Malware, hackers, spam, identity thieves and more – which antivirus package should you invest in to prevent them playing havoc with your life? We test 10 of the best antivirus apps available

Antivirus isn’t something you can get away without any more, and if you think you can’t be infected, chances are there’s a virus writer somewhere ready and willing to prove you wrong. You probably won’t even know about it when it happens.

In the old days, malware tended to make a big song and dance about its presence, but the rules have changed.

Now written with an eye towards online crime and cold hard cash, the average virus has learned to stay low and spread via almost any vector.

The wrong website.

A lost USB stick.

A Facebook message.

You never know where they could strike, and even if you’re up to speed on what they’re doing now, sooner or later they’ll find a new trick.

For these antivirus reviews, we’ve taken 10 of the best programs around and put them through their paces, not just to see how good they are at stomping viruses, but how much of your valuable resources they soak up.

We’ve all banished an antivirus tool for slowing things down or getting too obnoxious at some point – a modern tool should be expected to keep quiet until it has something important to say, and definitely not get in the way of the applications you’re using or the games you want to play.

Finally, while most of these versions are available as suites, it’s primarily their antivirus capabilities that we’re looking at here. Each offers multiple versions at different price points, typically a pure antivirus tool and an Internet Security Suite edition that bolts on a firewall and often parental controls.

There’s frequently a third edition too, focusing on features like backup and data security.

The core engines are always the same, however, so don’t feel you’re missing out on anything if you don’t need them.

Microsoft Security Essentials
Price: Free (Unlimited PCs)
Info: www.microsoft.com

You need antivirus, but do you need to pay for antivirus? There are plenty of free tools out there to choose from, including variants of many packages reviewed here (although we’re looking at the commercial editions in the interests of fairness, the actual scanning engines are usually similar, if not identical), but Microsoft’s is one of the few that’s entirely free.

There are no upgrades on offer, no souped-up edition to try and upsell you to, and no irritating pop-ups to remind you that it’s there.

This makes it something of a stripped-down package – there’s no firewall, not many options, no web filtering and no gaming mode.

It has all the basics though, including scheduled scans and real-time threat detection, the ability to mark certain files as safe and automatic scanning of all files you download from the internet.

On our test PC, it was by far the slowest antivirus package, taking 25 minutes for its first scan and 12 on a subsequent run, but clawed some time back when it came to reboots, barely affecting how long it took Windows to start up in the morning. It also had one of the lowest CPU utilisation scores on test, making it a good one to have running in the background.

As far as actual scanning goes, we had no complaints. Like most of the tools on test, it was a clean sweep, picking up all the malware on the PC and not falling for any of the false positives. It may be a free tool, but Microsoft has a vested interest in keeping Windows virus-free.

If all you want is a scanner and not any fancy features, it’s more than up to the job of sitting in the background and protecting your PC, out of sight and out of mind.

Rating: 4/5

Webroot Internet Security Complete
Price: £50 (three PCs)
Info: www.webroot.com

Webroot performed reasonably well across the board. It missed one virus from our loadout, but that’s only noticeable because the majority caught them all. Every package will have its blind spots – viruses that it didn’t quite update in time to catch and the one that gets away – so a single miss is nothing to be ashamed of.

It earned a perfect score on false positives however, and proved one of the least system-intensive programs of the lot – it adds barely 20 seconds extra on bootup, has a tiny average memory footprint, and a very respectable scan time and average CPU load.

It was one of the slower programs in the test during the initial scan, but the time drops considerably on subsequent checks.

There’s a dedicated gaming mode, with the handy option to choose how long it stays on. Beyond that, there aren’t many options to play with, and not much stood out.

The Internet Security Complete Pack takes the standard set of antivirus and firewall features and bolts on some handy extras, including protecting your passwords, providing secure form-filling and hanging onto your credit card details.

You also get some free web space, the amount depending on the version – 10GB in the Complete Edition, 2GB in Security Essentials – for file-sharing and backup, which is a handy throw-in, especially because it allows for automatic syncing. Put any files you need to keep into a special Magic Briefcase folder, and they’ll be accessible on any PC that has Internet Security Complete on it.

This should really be a free downloadable app though to beat DropBox and friends.

