This article is the archived version of a report that appeared in June 2009 Consumer Reports magazine.
Our free "suite" and any pay suites but the four at the bottom of our Ratings (available to subscribers) should provide ample protection if you surf safely. That is, you never download software from unfamiliar sites (those downloads might carry malicious software) or click on e-mail links to access bank or other personal accounts (those links are favorite tools for cyberthieves).
The for-pay Eset suite excelled in detecting viruses, and a number of other pay suites were standouts for detecting badware. One of those programs might be your first choice if you or anyone else in your household doesn't follow best online practices.
For fighting spam, the filters provided by many e-mail programs or ISPs might be all you need to block unwelcome mail. The antispam programs we tested offer supplementary assistance if too many junk e-mail messages are still getting through.
Your vulnerability also varies by your computer's operating system, though less than you might think. In our survey, Apple computers were much less likely than PCs to have been attacked by viruses and spyware, but Macs can transmit infected files to Windows PCs, including those connected to a Mac over a network in your home. Consider using a stand-alone antivirus program, such as Norton Antivirus 11 for Mac ($50). If you're running Windows on an Intel-based Mac, you'll need PC-level protection; any of the tested programs should run fine. Or opt for Norton's AntiVirus Dual Protection for Mac ($70), which protects both operating systems.
Among Windows systems, Microsoft claims that Vista offers greater protection than Windows XP. In our survey, Vista users didn't fare much better than Windows XP users for spyware infection. They did have a lower rate of virus infection in the two years prior to the survey, though we can't definitively identify Vista as the sole reason.
Windows Defender, our top-scoring free antibadware program, is on all versions of Vista. Vista Home Premium includes a decent backup program, parental controls, and antispam filters, and like Windows XP, it offers Disk Cleanup.
Some suites demand more resources than others. Machines with less than a gigabyte of memory might run too slowly with such gluttons. Similarly, some programs' scans take longer than others. If you have an older computer, it's even more important to look for products that score higher under "resources" in the Ratings (available to subscribers).
The three programs in our free suite were easy to use together and, as a whole, rated well for features. But they do have some inconveniences compared with using a pay suite. When each stand-alone program periodically and automatically updates its threat database (an optional setting that we recommend), the process can slow the PC more than having one suite do so for all threats—although we had no slowing problems with our free suite. The free Avira antivirus program pops up a promotional box when it updates, and Spamfighter adds an advertising message as a footer in all outgoing mail.
Testing can't expose every potential problem with and among applications. If you're concerned, check software forums, including the ones at ConsumerReports.org, to see whether others are having problems that might apply to you.
A pay suite requires just one download and installation and a single upgrade when necessary. Its single interface can also be simpler to use, and it can be less costly than using multiple stand-alone commercial programs. You can use a suite on as many as three computers in the same household, and it might offer features that stand-alone apps don't. For example, most include child filters that might appeal to families and privacy filters that provide added protection against the inadvertent disclosure of personal information.
With free products, help is usually limited to online FAQs, forums, and tutorials. Most of the tested pay suites offer free e-mail and chat support. Most also offer phone support, though some charge for it. We can't comment on the quality of any program's tech support.
The suites, and Windows and Mac operating systems, have a built-in firewall, a network gateway for additional protection; make sure you enable at least one firewall.
You should also enable phishing protection, even on a Mac. Our survey shows only 27 percent of all surfers have done so. All of the suites except Microsoft's Live OneCare, soon to be discontinued, have an antiphishing component, as do the latest browsers (see Browsers also protect). If you're using an older browser version, or for extra protection, install a free antiphishing toolbar, such as McAfee Site Advisor (www.siteadvisor.com) or the Netcraft Toolbar (toolbar.netcraft.com). You can also try a toolbar from www.antiphishing.org/solutions.html#toolbars, Google, or MSN.
Other worthwhile free additions to your security arsenal include the ZoneAlarm firewall (www.zonealarm.com/security/en-us/zonealarm-pc-security-free-firewall.htm) and the Eraser file shredder (www.heidi.ie/node/6).