There are only a handful of large antivirus providers, but, as the above list of antivirus reviews shows, not every option at your local Best Buy performs well. Finding the best antivirus software isn’t a matter of simply trusting the biggest name. During our antivirus reviews, our goal is to find the best antivirus software through independent testing and hands-on experience.
Antivirus software is the first line of defense when protecting yourself against cybercrime. Even if you’re not taking a plunge into the dark web, you can be the victim of any number of online scams. Though, if you do fancy yourself a street-smart internet denizen that likes to, say, download a few movies, an antivirus doesn’t hurt.
From pointing out phishing scams in your inbox to blocking malicious botnet attempts, an antivirus covers all of the online bases you can’t account for. Read on to see how we evaluate each provider and which software ranks the best based on that.
Antivirus software isn’t too difficult to evaluate. Our antivirus reviews have five sections that address each aspect of a service. At the end, the value of an antivirus boils down to how well it will keep you protected. That said, the peripheral concerns shouldn’t be discounted, especially when there are options like Windows Defender that will protect you for free.
Antivirus software has evolved from a simple security tool to a security suite. Modern software includes the core protection, as well as additions like a VPN, password manager, secure browser and more. In most cases, these extras aren’t that good. Kaspersky’s VPN, for example, is just a reskinned version of Hotspot Shield, which isn’t a good thing (read our Hotspot Shield review).
Because of that, this section of our antivirus reviews doesn’t focus on if the features exist but how useful they are to you. Providers like Avast pack in a lot of features for the money, but Bitdefender’s more concise list proves to be more useful in practice.
There are a lot of free antivirus options, and while the quality of free offerings varies widely, the fact remains that you can be protected without spending a dime. Because of that, price is important. However, it’s not more important than value. Our focus in this section is to determine not if the price is higher than the competition, but if the asking price is worth it.
Features play a big part in that. Usually, antivirus software comes in multiple flavors with different features, so we try to evaluate the lineup for the plan that’s most practical. During this section of our antivirus reviews, we also look at the refund period of each provider as well as if a free plan is offered.
Thankfully, most antivirus software is easy to use. At most, a provider may have an interface that looks out of a different decade, but, overall, none of our antivirus reviews feature a provider with a broken interface. That also means each piece of software is under a finer microscope in this section. Here, we look for a balance of power and usability.
In particular, this is the section where we judge how the different features of the package are implemented into the interface. We also take a look at scan modes and resource usage while the antivirus is operating.
Protection is the key section of our antivirus reviews. While we spend some time testing each piece of software using the Eicar testing file, we put more stock in independent lab results. We attempt to find the most recent lab results from MRG-Effitas, AV-Test and AV-Comparatives and compare them with each other to evaluate how well a particular piece of software will protect you.
In most cases, that’s a fairly straightforward process. However, in the rare case where labs disagree or our hands-on testing doesn’t align with lab results, we cling to the most consistent results we can find. For example, if a piece of software had excellent lab results but poor hands-on performance, we’re going to recommend the lab results as a basis for comparison.
While not as important as the previous section, customer service shouldn’t be discounted. During each of our antivirus reviews, we take a look through the support documentation for clearness and thoroughness, ensuring that if you have a question, the resources available will provide an answer.
We also look at direct support options, testing each for, again, thoroughness and clarity. Antivirus software is unique in that it will often offer “premium” support where a rep will use the software you already purchased to clean your machine. In the likely event that a service such as that is available, we’ll add a demerit.
The Best Antivirus Software
As per the criteria above, here are our top five picks for the best antivirus software. Note that we only rate sections, not an overall review, so the picks below were made based off of strong performance across all rounds.
Bitdefender is by far the best antivirus software on the market. It’s so far ahead of other providers, too. Between excellent protection scores, a great set of features and intuitive user experience, Bitdefender combines everything we want from an antivirus under one roof.
The star of the show is protection. Bitdefender has consistently put up results from the three independent labs we reference against established and zero-day malware. It has some interesting security features, too, including a password manager that won’t make our best password manager list but is still decent, and a safe browser for online banking.
You can learn more in our Bitdefender Antivirus review.
Avira is one of the few providers that could rival Bitdefender. However, a lackluster support system holds it back. All other aspects of the service, though, are excellent. The list of features is worth the price of admission alone, but solid lab results show that the core of the service is still a consistent antivirus package.