Rating: 3/5

McAfee Internet Security 2011
Price: £40 (one PC)
Info: www.mcafee.com

The antivirus world’s other heavy hitter doesn’t put in quite as good a performance as this year’s Norton, but still serves up a very respectable performance across the board.

It suffered from the one of the longest boot-up times and the absolute highest CPU load during scans, but compensated by being by far the least memory-hungry program on test. You might not want to play games while it’s running – and there’s no gaming mode provided – but for most apps it’ll be just fine.

In other areas, Internet Security proved a mid-level package.

Its initial scan took a lengthy 17 minutes, which dropped down to just four minutes on a subsequent runthrough – roughly the same as Norton.

It caught 100 per cent of the malware on our test system without falling prey to any false positives, and on a purely aesthetic level, it features a much better interface that makes it easy to access exactly the features you want.

As with all major internet security suites, a capable software firewall is built in, and can be activated and then generally ignored until it spots something you should know about.

Bonus features on offer here include parental controls, file shredding, antispam and a gigabyte of free space (the Norton equivalent is only available in the 360 edition).

The upgraded version, Total Protection, offers all these features, plus an encrypted vault to store files, home network defense and a more advanced version of McAfee’s SiteAdvisor for spotting bad links.

For most however, Internet Security will be all you need, and while it may not have come out the winner this year, it remains a strong performer.

AVG Internet Security 2011
Price: £38 (one PC)
Info: www.avg.com

AVG is best known for its free antivirus, but this commercial version offers more than a few reasons to upgrade, including identity protection and a built-in firewall.

Still, install it and you could be forgiven for thinking it’s still trying to upsell you on a later version, because it’s more than a little eager to make sure you know everything it’s doing. It adds a Gadget to the Windows Sidebar, its firewall is very noticeable, and it can feel like the smart kid at the front of the class going “Sir! Sir! I know, sir!”

Still, it performs well enough for a pat on the head. In tests, it was easily the fastest of the tools here on first scan, and an excellent performer on subsequent scans. It demands fairly high CPU usage, but barely affected rebooting times at all.

On the all-important virus test, it was a clean sweep for both actual malware and false-positives.

The only real weaknesses are the Link Scanner, which protects you from malicious sites and sending out dodgy links via Facebook, but only in internet Explorer and Firefox, and it’s not always clear exactly what its options will do for you – the Identity Protection component being particularly vague.

AVG is a strong contender, although for personal use, it must be noted that if it’s only the antivirus side of the package that you’re interested in, you can still download it for free. (For professional/corporate use, you need to pay up for the full package.)

The main things you miss out on if you opt for the free version are the firewall, anti-spam (which you probably won’t use since it’s clientside only), IM conversation scanning, and the Identity Protection component.

Rating: 4/5

Norton Internet Security 2011
Price: £50 (three PCs)
Info: www.symantec.com

Like McAfee, Norton is one of the kings of the antivirus world and this latest version of its Internet Security suite doesn’t let the side down at all.

Where previous versions could be annoyingly ‘in your face’, the 2011 suite feels more quietly confident, from its new interface showing current trouble hotspots around the world to the easy-to-use tools it provides for scanning and cleaning.

In tests, Norton’s antivirus put on one of the best performances. It had no difficulty with the viruses we sent it to find and didn’t fall for any of the false positives we set up for it. Norton has long had a reputation for being a heavy package, but this time out, it’s a good lodger.

A very long initial scan soon gave way to one of the fastest second scans, with a solid CPU and memory footprint.

Bonus features on top of the core antivirus scanning in the Internet Security 2011 edition include parental controls, firewalling and tools for identity theft protection.

The next level up, Norton 360, adds online backup/PC tuning, although nothing extra that you really need for online security.

One complaint we do have, however, is that while Symantec offers a 30-day trial of Norton products, there’s a bit of a catch – they’re what the company calls ‘opt-out demos’. In short, you have to give it your credit card number and if you don’t actively cancel before the end of your trial period, you’ll automatically be billed for a whole year’s worth of protection.

Hopefully this doesn’t catch on with other companies, because it’s not the friendliest way of road-testing alternative suites.

Rating: 4/5

VIPRE Antivirus Premium
Price: £50 (unlimited PCs)
Info: www.vipre.com

VIPRE offers a few interesting features, one of which is its ‘lifetime’ subscription option.

