Malware, Spyware, and Adware Protection
The internet is full of apps and scripts you really don't want on your computer. Ransomware encrypts your important files and demands untraceable cash to decrypt them. Spyware steals information about you and may even peek at your real-world activities through a webcam. Bots enlist your computer in a zombie army, making it spew spam or participate in denial of service attacks. Fortunately, antivirus tools protect against all kinds of malware, not just computer viruses. Check now to make sure all your computers are equipped with up-to-date antivirus protection. If not, don't worry. We've evaluated more than 40 antivirus tools to help you choose the one that's best for you.
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 more than 40 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.
Several other commercial antivirus utilities proved effective enough to earn an excellent four-star rating. I eliminated two special-purpose products that aren't really like the rest: Daily Safety Check Home Edition and VoodooSoft VoodooShield. Also, Check Point's ZoneAlarm PRO uses antivirus licensed from Kaspersky, with almost no lab test results for ZoneAlarm itself.
The release of Sophos Home Premium, another four-star product, puts me in a pickle. I have eleven deserving products, but only 10 slots. I elected to put the new Sophos product in the chart and temporarily remove Emsisoft Anti-Malware. That leaves the ten excellent products you see above.
If you have malware, one of these products should do the job. All of them 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's improving; it earneddecent scores in some 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 four labs that regularly release detailed reports: 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.
We Test Malware, Spyware, and Adware Defenses
I also subject every product to my own hands-on test of malware protection, 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 protection.
My malware protection 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.
Multilayered Malware Protection
Antivirus products distinguish themselves by going beyond the basics of on-demand scanning and real-time malware 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.
Spyware comes in many forms, from hidden programs that log your every keystroke to Trojans that masquerade as valid programs while mining your personal data. Any antivirus should handle spyware, along with all other types of malware, but some include specialized components devoted to spyware protection.
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.
Firewalls, Ransomware Protection, and More
Firewalls 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.
I'm seeing more and more antivirus products adding modules specifically designed for ransomware protection. Some work by preventing unauthorized changes to protected files. Others keep watch for suspicious behaviors that suggest malware. Some even aim to reverse the damage. Given the growth of this scourge, any added protection is beneficial.
What's the Best Malware Protection?
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. In my hands-on tests, Norton AntiVirus Basic outscored every other recent product except Webroot. 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 the chart of top products. If your favorite software isn't listed there, chances are I did review it. You can see all the relevant reviews on PCMag's antivirus software page. All the software listed in this feature are Windows antivirus apps. If you're a macOS user, don't despair, however; PCMag has a separate roundup dedicated solely to the best Mac antivirus software.