Make sure your data isn’t at risk with these great security options – including some that don’t cost a penny
Viruses haven’t been much in the news lately, and the platforms we rely on are a lot more security-conscious than they used to be. The days when you could get infected simply by visiting the wrong website, or when you could pick up a malicious worm by merely connecting to the internet, are thankfully long gone.
That doesn’t mean the threat has gone away. It may be harder for attackers to sneak under the radar, but they can still compromise your security through social engineering – that is, tricking you into voluntarily installing dodgy apps and giving away information that you really shouldn’t. A good security suite can save you from yourself when you’re about to make a dangerous mistake.
As ever, there’s no telling where the next outbreak will come from, or what form it will take. Last year saw the sudden explosion of ransomware, and while security suites were quickly updated to block the threats, a heavy price was paid (often literally) by individuals and businesses who assumed that the malware threat was a thing of the past. You know what they say about an ounce of prevention.
How to choose the best antivirus software for you in 2019
What makes one antivirus suite better than another?
All security software promises to block online threats, and many of them do so very effectively. However, some are prone to false positives, and that could be dangerous. After all, if you’re regularly being warned away from programs that you know full well are safe, that creates uncertainty when the software blocks something you’re less sure of.
All of the packages we recommend below have proved themselves in independent tests by security specialists av-comparatives.org and av-test.org. Check out their websites for more details of test results, and for the latest scores awarded to other software.
Which features should I look for?
Most security publishers offer a range of products at different prices. Even the most basic antivirus tool should intercept malware as soon as it lands on your hard disk. We recommend that you also look for some sort of web protection: an attempted “drive-by download” ought to be picked up by your malware scanner, but you’re safer still if your security software keeps you away from the infected site in the first place.
Webcam protection is another popular tool, ensuring that no app can surreptitiously fire up your laptop camera and start spying on you.
Many suites include secondary tools such as password managers, secure file erasers and performance optimisers. We don’t think it’s worth paying for these, as you can normally get the same benefits from free software. Similarly, if you’re interested in parental controls, check the feature list, because the tools on hand don’t always do much more than Microsoft’s free Family Safety service.
Won’t security software slow down my PC?
Yes, it will. Sorry about that. But it won’t be as bad as you fear, because modern security packages use clever techniques to minimise the impact. For example, applications are typically scanned when you first download and install them; then you later run the application, the security software then only needs to briefly check whether the file has changed. If it hasn’t, it doesn’t need to be scanned again.
Indeed, if you’re currently using Windows without any third-party security software, you can actually expect things to feel faster after you install a new suite. That’s because the built-in Windows Defender antivirus component slows down your system to a greater degree than most commercial alternatives.
How can I get the best price?
The old adage says that you get what you pay for – but in the world of commercial security suites, that doesn’t apply at all. Some publishers sell their products at full price through their own websites, while independent retailers offer deep discounts.
The best advice is simply to spend a few minutes shopping around before you buy. That’s true when you first choose a suite, and also when your subscription is about to expire. You’ll almost certainly get a friendly pop-up inviting you to extend your licence for the full RRP; you can save a lot of money by allowing it to run out and simply buying a new copy.
Best antivirus software 2019
1. Bitdefender Internet Security 2020: Best all-round antivirus
Price when reviewed: £50 (three PCs, one year) | Buy now from Bitdefender
Bitdefender has always been a great “set and forget” choice for internet security, thanks to its beginner-friendly Autopilot feature. In previous versions this used to detect and block threats without any user intervention at all; this latest version is no longer entirely silent, but it gives you clear security recommendations so you don’t need to be a technical expert to stay safe.
Nor do you need to worry about interruptions at unwelcome times, thanks to Bitdefender’s clever profile system. This tailors the software’s behaviour to suit scenarios such as when you’re watching movies, using a public Wi-Fi network and running on battery power – and it automatically works out when to switch profiles, so again it’s effortless to get the best from it.
Another smart feature is “Safe files”, which blocks unknown applications from altering files without your authorisation – a simple measure that should completely defeat ransomware. Throw in webcam protection, a browser extension for safe surfing, a vulnerability scanner, anti-spam and anti-phishing modules, a file encryption tool, a secure browser for banking and online shopping and a simple parental control system (which also works on Android) and you’ve got one of the richest antivirus packages around.
Despite all those features, Bitdefender is nimble. Security specialist AV-Comparatives rated it “very fast” in all but one of its tests (for website browsing, it was merely “fast”), while rival AV-Test found that the suite had an average performance impact of less than 10%.