Unfortunately this costs £60, and isn’t a great deal considering the all-home licence you get in the regular edition.

Also, the ‘lifetime’ is that of your PC, not yourself.

Since you’re going to upgrade and almost certainly have more than one machine around, in most cases you’re going to be better off with the regular yearly subscription, spread out between your computers.

In tests, it proved to be a mid-range performer. It was one of the worst tools for slowing down boot-times, although not quite the slowest, and one of the slowest at actually scanning the drive after its first look around.

Its CPU utilisation is reasonable though, and while there’s no dedicated gaming mode, it never got in the way of actually playing games.

It may take time to do its job, but you probably won’t be inconvenienced while it does it in the background.

Its performance against our test system was a clean sweep, catching all of the viruses put in front of it, and not falling for any of the false positives hiding among them.

In testing, no major problems reared their heads at all, save that it can be very chatty – always keeping you in the loop, whether you have a reason to care or not.

VIPRE Antivirus is available in two versions – Premium and regular.

The main differences are that only the Premium edition features a firewall and intrusion prevention, with a few other features thrown in – notably ad blocking, web filtering.

The antivirus component itself appear to be the same decent performer.

Rating: 3/5

PC Tools Internet Security 2011
Price: £50 (three PCs)
Info: www.pctools.com

The first thing that stood out about PC Tools was that it had by far the biggest effect on our test machine’s boot times, increasing them by a good half a minute. In three different tests, it spiked a 38-second boot time to a whopping 2:10, 1:49 and 1:40 – quite a difference.

Luckily, that was the only major negative we encountered while using it.

Its memory usage and CPU load were average, and its actual scanning was surprisingly fast.

The first long initial scan took around half an hour, but dropped down to a mere 46 seconds for its follow-up run.

As with most tools here, it caught everything that was waiting for it on the drive, and didn’t clock up any false positives against its record while doing so.

Its feature set is a strong one, with one of the more reactive firewalls we saw in these products immediately kicking in. Unlike many, there are a few handy shortcuts you can use, including telling it what kind of network you’re on, and having the firewall settings auto-configured to match – very handy if you just want to get started.

In a similar vein, a gaming mode is both present and automated, kicking in whenever you go into full-screen mode.

Additional web security filters include spam filtering for Outlook and Thunderbird via toolbars, and plenty of online protection tools to watch out for any potentially dodgy websites and dangerous downloads.

It’s one of the cheaper antivirus solutions out there as well, at only £40 for a three-user license per year. It’s a pity about that initial sloth, but there’s little to complain about elsewhere in this strong internet security suite.

Rating: 3/5

Kaspersky Pure
Price: £50 (one PC)
Info: www.kaspersky.com

Kaspersky currently offers three different security products, in escalating level of price: regular Kaspersky Antivirus, Kaspersky Internet Security and this one, Kaspersky Pure. Both Antivirus and Pure are excellent performers, and caught all the malware in our test sweep without falling prey to any traps.

The regular Antivirus proved marginally faster, while soaking up equally marginal extra system resources, and is a little cheaper, but Pure offers a few extra toys to play with. Whichever version you look at, it’s going to be an excellent product.

Internet Security bolts on extra parental controls and tune-up utilities. Pure adds backup to the mix and beefs up the firewall component, with more emphasis on the security of your home network.

The most interesting feature Kaspersky Internet Security/ Pure includes is the ability to run applications in a sandbox, without you having to go to the trouble of setting up dedicated virtual machines.

Any app you have installed can be locked away in one, identified by a radioactive green glow around its window.

A shared folder handles any data-swapping. You still shouldn’t use this to test programs you know are dodgy – or run them at all – but it’s a good extra to have when browsing the web or trying out new applications.

Kaspersky’s protection is a strong offering across the board, with a more informative control panel than most, but one that provides easy configuration options. It’s a little more power for only small amount extra, but you won’t be disappointed with the other editions if you don’t need the extras.

Rating: 4/5

BitDefender Total Security 2011
Price: £50 (one PC)
Info: www.bitdefender.com

BitDefender Total Security is another very solid product, with no particular specialities that push it above the herd, but no major weaknesses either. It caught all the malware, it didn’t fall for any traps, and it did it very effectively indeed, with quick scans and reasonable CPU and memory loads.

