Computer security software

Protect your computer from the web’s worst with an internet security package.

Hands typing on a laptop protected by security software.

Whether it runs Windows or Mac, you need a buffer between your computer and malware on the internet. Security software or an antivirus program can provide protection, but what should you look for and will premium or free software suit? Here's what you need to know to find the right program.

We tested 12 free and 22 premium antivirus programs for malware protection, ease of use and system impact.

Find a computer security package

What is a computer security package?

There are a few components to successful internet security – firewalls, scanning for viruses and removing them – that can be done with separate programs. But we think you’re better off with a single suite that manages it all with only one installation and, for premium products, one subscription to pay.

Tip: Before choosing a security package, make sure your computer’s operating system has the latest updates. Ideally, you should also keep your web browser and other important programs updated.

Join

Our members help keep us independent

Get unlimited access to all content and support us in staying independent.

Learn more Join Consumer Log in

Do I need to pay?

Many packages are available in free and paid varieties. Both are legitimate options, depending on your priorities.

Free version: contains all the same basic functions and is just as secure. However, it will incessantly ask you to upgrade to the paid version and may also come bundled with extra programs you don’t need.

Premium version: aside from removing ads, will come with advanced features. Some, such as ransomware protection, are like insurance policies – not useful on a daily basis, but if you do need them, you’ll really need them. Others, such as password managers, are mostly for convenience or protecting against human error.

Security for Macs

Don’t assume your Mac is safe. We found the macOS operating system provides almost no protection against malware, so an antivirus package is important even though there are fewer viruses going around for Macs.

Features to look for

  • Phishing protection: a website impersonating a company, such as your bank, is an example of phishing. Often, the idea is that you’ll enter your password before noticing the scam. Most security programs block sites known to be involved in phishing. However, a lot of phishing is done via email, so look for a package with email scanning as well.
  • Parental controls (content filtering): allows you to blacklist (block) certain websites, or to specify keywords or content that, if detected, will prevent a page from loading.
  • Pop-up and ad blocking: pop-up windows often contain adware or viruses.
  • Ransomware protection: this type of malware takes your data, encrypts it, and only decrypts it once you pay a ransom (if you’re lucky). It’s rare but can be devastating.
  • Cookie blocking: cookies are small files that save personalised information about your activity on websites. They’re widely used and often helpful, but can be a privacy risk.
  • Scan on install: ideally, you’ll be installing on a virus-free computer. If you’re not sure, look for software that scans your computer before or during installation.
  • Scheduled scanning: allows you to set the program to scan specific folders at regular times.
  • Password manager: generates complex passwords on demand and stores them in an encrypted database. They’re much harder to guess, increasing security.
  • Game mode: tells the firewall that the online game you’re playing is safe, and delays pop-ups, regular scans and updates until you’ve finished. Often, this mode can also be used for streaming video or other resource-intensive activities.
  • Multiple-device licences: many premium programs have licence options that allow you to cover additional computers and devices, such as smartphones and tablets, across a range of operating systems including iOS and Android.
  • System requirements: check your computer meets the program’s recommended processing power and RAM. The software is running constantly, so if it’s too resource-hungry it’ll slow your machine to a frustrating crawl.

Technical terms

Here’s some security terminology you may come across:

Adware

Software that delivers advertisements on your computer.

Banking protection

This prevents your computer sending data to other websites when it detects you’re using internet banking.

Boot virus

Affects the Master Boot Record of a hard disc, where information about the drive is stored (when you boot from the infected disc, the virus loads before the operating system does).

Botnet

Short for bot network, also known as a "zombie army", it’s a collection of infected internet-connected computers running unauthorised automated software (called robots or bots) that can distribute spam and viruses and launch attacks on computers or networks.

Firewall

A software program and/or hardware device that limits outside network access to a computer by blocking or restricting entrances (ports) to your computer.

Malware

A generic term for unwanted software that secretly executes unwanted actions.

On-access scanning

Constant monitoring of a computer’s memory and file system that activates automatically and scans any file (as it’s opened, closed or moved) to detect virus activity before it can infect the system.

On-demand scanning

Scanning of selected files as required by a user.

Phishing

Attempts to lure users to reveal credit card details, account passwords and personal information by pretending to be an email from a trusted financial institution or service.

Port

A virtual opening into your computer through which information can pass in and out. Used for communicating over the internet. Port can also refer to a physical connection point for attaching devices.

Quarantine

The isolation of files suspected to contain a virus, so they can’t be opened or activated.

Ransomware

Ransomware is a particularly nasty type of malware that locks the data on your computer using encryption. It then displays a ransom message asking for payment to release your data. The reality is even if you pay the ransom, your data are unlikely to be released. Regular backups are the best means of recovery as you can roll back your data to before they were encrypted. However, security software is still needed to remove ransomware and protect your computer from further attacks.

Rootkits

Programs that conceal malicious code’s access to files, folders and registry keys (they also make programs, system services, drivers and network connections invisible to the user).

Spam

Unsolicited (junk) email distributed on a large scale and often part of a scam.

Spyware

Software that secretly gathers information about a user from a computer.

Trojan

A malicious program hidden in a benign application. Often used by hackers to enable access to the victim’s computer.

Virus

A software program, script, or macro designed to infect, destroy, modify, or cause other problems with a computer or software program.

More on Technology

More on Technology

Technology clp promo img

More on Technology

Check out more of our tests, articles, news and surveys in our Technology section.

Browse reports