We tested premium and free computer security software to see how well they protect you on the internet. We also give our top tips for staying safe online.
Snapshot: AVG AntiVirus Free + Windows 10 Firewall has an anti-phishing feature. How well can it protect your computer?
Snapshot: McAfee AntiVirus Plus has an anti-phishing feature. How well can it protect your computer?
Snapshot: Avira Antivirus Pro has anti-phishing and banking protection features. How well can it protect your computer?
Snapshot: Panda Security Antivirus Pro has an anti-phishing feature. How well can it protect your computer?
Snapshot: Trend Micro Antivirus+ Security has anti-phishing and anti-spam features. How well can it protect your computer?
Snapshot: Avast! Free Antivirus + Windows 10 Firewall has an anti-phishing feature. How well can it protect your computer?
Snapshot: Avira Free Antivirus + Windows 10 Firewall has an anti-phishing feature. How well can it protect your computer?
Snapshot: Sophos Home has an anti-phishing feature. How well can it protect your computer?
Snapshot: Eset Internet Security has anti-phishing, anti-spam and banking protection features. How well can it protect your computer?
Snapshot: AVG Internet Security has anti-phishing and anti-spam features. How well can it protect your computer?
Snapshot: BullGuard Internet Security has anti-phishing and anti-spam features. How well can it protect your computer?
Snapshot: G Data Internet Security has anti-phishing, anti-spam and banking protection features. How well can it protect your computer?
Snapshot: Avast! Internet Security has anti-phishing, anti-spam and banking protection features. How well can it protect your computer?
Snapshot: Kaspersky Internet Security 2017 has anti-phishing, anti-spam and banking protection features. How well can it protect your computer?
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Why do you need security software? Without it, the data on your computer could be ripe for the taking by hackers or susceptible to viruses, spyware and spam. Some security software also help protect your computer from email scams and malicious websites, which can attempt to access your personal data.
When it comes to protecting your computer, we recommend security software. These types of software offer a raft of protection measures in one package. They are also easier to manage than individual programs as they only require one installation, one regular update and one subscription payment for you to remember.
Separate anti-malware (also known as antivirus) programs can offer similar levels of protection, but to achieve this you need to install multiple programs – such as a virus scanner, malware removal tools and a firewall – and keep tabs on multiple accounts. You also need to update each program individually.
We think you should always use security software – either paid or free – to protect your computer while surfing the internet.
Security programs are designed to run constantly, but are notorious for slowing down computer performance. We hear of many consumers loading system-hungry security programs on to older machines, which then grind to a standstill.
Some users get so frustrated, they end up removing the software: that’s money down the drain and it exposes your computer to risk.
Before you buy:
Check the software’s minimum system requirements. If your PC only just meets those, look for something else.
Some manufacturers offer free downloadable limited-time trial versions. This gives an indication of what effect the software could have on your computer’s performance.
While Windows computers are more likely to be the target of malware than Macs, there are still some nasties that can affect them. User error or phishing scams can expose Macs to potential danger.
When correctly set up, a Mac requires an administrator password before allowing changes to the system software. It’s essential to only give permission when you know exactly what it is you are allowing and trust the source.
Moreover, Macs can pass on Windows viruses. Note: any Mac running Windows (via Boot Camp, Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion) needs Windows security protection.
Before installing any new security programs, ensure your computer’s operating system and all other software has the latest updates.
Microsoft release security patches on the second Tuesday of each month (called Patch Tuesday) and you should get the most recent updates.
Most malware gets on to your computer through email attachments sent by unknown people or by clicking on unsafe links. If you don’t know the sender or website, don’t click!
Your bank will never send you an email that links to its websites. Always access your bank’s website by following an existing bookmark or by typing in its web address.
A firewall stops this by monitoring data going into and coming from your computer and filtering out malicious connections. These connections can be attempts to take your data, gain control of your computer or to initiate downloading a virus.
The first is through system vulnerabilities or exploits: these use the phone’s own systems to run malicious code. The second is through fake applications that look like legitimate and free (or sometimes even paid) applications in the app store but which turn out to be malware. Google is getting better at removing these apps from its Play Store – but it’s still not perfect.
In its latest test of Android-based security software, independent test lab AV-Test (av-test.org) compared 21 security programs designed to keep your smartphone and tablet safe from attack, focusing on real-world threats and assessing the software’s protection, usability and features.
Some issues this test looks at are:
Tip: When choosing a mobile security program it’s important to look at not only malware protection but also other daily-use security features such as anti-theft measures, parental controls, backup and encryption.
Some security software have licences that let you use them on more than one computer, but what if you want to protect more than just your home PC? Many security programs have licence options that allow you to cover additional computers and other computing devices (such as smartphones and tablet computers). These “multiple-device” licences are often pricier but can protect a range of operating systems and devices (iOS, Android, Windows and Apple OS X).
We test security software on a Windows 10 PC, so performance may differ from our test. Most security software have limitations on what additional computing devices and platforms they can protect, so check what the software supports before you buy.
On an ongoing basis:
Some online apps, such as those on Facebook, require accessing your account to work and some malicious apps can be used to “hack” your account (“hack” in this sense simply means to “take over”).
Our advice in examples of hacking, such as the 2013 Xtra email incident, is to check Facebook, Twitter and even your browser extensions for applications that have been added. Remove any you don’t use or you think are suspicious. Options for this can be found under “settings” in most cases.
Software that delivers advertisements on your computer.
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).
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.
A software program and/or hardware device that limits outside network access to a computer by blocking or restricting entrances (ports) to your computer.
A generic term for unwanted software that secretly executes unwanted actions.
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.
Scanning of selected files as required by a user.
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.
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.
The isolation of files suspected to contain a virus, so they can’t be opened or activated.
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).
Unsolicited (junk) email distributed on a large scale and often part of a scam.
Software that secretly gathers information about a user from a computer.
A malicious program hidden in a benign application. Often used by hackers to enable access to the victim’s computer.
A software program, script, or macro designed to infect, destroy, modify, or cause other problems with a computer or software program.
Check out more of our tests, articles, news and surveys in our Technology section.
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