Everybody enjoys a good scare at Halloween. Little kids shudder at ghost stories, teens plan their goriest scary costumes, and adults pay to participate in zombie attacks.
But some things are just too scary.
Imagine sitting down to write the next chapter in your novel and finding it locked away in encrypted form, with a ransom note demanding three bitcoins for the encryption key. Or picture turning on your smartphone only to find it locked, unusable until you pay up. Holy water won’t exorcise these cyber-haunts or ward off their attacks. You need an antivirus utility. We’ve evaluated dozens of them and come with a list of top choices. Pick the one that suits you best, and install it before a botnet turns your computer into a zombie.
I did say antivirus, but in truth it’s unlikely you’ll get hit with an actual computer virus. Malware these days is about making money, and there’s no easy way to cash in on spreading a virus. Ransomware and data-stealing Trojans are much more common, as are bots that let the bot-herder rent out your computer for nefarious purposes. Modern antivirus utilities handle Trojans, rootkits, spyware, adware, ransomware, and more. PCMag has reviewed 46 different commercial antivirus utilities, and that’s not even counting the many free antivirus tools. Out of that extensive field we’ve named four Editors’ Choice products.
Ten more commercial antivirus utilities proved effective enough to earn an excellent four-star rating.
I eliminated three special-purpose products that aren’t really like the rest: Daily Safety Check Home Edition, Malwarebytes Anti-Exploit Premium, and VoodooSoft VoodooShield 2.0.
I also culled Panda Antivirus Pro 2016, as it costs slightly more than the rest, and its free edition gets plenty of attention as an Editors’ Choice for free antivirus.
And Check Point’s ZoneAlarm PRO uses antivirus licensed from Kaspersky, with almost no lab test results for ZoneAlarm itself.
That leaves the ten excellent products you see above.
All of these products are traditional, full-scale, antivirus tools, with the ability to scan files for malware on access, on demand, or on schedule.
As for just relying on the antivirus built into Windows 8.x or Windows 10, that may not be the best idea.
In the past, Windows Defender has performed poorly both in our tests and independent lab tests It did score several wins last year, and it earned decent scores in several more recent tests.
Even so, our latest evaluation indicates that you’d still be better off with a third-party solution.
Listen to the Labs
I take the results reported by independent antivirus testing labs very seriously.
The simple fact that a particular vendor’s product shows up in the results is a vote of confidence, of sorts.
It means the lab considered the product significant, and the vendor felt the cost of testing was worthwhile. Of course, getting good scores in the tests is also important.
I follow five labs that regularly release detailed reports: Virus Bulletin, Simon Edwards Labs (the successor to Dennis Technology Labs), AV-Test Institute, MRG-Effitas, and AV-Comparatives.
I also note whether vendors have contracted with ICSA Labs and West Coast labs for certification.
I’ve devised a system for aggregating their results to yield a rating from 0 to 10.
PCMag’s Own Antivirus Testing
I also subject every product to my own hands-on test of malware blocking, in part to get a feeling for how the product works.
Depending on how thoroughly the product prevents malware installation, it can earn up to 10 points for malware blocking.
My malware-blocking test necessarily uses the same set of samples for months.
To check a product’s handling of brand-new malware, I test each product using 100 extremely new malware-hosting URLs supplied by MRG-Effitas, noting what percentage of them it blocked. Products get equal credit for preventing all access to the malicious URL and for wiping out the malware during download.
Some products earn absolutely stellar ratings from the independent labs, yet don’t fare as well in my hands-on tests.
In such cases, I defer to the labs, as they bring significantly greater resources to their testing. Want to know more? You can dig in for a detailed description of how we test security software.
Multi-Layered Antivirus Protection
Antivirus products distinguish themselves by going beyond the basics of on-demand scanning and real-time protection.
Some rate URLs that you visit or that show up in search results, using a red-yellow-green color coding system.
Some actively block processes on your system from connecting with known malware-hosting URLs or with fraudulent (phishing) pages.
Software has flaws, and sometimes those flaws affect your security. Prudent users keep Windows and all programs patched, fixing those flaws as soon as possible.
The vulnerability scan offered by some antivirus products can verify that all necessary patches are present, and even apply any that are missing.
You expect an antivirus to identify and eliminate bad programs, and to leave good programs alone. What about unknowns, programs it can’t identify as good or bad? Behavior-based detection can, in theory, protect you against malware that’s so new researchers have never encountered it. However, this isn’t always an unmixed blessing.
It’s not uncommon for behavioral detection systems to flag many innocuous behaviors performed by legitimate programs.
Whitelisting is another approach to the problem of unknown programs.
A whitelist-based security system only allows known good programs to run. Unknowns are banned.
This mode doesn’t suit all situations, but it can be useful.
Sandboxing lets unknown programs run, but it isolates them from full access to your system, so they can’t do permanent harm.
These various added layers serve to enhance your protection against malware.
Bonus Antivirus Features
Firewall protection and spam filtering aren’t common antivirus features, but some of our top products include them as bonus features.
In fact, some of these antivirus products are more feature-packed than certain products sold as security suites.
Among the other bonus features you’ll find are secure browsers for financial transactions, secure deletion of sensitive files, wiping traces of computer and browsing history, credit monitoring, virtual keyboard to foil keyloggers, cross-platform protection, and more. You’ll even find products that enhance their automatic malware protection with the expertise of human security technicians.
And of course I’ve already mentioned sandboxing, vulnerability scanning, and application whitelisting.
Which antivirus should you choose? You have a wealth of options. Kaspersky Anti-Virus and Bitdefender Antivirus Plus invariably rate at the top in independent lab tests.
Back from limbo, Norton AntiVirus Basic aced both lab tests and my own hands-on tests.
A single subscription for McAfee AntiVirus Plus lets you install protection on all of your Windows, Android, Mac OS, and iOS devices.
And its unusual behavior-based detection technology means Webroot SecureAnywhere Antivirus is the tiniest antivirus around. We’ve named these five Editors’ Choice for commercial antivirus, but they’re not the only products worth consideration. Read the reviews of our top-rated products, and then make your own decision.
Note that I reviewed many more antivirus utilities than I could include in this story.
If your favorite software isn’t listed here, chances are I did review it, but it just didn’t make the cut. You can see all the relevant reviews on PCMag’s antivirus software page.
FEATURED IN THIS ROUNDUP
Kaspersky Anti-Virus (2017)$59.99The independent testing labs consistently award Kaspersky Anti-Virus their highest ratings, plus it aces our own antiphishing tests, adds plenty of bonus features, and it’s fast.
That’s enough to earn our Editors’ Choice nod again this year. Read the full review ››
McAfee AntiVirus Plus (2017)$59.99McAfee AntiVirus Plus doesn’t score as high as other Editors’ Choice products in testing, but it covers vastly more than the others. One subscription lets you protect every Windows, Android, macOS, and iOS device in your household. Read the full review ››
Avast Pro Antivirus 2016$34.99With Avast Pro Antivirus 2016 you get the same effective protection found in Avast’s free edition along with a hardened browser, DNS protection, and sandboxing.
Experts will love these advanced features, but for the average user the free edition is just fine. Read the full review ››
ESET NOD32 Antivirus 9$39.99ESET NOD32 Antivirus 9 is a step up from the company’s previous version, and gets excellent marks in most independent lab tests.
It scores especially well in our antiphishing and malicious URL blocking tests. Read the full review ››