An illustration of a lock in front of digital data to represent antivirus software.

In an era when malware is a looming threat to personal computers—not to mention smartphones, routers, and even TVs—the benefits of antivirus software are obvious. But given the wide range of options, it’s tough to choose the one that provides the best protection. Despite constant threats, many people choose to go without any at all.

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That’s why we put more than 30 antivirus programs, including about 10 free offerings, to the test, exposing computers running Windows 10 and macOS to a host of malware samples and malicious websites.

To evaluate the programs’ scam-fighting capabilities, we tossed in 200 phishing web pages, too. These are sites that try to trick consumers into providing sensitive information, such as passwords. Then we looked at how easy each AV program was to use and whether its operation had a negative effect on the computer’s overall performance.

For a full breakdown of the test results, see our updated antivirus software ratings. And here are some recommendations and tips based on what we learned.

Finding the Right AV Package

You don’t have to pay for solid AV protection. Avira Free Security Suite got high marks from our testers for its ability to stop threats. Kaspersky Security Cloud Free and Avast Free Antivirus 2020 also performed well.

Avast, which also owns AVG-branded antivirus products, came under fire earlier this year when it was revealed that the company was using its antivirus products to collect user data, which it then sold. The company says it has since ceased this practice.

The Windows 10 Defender software that comes installed on new Windows computers is not quite as strong as those first three, but it still offers considerable protection. 

But paid programs have extra benefits. Shelling out money—generally $40 to $70—does get you a few perks, says Richard Fisco, who heads electronics testing for CR. Case in point: In addition to its top-rated malware-fighting abilities, ESET Internet Security - 2020 offers a firewall, a spam filter, parental filters, and banking protection. Other paid products provide password managers, anti-ransomware features, and email protections.

Another benefit to a paid program? With one of these, you don’t get peppered with pop-ups asking you to upgrade from the free version, Fisco says. “They can be almost as annoying as adware that pops up on social media and other websites, and constantly bugs you to buy something,” he says.

Opening your wallet does not guarantee you a better product. HitmanPro Alert, $55, posted some of the lowest scores in our ratings when it came to malware protection without offering any meaningful extras. And Malwarebytes Premium performed almost as badly. In both cases, you're better off just sticking with Defender.

Yes, Macs need AV, too. Less malware is aimed at Macs than at PCs, but that’s changing, Fisco says. The amount of malware written for Macs continues to rise. And though Windows PCs have Defender built in, Macs don’t come with anything comparable. As a result, Apple fans can’t afford to ignore cyberthreats any longer.

“And if you don’t protect yourself and you get an infected file,” Fisco says, “you can pass that malware on to a friend with a Windows PC.”

If you’re looking for free antivirus software for Mac computers, we recommend AVG Antivirus for Mac. The top paid options include Bitdefender Antivirus for Mac - 2020, $30, and Kaspersky Internet Security for Mac - 2020, $35.

Download the software from trusted sites. If you click on a pop-up ad promising free AV protection, you could easily end up with malware on your computer. These ads are a common scam employed by cybercriminals. To be safe, go straight to the source and manually type in the web address for the company that offers the product you want to use.