For the money, Avira’s features are great. On the highest tier, you have access to a VPN, system optimizer, network analyzer and much more. Many of the goodies are free, too, so even if you have one of Avira’s cheaper plans, you can take advantage of them. You can read our Avira review to learn more or sign-up for a free account to see how you like it.
AVG is easily the best free antivirus available, but it starts to lose its luster when you’re paying. Protection results are good, though not on the level of our top two picks, and there’s a solid list of features, but those strong points only look strong when there isn’t a price tag attached to it. If you’re pinching pennies, though, AVG is a great choice.
It comes down to the extras included with the free plan. You get AVG’s secure browser, which is a Chromium browser with features like adblock built-in, and a password manager for free. There are some paid features, too, but the only one of note is AVG TuneUp, which will clean and optimize your PC. You can learn more in our AVG review.
Webroot is an entirely cloud-based antivirus, meaning it doesn’t store any information about its malware database on your local machine. Because of that, the application is very light on system resources. Instead of trying to determine if something is a threat, Webroot will quarantine it and analyze it in the cloud.
The interesting approach and solid protection results are the best aspect of Webroot. Otherwise, it’s an inexpensive, lightweight antivirus that could use a facelift. Even so, it’s a solid choice that’s light on your wallet. You can read our Webroot SecureAnywhere review to learn more.
Trend Micro is an inexpensive antivirus that doesn’t impress in protection, but does impress in features and user friendliness. While it doesn’t have all the goodies of AVG, the essentials are accounted for including a secure browser and system cleaner. Features aren’t exclusive to the most expensive plan, either.
Something that spans all plans, though, is deep configurability. Trend Micro gives you the ability to customize the interface, go deep on scanning schedules and customize the rules that the antivirus abides by. You don’t need to configure anything, but the option is there if you fancy yourself a tinkerer. You can learn more in our Trend Micro Antivirus review.
Antivirus Frequently Asked Questions
Antivirus software is fairly straightforward, but there are a surprising number of small questions surrounding the software with tough to find answers. Here, we’ll do our best to address those.
What is Antivirus Software?
Most people are vaguely familiar with antivirus software. Vaguely is the key, though, and over the past few years antivirus software has grown to accommodate a more wide range of threats. Because of that, the definition has changed a bit, and you should know the difference between antivirus, antimalware and a firewall.
First, what the name says. “Antivirus” suggests that the program protects against viruses, but that’s only part of the story. Modern day antivirus software actually protects against multiple forms of malware, with viruses being one of them. Just because a product markets itself as an antivirus doesn’t mean it won’t protect against, say, ransomware (read our what is ransomware guide).
So, you can classify antivirus as antimalware, right? Maybe, but you probably shouldn’t. Nowadays, antimalware programs refer to applications that scan your computer for malware but don’t necessarily provide real-time protection. MalwareBytes is a good example (read our MalwareBytes review). Antivirus software, on the other hand, provides scanning and real-time protection.
Then there are firewalls, which, again, are usually part of an antivirus package. A firewall deals with network connections, blocking any connections it thinks are suspicious based on a set of rules. If your antivirus software doesn’t include a firewall, fret not; Windows has a built-in firewall that works very well.
Antivirus software provides deep scanning and real-time protection against a variety of malware based on a database of known malware and an AI-driven learning system to detect new threats. In some cases, it will also protect network connections with a built-in firewall. It has evolved into an umbrella term to describe multiple products, so don’t put too much stock if one program calls itself an antivirus and you’re looking for protection against other forms of malware.
Should I Remove or Quarantine a Threat?
It’s a scary thing to decide whether to remove or quarantine a threat for cybersecurity novices. You shouldn’t worry too much, though. If you suspect that a file may be essential for a running application and you don’t suspect that application is malicious, it’s always a good idea to quarantine, check if the app is still working and then remove.
Antivirus software isn’t perfect, so choosing if you want to restore, remove or quarantine a file is important. You can think of quarantining like purgatory. The suspected file has been accounted for and won’t damage your system, but it’s still there in case you need it. When you quarantine a file, it’s best to do a little investigative work to see where the file is located and what it’s doing.
You should only restore of remove a threat when you’re sure that it’s either safe or malicious. Quarantining should be your default choice. That said, you shouldn’t let your quarantine area fill up. After placing a file in quarantine, make sure to follow up to see if you should restore or remove the file.