And effective? Forget about it. Bitdefender romped through all of AV-Comparatives and AV-Test’s most recent malware tests, with scores of 100% across the board, against both zero-day and known threats. It’s hard to see what else you could ask for: the only minor disappointment is the loss of the completely silent Autopilot mode.
2. Kaspersky Internet Security 2019: Best do-it-all security suite
Price when reviewed: £21 (three PCs, one year) | Buy now from Kaspersky
There are several reasons why Kaspersky belongs on this list. The first is that it’s supremely effective: in the latest tests by both AV-Comparatives and AV-Test, it achieved a flawless clean sheet, blocking 100% of malware of all types.
Second, it’s surprisingly light on resources. AV-Comparatives gave it an average overall system performance score of 93%, making it one of the fastest security suites in the business. Note that that’s compared to using no protection at all – if you’re using Windows Defender (rated at 78%), installing Kaspersky will actually give you a significant speed boost.
The third thing Kaspersky has going for it is one of the most extensive feature sets in the business. We love the Trusted Applications mode, which automatically blocks all unrecognised software – making Kaspersky ideal as a fuss-free security suite for less technical friends and family.
Other welcome abilities include a software cleaner, a webcam protection module, an automatic software updater and a parental control module that allows you to restrict not only internet and application usage but social media access as well. The bundled VPN is only a trial, which limits you to 200MB of traffic, but if you want to upgrade to the unlimited service, it costs a very reasonable £20 a year for up to five PCs.
That brings us to the fourth and final reason we keep coming back to Kaspersky: shop around and you can buy a three-device licence for just £21. That makes this not only one of the best, but also one of the cheapest internet security suites out there.
3. McAfee Internet Security 2019: Best budget antivirus suite
Price when reviewed: £10 (three PCs, one year) | Buy now from McAfee
If you’ve heard bad things about McAfee in the past, it’s time to give the suite a fresh look. A few years ago, it was spun off into an independent company by former owner Intel, and it’s rapidly become one of the best suites around. Both AV-Comparatives and AV-Test found that the latest version delivered 100% protection rates against threats both old and new. Performance has had a boost too: AV-Test confirmed that, of all the suites in its most recent report, McAfee had one of the lowest impacts on web browsing speed, with an overall performance score of 92%.
It’s certainly not a product that’s overloaded with functions. You’ll look in vain for a secure browser, a recovery environment or configurable webcam protection. There’s also no built-in ransomware protection, although McAfee does offer a free standalone anti-ransomware tool. Still, all the basics are covered, including web protection with McAfee’s WebAdvisor browser plugin, and a custom firewall.
One aspect of McAfee that still needs a brush-up is the interface. It feels sluggish, and it’s fiddly too. If you want to browse through the settings, you’ll have to click your way through opening 14 separate windows, with the settings further concealed within a series of collapsed panes on each one. It really discourages you from fully exploring what the software has to offer.
If you don’t don’t want to tinker with custom settings, however, and don’t need lots of advanced features, McAfee has become a very attractive offering. The cherry on top is the price: shop around and you can pay as little as £10 for a three-user package. In the past we’ve recommended you steer clear of McAfee, but on present form it definitely deserves another chance.
4. Panda Free Antivirus: Best free antivirus
Price when reviewed: Free | Download Panda Free Antivirus now
As the name suggests, Panda Free Antivirus is completely gratis – yet it’s just as effective as the full-priced packages. AV-Comparatives awarded it a faultless 100% score against both zero-day and known malware, and performance was strong, too: the lab rated Panda as either “fast” or “very fast” in all of its tests.
As is usual with free antivirus tools, there’s not a huge number of features, but the little settings cog exposes a decent set of options. You can tell the program to automatically switch into game mode when an app is running full-screen, choose to be notified before a virus is blocked, decide whether or not to scan for potentially unwanted programs and configure cloud querying for unknown files.
There’s also a USB Protection function, which “vaccinates” USB devices to prevent the spread of flash drive-borne worms, and you can create a USB recovery drive, as a safeguard against future problems. For those who like to make their own investigations, Panda’s process monitor tool lets you see at a glance which processes are accessing the internet, and which sites they’re talking to – potentially a very useful feature for advanced users. And if you spot a process doing something it shouldn’t, you can send it to quarantine with a single click.
