Nobody wants to pay for antivirus software, particularly savvy PC users who know that the best protection is still to practice smart computing habits. You are your best line of defense and if you avoid shady websites, use different passwords for each online account, and avoid clicking on links in email and instant messages, you might be fine to roll without protection. Then again, you might not be.
The Internet is a dangerous place and even legitimate websites could inadvertently be serving up malware in the background. In some cases, your PC could be infected without any obvious signs. Usually, however, there are telltale symptoms—sluggish performance, redirected web searches, random popups, and outright extortion of your files, a form of malware on the rise known as ransomware.
If you don't have large files to scan, perhaps the best solution is to use a website we like called VirusTotal—now owned by Google. VirusTotal is awesome because it essentially uses all the anti-virus software in available to scan a given file. All you have to do is choose your file, and boom, let VirusTotal scan and spit out a comprehensive report. There's even a desktop app that handles the uploads for you. While VirusTotal's service is free, there's a size limit, and it won't do things like system scans for you. For that, you'll still need traditional protection.
How much protection you need or want is up to you. The good news is there’s an assortment of options out there. As expected, the best ones cost money, though not all paid AV programs are created equal. We’ve been rounding up and evaluating security programs over the past several years and continue to monitor the landscape. Here are the ones we consider the best of the bunch.
Best full featured security package
- Autopilot mode protects without nagging
- Tough protection against all malware
- Has a two-way firewall
- This level of protection isn't cheap
There are a few different options we could have picked for this category and the biggest reason we chose Bitdefender is because when it comes to AV protection, we prefer the strong and silent type. . Once installed, Bitdefender goes into Autopilot mode by default and makes all security related decisions for you. It won’t bother you with popups and alerts, nor does it even ask you to go through and configure its behavior. There’s no handholding here—Bitdefender is confident in its abilities to protect your system without making a fuss.
We’re confident in Bitdefender too, both because of own experience throughout the years, and because it continues to do well in independent lab tests. In AV-Test.org’s latest evaluation, Bitdefender detected every single threat, including 213 zero-day malware samples and over 20,000 widespread and prevalent malware discovered in the past four weeks. It did pick up a few false positives, but not enough to ding Bitdefender’s Usability score. And it’s passed 32 straight VB100 comparative tests by Virus Bulletin dating back to October 2010. In other words, Bitdefender rarely trips up.
Best lightweight antivirus
- Barely uses any storage or RAM
- Doesn't interrupt gameplay
- Suprisingly well fleshed out
- System optimizer doesn't do much
When Webroot approached us several years ago about a nimble security product that existed almost entirely in the cloud, we couldn’t help but roll our eyes. The level of hype that followed felt like a marketing schtick—here was this new AV program that was supposed to install in under 10 seconds and barely help itself to RAM or storage, yet provide adequate protection on the level of much bigger security suites. Yeah, right!, we thought. But here’s the thing, .
SecureAnywhere was and still is a remarkable outlier in AV. It takes up just a few megabytes of disk space and uses about 5MB of RAM when idle. During an active scan, Task Manager shows SecureAnywhere using around 50MB of RAM and less than 15 percent CPU utilization, yet takes just a couple of minutes to scan 150GB of data spread across two SSDs. It doesn’t get more lightweight than this, not unless you take your chance without any AV software.
Best free antivirus: Avira Free Antivirus for Windows
- It's free!
- Customizable firewall
- Reliable protection
- Nags with ads
Arguing over the best free antivirus is a lot like debating beers. Some prefer a fuller bodied ale with hints of fruits and spices, while others go for a less bitter lager to quench their thirst. And so it goes in our free antivirus category in which we narrowed the choices down to Avira and BitDefender. We ultimately gave the nod to Avira, but it was close.
We chose Avira because of the level of customization available. Whether you want to duck your head into the software’s menus and start fiddling with knobs and dials is up to you, but if you do decide to tweak Avira’s behavior, you’ll find a modest toolchest of options. One setting we highly recommend enabling is to search for rootkits before scanning. It will increase scan times, but rootkits are particularly nasty in how they dig their hooks deep in the OS, so it’s better to err on the side of safety.
Finding the right level of AV protection is largely a personal thing. Yes, there are solutions that are better than others, but once you separate the good from the bad, it comes down to features, price, and whatever other criteria is important to you. That’s our way of saying if you don’t agree with our choices, don’t sweat it; we’re not saying your AV software stinks.
There’s also the question of whether you even need to run third-party security software. Windows Defender is free and it’s built into Windows 10. The advantage of running a security suite is that it bundles a more comprehensive solution into a tidy package. And of course the disadvantage is that they cost money. That is, unless you’re willing to piece together your collection of security software and utilities.
Finally, understand that no single AV software keeps you immune from all malware 100 percent of the time. There’s always a chance that something could slip through. No matter what you run, one thing we recommend doing is getting a second opinion from Malwarebytes. It doesn’t conflict with AV software and it can help root out foul files that have slipped past your AV scanner.