It has a dedicated gaming mode for keeping resources under control, and is one of the few products that does a proper scan of your PC before even installing, just to make sure it’s safe.

The interface is somewhat unusual, initially looking like there aren’t many features, before revealing that they’re tucked away to help prioritise the ones that you actually use. Don’t need laptop mode? Flick a switch and it’ll never be shown again. Not a gamer? Say goodbye to the gaming mode.

Alternatively, if you want everything up front, you can just as easily switch into a more advanced user mode mode with all the options. One excellent touch is that before you use the software, it offers to actually guide you through, with one tutorial for existing BitDefender users and another for complete newcomers.

In terms of features, it’s the standard loadout: firewall, parental controls, and a few extras for tuning up your PC and backing up files.

The slightly cut down Internet Security 2011 edition loses the last couple of features, which is fine if you already have space to store your things, and costs slightly less.

There’s also a pure antivirus edition, which is one of the cheaper on the market.

This misses out on the firewall and parental controls, but otherwise still offers everything you could need to stop malware in its tracks.

Rating: 3/5

Titanium Internet Security 2011
Price: £40 (one PC)
Info: http://uk.trendmicro.com

Trend Micro’s offering was by far the worst at picking up viruses in this year’s test, failing to fix a dismal 23 per cent of the viruses planted on our test PC compared to most of the others’ 100 per cent scores and Webroot’s only slightly shaky 97.1.

In its favour, it didn’t throw up any false positives, but nor did any of the other tools. We might just have caught it on a bad day, but we can’t say it was a great start for this package. It’s a cloud-based virus scanner however, so new emerging threats should be protected against very quickly.

In terms of raw performance, there’s little to praise except for the fact that boot-up time after installing Trend was almost identical to before it, with a variance of just six seconds – the only other package even close to that was Microsoft itself, at 10 seconds.

In scanning, it used fewer resources than most, but not dramatically so. It took over 10 minutes to complete its secondary scan, where most – although not all – of its competitors ripped right through our test rig. Still, it wasn’t the slowest performer by any means, beating both VIPRE and Microsoft by a good couple of minutes.

As far as extra features go, you get the standard firewall, a client-side spam blocker, plus some very handy extras: built in parental controls that both block kids from naughty sites and serve up reports, and a Data Theft Prevention tool that takes in your most important passwords and personal details and watches out for them slipping into the wrong hands.

All good stuff, let down by its initial performance. Hopefully next year it’ll be better prepared.

Rating: 2/5

Best antivirus: verdict

The most surprising thing about this antivirus test is how little difference there is between most security suites at the moment.

If you buy antivirus, you’ll get that.

Anything with ‘Security’ in the name is going to double that up with a firewall.

All are incredibly easy to use, and the majority scored a clean sweep in our tests. That makes it harder to recommend individual packages, but the good news is that as long as you stick with the known names, you’re unlikely to buy a dud.

Whether it’s a bonus feature you like, or simply added performance you crave, you can purchase in confidence. Just make sure you invest in one of them, because the criminals writing viruses will always have another trick up their sleeves…

Editor’s choice: Norton Internet Security 2011

It’s a close fight, but Norton’s excellent performance and revamped interface make it our pick of this year’s crop. It’s easy enough for anyone to use, but with lots of excellent bonus features to dip into if you need a bit more power.

Unsurprisingly catching everything we threw at it, it’s a security suite you can be completely comfortable using as your digital guard-dog.

Performance award: Kaspersky Pure

With excellent scanning and a grab bag of genuinely useful security extras, it’s hard to fault Kaspersky’s high-end suite. You can get slightly faster and more system-friendly tools if you want everything more automated, although Pure won’t give you trouble, but this is the one to go with if you want to squeeze as much power out of your choice of protection as possible.

Value award: Microsoft Security Essentials

You can’t get better value than free, and Microsoft Security Essentials is more than good enough – as long as you know what you’re doing. You may miss a few of the extra features, and have to sort out your firewall separately, but it’ll keep you safe from most of the threats you’re likely to download without the obnoxious extras. No licenses, no adverts, just free protection.

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