. Its low price is not the only argument speaking in the British antivirus program's favor: "Sophos Home" impressed us with its intuitive web-dashboard and palette of features, even though its mobile version is a bit of a letdown owing to the absence of anti-theft measures.
The program offers impressive security, demonstrated by its independent test lab results. Unfortunately, among our go-to testers, AV-Test and AV-Comparatives, "Sophos Home" hasn't received much attention, with the last test occurring some time ago (oddly enough, the developer's enterprise solutions are regularly tested). Nevertheless, these (admittedly dated) ratings did see the program awarded top scores, and in more recent testing (SE Labs), they've also performed well. "Sophos Home" is the highly-affordable option among antivirus programs, and as such, our undisputed price-performance winner.
Best Free Antivirus: Avast Antivirus
As a freemium program, Avast Antivirus is free of charge, with some advanced security features limited to paying customers. Free users can still perform scans and fall back on Avast's real-time protection, which monitors both web and email activity. A simple password manager is also included in the freemium version. Advanced security features, like ransomware or webcam protection, are reserved for paying customers.
The test labs confirm that Avast offers good-very good security, and the program has a well-thought-out and intuitive interface. We're less effusive about the developer's support, which particularly for free users, doesn't offer any contact possibilities. However, for qualitative protection that doesn't cost a cent, we can forgo the lack of email support. For that reason, Avast Antivirus is our top choice for free antivirus protection.
How Did We Evaluate?
In assessing antivirus programs, we focused on five areas, four of which we graded, to create a comprehensive score. Below, we'll briefly discuss each of these five categories and our evaluation criteria.
Installation & Usage
It's important to us how quickly and easily an antivirus program can be downloaded and installed. We look favorably upon programs that enable usage without having to input a credit card. Many users are rightfully afraid of falling into "subscription traps" and for companies that resort to this tactic, it's often the most criticized aspect in reviews, since it typically manifests into billing irregularities.
In terms of usability, intuitive navigation should be the goal of any antivirus program developer. The best antivirus programs should be highly-configurable, which generally necessitates the inclusion of detailed sub-menus. At the same time, they should be easy to navigate, allowing casual users to fully benefit from them. As far as we're concerned, Bitdefender's interface achieves a perfect balance between these two objectives: In its main menu, all features are conveniently and clearly organized, while the program's dashboard can be customized to the user's preferences.
Even though the individual package of features offered by each antivirus software provider differs, there are some standard functions, which we feel every program should offer. Alongside basic protection, many providers tack-on premium features, which don't really have much to do with viruses or malware but fall loosely under the heading of Internet security. Standard and premium features are usually separated along the basis of subscriptions, but even between paid subscriptions, there can be differences. We'll discuss each of these features in greater detail below since they're mentioned in each of our reviews.
Scanning refers to the ability of an antivirus program to check your system (or parts of it) for threats with little more than the push of a button, or click of a mouse. There are differences in how these are configured: A number of programs offer different kinds of scans, such as quick scans (which only check your most important files), full system scans, or user-defined scans. In most cases, such as here with ESET Smart Security, these can be automated, and set to run at specific intervals.
- Real-time protection
Along with scanning, every antivirus program worth its salt should monitor your system in real-time, constantly probing for the appearance of viruses, malware, keyloggers, and other threats. In many cases, such real-time protection is comprised of multiple levels of security, which can be configured to run independently of one another (or not at all), such as here with Malwarebytes:
Some important real-time protection features will often have their own modules within a program's dashboard which allow for even greater customization:
- Internet Security
This alerts you to suspicious websites that you might try to visit and prevents the download of dangerous files. Some antivirus programs enhance their web security further with browser plugins or even dedicated browsers for online shopping and banking.
- Email Protection
Malware can and does conceal itself within emails. With this feature, your antivirus program will automatically filter out dangerous emails and spam from both your incoming and outgoing messages.
- Ransomware Protection
Ransomware, alternatively known as extortion Trojans, is a particularly nasty variety of malware. They take your data hostage by encrypting it, only providing you with the decryption key in exchange for a hefty payment. Ransomware protection identifies and neutralizes these kinds of threats.
- Webcam Protection
Webcam protection prevents unauthorized access to your webcam and microphone, notifying you when applications request access, and allowing you to choose whether to grant or reject it.
Firewalls have grown to become standard in most antivirus programs. They monitor all incoming and outgoing network traffic and defend your system against unauthorized access. Frequently, you can set individual guidelines for each program or app you have installed, such as here, in Bitdefender:
- Password Manager
Password managers allow you to save login data and other sensitive information in a secure digital vault, protected by a single master password. Many antivirus programs include basic password managers which offer rudimentary features that pale in comparison to those of stand-alone programs. Others license dedicated password managers from third-parties, such as ESET Smart Security, which includes a limited version of Sticky Password in its premium subscription.
