Antivirus Software Buying Guide

Whether you bought your computer to work from home or just for video streaming and casual web surfing, it's important to protect your device and the data on it with antivirus software

But you don't have to pay for a fancy suite of software, our latest tests confirm.

The evaluations, performed in conjunction with International Consumer Research & Testing, an association of independent, not-for-profit organizations, turned up free antivirus programs that should adequately protect all but the most at-risk internet users from malware—viruses, spyware, and other online threats. (For more on staying safe online, see the CR Security Planner.)

Antivirus Software Types

Free Anti-Malware Programs
These are mostly downloads from brand names such as Avast, Avira, AVG, and Bitdefender. But there’s also the Microsoft Security Essentials anti-malware program available as a free download for computers that run older versions of Windows. On Windows 10 computers it’s called Windows Defender.

Pay Antivirus Suites
Such suites, from brands that include Bitdefender, Eset, and Trend Micro, are meant to provide comprehensive protection in one package. They offer not only malware protection but also a firewall, an antispam filter, and other extras. The latter usually include a child filter, and often a browser toolbar that will alert you when you go to sites that host malware, and sometimes even a file shredder (explained below) and file backup software.

You typically buy the antivirus program online and download it. Or you can upgrade and download it through a free trial version on your PC. You can use an antivirus suite on multiple computers—and in some cases tablets and smartphones—in the same household. Prices usually range from $60 to $80 and include a year of service. After that, you'll typically pay an annual renewal fee.

Spam Filters
These offer supplemental protection that you may want because your email program isn't adequately filtering out unwanted messages. Filters are often built into pay antivirus suites; free options include Spamfighter, which we recommend.

Anti-Phishing Toolbars
Free security toolbars available for all major browsers provide extra protection against phishing sites, especially if you’re using an older browser version or you just want extra protection.

File Shredders
Deleting a file from your hard drive does not remove all electronic traces of it, which can allow someone who accesses or inherits your computer to recover some or all of the file's data. To eliminate that possibility, you need file-shredding software. Some pay antivirus suites include a file shredder, or you can download the free Eraser.

Computer Safekeeping Features

Most free stand-alone anti-malware programs focus only on keeping malware from installing or downloading on your system. Some free antivirus suites include a firewall and child filters. For the features listed below, you'll most likely need a pay antivirus suite.

IM Protection
This feature blocks attempts to deliver malware via instant messages.

Firewall
A firewall keeps malware from downloading and prevents a malicious website from grabbing data off your computer. The best firewalls protect you from incoming and outgoing threats, and pop up clearly worded alerts when a potential breach is detected.

Antispam
The filters provided by many email programs or internet service providers might be all you need to block unwelcome mail. The antispam feature on suites (and stand-alone, and often free, programs) offers supplementary assistance if too many junk email messages are still getting through.

Child Filter
These block access to certain sites unsuitable for children.

Privacy Filter
If you're about to inadvertently divulge personal information, a privacy filter will provide a warning.

Browser Toolbar
These toolbars can be placed into popular browsers to help prevent phishing.

File Shredder
This feature allows you to erase files to prevent their recovery from your hard drive.

File Backup
A suite with this feature will periodically back up your files to another drive.

Data Privacy

This year, for the first time, we've also given each of the software programs we evaluated a data-privacy score, using the open-source guidelines outlined in the Digital Standard. The score is a measure of how the company says it collects, shares, and uses your data. And it factors in the ability each company gives you to control your data. The analysis is based on an evaluation of publicly available materials, including privacy policies, terms of use, and service statements.

As a result, you'll see some significant changes in the rankings. A few antivirus programs that previously had earned a CR recommendation no longer do.

ESET Internet Security (Windows) and ESET Cyber Security Pro (Mac) both lose the distinction, in large part because of ESET's Fair data-privacy rating. Our testers found that the company did not grant users sufficient ability to control their personal data, enough information to fully grasp how the data might be shared, and assurance that data collection is limited to what’s required for the operation of the product.

Bitdefender received a Good data-privacy rating, but our testers found similar concerns with the controls for personal data use and the info on how data might be shared. And that was enough to pull Bitdefender Antivirus for Mac below recommended status.

Other Windows programs lost recommended status primarily because of protection performance concerns. That list includes Avira Free Security Suite, Avira Antivirus Pro, Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition, and Bitdefender Internet Security.

In response to our data-privacy findings, Bitdefender released a statement saying the personal information of users is collected only when necessary and only used to “maintain, improve, and build better services.”

“We do not share the personal information of our users with third parties,” the company says, “except for specific reasons like legal obligations, hosting services, support channel communications, and marketing services for our own needs.”

Tony Anscombe, ESET’s chief security evangelist, released a similar statement saying that “for privacy concerned users, we limit the amount of personal data to the minimum required in order to activate the product.”

Both companies told CR that they extend protections provided under Europe’s relatively robust GDPR privacy law to users worldwide, but those protections are not fully outlined in their U.S. privacy policies, according to CR’s review.

Glen Rockford, the privacy program manager for CR’s Digital Lab, says companies need to make such policies explicitly clear (in writing and in legally binding documents) so that consumers know at all times which policies apply.

“While we are happy that the companies were responsive to our concerns and take data privacy seriously,” he says, “we believe it is essential that consumers know precisely where they stand and have clear recourse.”

Shopping Tips and Safety Measures

Free is fine for most people. As long as you surf safely—that is, you never download software from unfamiliar sites (these downloads might carry malicious software) or click on email links to access bank or other personal accounts (these links are favorite tools for cyberthieves)—the free antivirus programs we recommend should adequately protect you.

Make sure Windows Firewall is on to help block malware and keep malicious websites from grabbing data off your computer.

Consider your computer. Your vulnerability varies by your computer's operating system, though less than you might think. Apple's Mac computers are 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. Several manufacturers offer a Mac-compatible product.

Some antivirus suites demand more resources than others. Machines with less than 4 gigabytes 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 have a high score under "Use of resources" in our ratings. (Use the slider in the full view of our ratings to find that information.)

Choose a pay antivirus suite mostly for convenience and features. An advantage of a pay antivirus suite is that it simplifies your security regimen. It requires just one download and installation and a single upgrade to its database when necessary. Its single interface can also be easier to use than multiple stand-alone programs.

The extras you get with an antivirus suite include a built-in firewall, which can block attempts by malicious software to access data on your computer. In our tests, the firewalls in the best suites afforded slightly better protection than those built into Windows operating systems—though the latter offered adequate protection for most.

With free products, help is usually limited to online FAQs, forums, and tutorials. Most of the tested pay suites offer free email 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.

Protection against phishing. Widely used browsers, such as Chrome, Firefox, and Safari, warn you if you go to a risky site used in phishing scams or one that might host malware.

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