One exception to that is Avast (read our Avast Pro review). Its sandbox mode allows you to test files in a same environment. It’s like quarantining the files, but you can open, edit and run them without risk of damaging your mahine.
Will Antivirus Software Slow Down My Computer?
The short answer is yes. Your computer has a finite amount of resources across memory, CPU power, display power, etc. Any software will slow down your computer. That said, it doesn’t need to slow it down by much. Some antivirus software is resource hungry, meaning it will leave little to no computing power for other applications, while other software is fairly light.
In Windows Task Manager, you can see how the antivirus is impacting system performance. The best metrics to gauge are CPU and RAM utilization. Hard drive use should be pinned during a scan, anyway, so it’s not too useful to gauge performance based off of that.
However, hard drives are very important to how much an antivirus will slow down your machine. If your operating system is installed on the same hard drive as your antivirus and you’re using your computer during a scan, you’ll notice a significant performance hit. That’s because your OS and your antivirus program are trying to access files on your hard drive simultaneously, both taking longer they would normally need to to find them.
That’s only during an active scan, though. Most modern antivirus software uses a cloud database when protecting in real-time, lightening the load on local storage and putting it on your network bandwidth instead.
Why Does One Antivirus Detect a Virus but Another Does Not?
Not all antivirus software is made equally, which is why we put such an emphasis on the protection section of our antivirus reviews. In short, there’s a security infrastructure that each piece of software uses to detect malware, and some are more advanced than others.
Usually, antivirus software uses a combination of a malware database and machine learning to keep you protected. Each piece of malware it encounters in registered in the database with a malware signature. In the future, the antivirus knows that a program matching that malware signature needs to be removed.
Not all antivirus software has encountered every type of malware, though, and that means that one program may not detect a particular piece of malware. That’s where machine learning comes in. It’s fairly common among antivirus software, though not all products include it. Machine learning takes the signatures in the database and learns from them, forming a method to detect new malware as it’s being introduced.
Because it’s learning from the database, the machine will focus on different types of malware that have different attributes. In the end, some antivirus software will miss on very specific types of malware. That isn’t to say that one piece of software is better than another when targeting one piece of malware. Your best bet is to use the broad view of lab results to strengthen your odds.
Free vs. Paid Antivirus
We’ve written a guide on the best free antivirus software, and we recommend you take a look — linked above — if you want protection for cheap. That said, there are significant downsides to using free antivirus software. So many, in fact, that you’ll probably want to pay, despite the fact that free options are available.
Free versions of software always have a downside. As they say, nothing is ever truly free. In the case of our top pick, Bitdefender, that just means a severely reduced interface and set of features. However, when talking about, say, Avast, that means data collection.
While mostly a topic for our VPN reviews, privacy is important when talking about antivirus software, too. By using a free antivirus, you’re usually getting updates to the malware database later than paying users, as well as freely giving aware your personal data so the company providing the software can sell it.
Do I Need Antivirus Software?
The golden question for a lot of people is: do I even need an antivirus? While it’s true that safe browsing habits and common sense will get you past the majority of online threats, the pool of dangers is simply too large for any one person to account for.
Cybersecurity is all about margins. What’s secure today will be a joke in a few years, as was the case with nearly all methods of security only a few years ago. It’s about giving yourself the highest likelihood of not falling victim to something, not eliminating the possibility entirely. The reason for this is that the schemes dreamed up by criminals on the web are constantly evolving, and an antivirus can help you stay adaptable in the changing online world.
Take, for example, the traditional knowledge of not downloading anything questionable online. Someone who’s not up to date on what’s possible may take that knowledge and run with it unprotected. That doesn’t account for, say, drive-by downloads or redirects when downloading what you assume is a safe file.
An antivirus accounts for these scams. Our top picks have proven time and again that they not only protect from the known threats but also from the unknown ones. Zero-day malware, or threats that exploit a vulnerability the same day it becomes known, is something that no normal internet denizen can account for. Through the sophisticated machine learning antivirus software implements, though, you can be protected from it.
Our goal when writing an antivirus review is to try to break the software so it doesn’t fail when you use it. Through running it into a gauntlet of different types of malware to rigorously testing each feature, we’ve formed a list of the best antivirus software on the market.
The hope is that our analytical approach finds you a product that you’re truly satisfied with. If you have thoughts on a particular provider and want to share your experience, we invite you to leave a comment on any of the above reviews and let us know.