A virtual private network, or VPN, offers enhanced online security and anonymity by enclosing the traffic between you and your Internet provider in a virtual tunnel, concealing your physical location, and masking your IP address. As little more than digital "filler", the VPNs offered in antivirus packages generally come with very strict data limits, and have tiny server networks (at least compared to stand-alone VPN providers). Sometimes, however, these are decent, as is the case with Norton's VPN:
Most antivirus programs don't stop at blocking malware but also fend off ads. Frequently, this is done via a browser extension.
- Cloud Backup
With this function, you are able to create encrypted backups of your system, or specific folders, which are stored in a secure digital cloud. There are often strict data limits coupled with these uploads, which ease as the subscription price increases.
- Data Shredder/File Shredder
This allows you to permanently delete files from your device or system, leaving no possibility for them to be restored.
- Parental Controls
Parental controls provide you with full control over your children's Internet consumption. Often, these function by creating different user profiles, setting time limits, and/or blocking specific sites (or types of sites). In some cases, as with Kaspersky, you can even GPS locate your children through their device:
Most antivirus programs also include performance modules, which allow users to tinker with their systems through automatically deleting unused files or removing startup programs.
- App Lock
This adds supplementary security to specific apps, enabling access only after input of a PIN code, sequence, or fingerprint.
- Anti-Theft Measures
Owing to their size and portability, mobile devices are much more frequently targeted by thieves than laptops and computers. For this reason, most antivirus programs now include anti-theft features. These allow you, for example, to remotely GPS locate your device, activate an alarm, delete data, or even lock the device. Sometimes, a "camera trap' is also included that secretly takes a picture of the person holding your device.
Security & Performance
To evaluate the security and performance of the antivirus programs in our sample, we relied upon the expertise of external, independent test labs. We primarily oriented ourselves on the results from AV-Test and AV-Comparatives, two labs that regularly examine a number of antivirus programs from top to bottom. These assign separate scores for security, based on the number of compromised files that remain after scanning and the number of false positives, as well as for performance. In some cases, namely, those programs which neither AV-Test nor AV-Comparatives had recently analyzed, we consulted other test labs.
In our opinion, good support has two qualities: First, the features and functions of an antivirus program should be clearly and accurately explained in an easy-to-use help center (ideally with a search function), be it through FAQs, articles, video guides, or even a well-visited forum.
Second, in what is often a major stumbling block for antivirus programs, contact to real support personnel (either through support tickets, telephone, or best of all, a live chat) should be regularly available, with those manning the keyboards or phone lines knowledgeable and responsive.
We were most impressed by Norton 360 in both of these areas, owing to the variety of methods it offers for contacting support, as well as its well-structured and authoritative help center, relevant sections of which are linked to every page in the program's dashboard and sub-menus.
Free antivirus programs often operate on the freemium principle: They enable use of basic functions without cost, but limit access to additional features to paying subscribers. From provider-to-provider, the number and type of paid subscriptions varies, as do the features they offer. "Filler", like a password manager or VPN are often only offered in the most expensive packages.
We don't score companies on price, since the subscription structures and accompanying numbers of features vary too greatly. The table below compares each provider's offering on the basis of a sample, with similar conditions:
Bad news first: There is no such thing as a "perfect" antivirus program. For some providers, support is poor, for others, the test labs gave inconclusive results, and for still others, user interfaces are unnecessarily complicated. Each program we reviewed had its weaknesses. The good news is, that some of the programs had more strengths than weaknesses, or their advantages far outweighed their disadvantages, meaning that a number of solid antivirus programs do exist.
Alongside our winners, there were also additional programs that offer good protection against malware, where it truly counts, only dropping points in less critical areas. Accordingly, you should choose the program that best meets your needs, all the while remaining vigilant about the threats posed by the Internet.
Do I need an antivirus program?
Don't let the name fool you: Even though antivirus programs might seem to have only one purpose, modern software defends you and your system against a multitude of nefarious threats, such as ransomware, adware, and spyware. Ransomware attacks in particular are some of the nastiest, demanding payment of a ransom for the decryption of your files. For this reason, particularly when using Windows, antivirus protection is a must.
Do antivirus programs really defend against malware?
Yes! Antivirus is an umbrella term for software that protects systems against viruses, in addition to other threats, such as ransomware or spyware.
What is the best antivirus software?
EXPERTE.com evaluated 11 well-known antivirus programs on the basis of their usability, features, security & performance, and support. In our ranking, Bitdefender scored highest with 4.7 (out of 5). However, a number of other providers also performed well. All results can be found in our comprehensive antivirus program evaluation.