If there’s a catch, it’s that Panda Free Antivirus does pop up occasional adverts from the publisher – but these can be easily disabled from the general settings page. It also tries to install a slightly slimy “smart shopping” browser extension, but you can avoid this by simply unticking the relevant box during setup, or removing it from your browser post-installation. Overall, the performance and effectiveness of Panda Free make it our favourite free internet security suite.
5. Avast Free Antivirus: Best free antivirus for features
Price when reviewed: Free | Download Avast free antivirus now
For a free antivirus tool, Avast boasts an impressively long list of features. Alongside the usual virus scanning capabilities, you get web and email protection, plus a browser plugin that warns you away from potentially risky links. Dig into the settings and you’ll find an optional “hardened mode”, which only allows programs on a known whitelist to run.
There’s also a standalone secure browser, and a handy video downloader, which lets you grab copies of videos from YouTube and similar streaming sites (albeit not iPlayer or Netflix). A new Do Not Disturb feature lets you specify which full-screen apps should silence notifications, and which should be treated just like any other application.
The catch with Avast has always been the upsell, and the interface includes many icons for features that aren’t actually included with the free edition. They’re clearly indicated with a little orange padlock next to their icons, but the sheer number of them feels a little pointed. The software also flags up “performance issues” – and invites you to shell out £20 a year for Avast’s commercial clean-up software in order to remedy them. Thankfully, you can disable this behaviour from the settings page.
And the latest tests confirm that Avast’s malware detection abilities are up to snuff. It blocked 99.8% of threats, and it’s light on its feet, too: AV-Comparatives found the package was “fast” when installing new applications and running them for the first time, and “very fast” for everything after that. Those who value a quiet life may be happier with Panda Free Antivirus, but if you’re looking for a trustworthy free antivirus product with a decent set of features, Avast is your best bet.
6. Norton Security Deluxe: Best value for multiple devices
Price when reviewed: £19 (five devices, one year) | Buy now from Norton
The standard edition of Norton Security covers only a single PC, but the Deluxe subscription covers up to five computers, phones or tablets for a very competitive price. There’s also a Premium edition for up to ten devices, which adds parental controls and a cloud backup service with 25GB of included storage.
The feature set is pretty slim. The disk defragmenter and clean-up tools are obviously superfluous, but we do like the startup manager, which lets you click on any item to see all sorts of information about where it came from, when it arrived on your system and how many other Norton users are running it.
When put through its paces by AV-Comparatives and AV-Test, Norton gave a positive performance overall: malware detection scores were impeccable, but the suite throw up a few false positives when installing and using legitimate apps. That means it’s perhaps best suited to more technical users, who are confident enough to overrule their security software from time to time.
Norton wasn’t quite top of the bunch in the speed stakes either, though its overall score of 89% is perfectly credible – and it performed well in the web browsing and application launch tests, which are the activities where you’re most likely to notice a slowdown.
In all, if you’ve a home full of devices to protect, Norton could be a great choice: you might get slightly better performance from a different suite, but not at this price.
7. Bullguard Internet Security 2019: Best security suite with backup
Price when reviewed: £10 (three PCs, one year) | Buy now from Bullguard
BullGuard Internet Security isn’t quite as feature-packed as it looks: above you’ll see buttons for identity protection options and a home network scanner, but if you click them you’re just prompted to pay an extra £20 for BullGuard’s Premium Protection suite. Boo. Not cool.
Still, there’s a fair amount of stuff that is built in. As well as real-time virus detection, the suite includes its own firewall, plus a safe browsing component to steer you away from dodgy links on Google, Bing, Yahoo and Facebook. There’s a sophisticated parental control module too, which lets you block websites by category for specific accounts, set time limits on internet and computer usage, blacklist apps and block the transmission of certain bits of information.
Bullguard’s most distinctive feature is its built-in backup client. This cleverly integrates with Dropbox, Google Drive and OneDrive, so if you have spare cloud storage knocking around you can use it to protect your valuable documents for free. A profile system makes it easy to combine this with larger backup jobs to external devices and locations on your local network.
Performance isn’t quite up to the gold standard: Bullguard achieved a 99.9% protection score against malware, but with a false positive rate of 2.1%. As with Norton, that implies that you might need to ignore its warnings every so often.
What’s hard to beat is the price. Boxed copies of last year’s suite – which will update to the latest version on installation – can be found on Amazon for just a tenner. If you demand perfect protection then you should probably look elsewhere, but Bullguard’s backup agent and tempting price make it well worth consideration.