Every year, antivirus vendors paint the same gloom-and-doom portrait, their canvases filled with startling statistics outlining the rapid spread of malware. As a consumer, the natural reaction is to look at these reports with a fistful of salt and a sack of skepticism—after all, AV vendors have a vested interest in promoting a need for security software, but are we really as vulnerable as they say? It all depends on your computing habits, but make no mistake, the web is a dangerous place to roam.
We’ve seen firsthand what a malware-infected PC looks like; it isn’t pretty. Today’s malware strains not only slow down your PC and bombard you with pop-ups, they can also capture your keystrokes and send your bank login information to a cybercriminal thousands of miles away. An innocent mouse click on the wrong URL is all it takes to set the wheels in motion, and the next thing you know, someone else is using your identity to open up a credit card account. Not cool.
Careful computing is your best line of defense, but sometimes it’s not enough. Security software adds another layer of protection, which is why we run an antivirus roundup each year. This time around, however, we asked you to vote on which 10 programs should make the cut, and you’ll find the results on the following pages. If the one you voted for isn’t represented here, let us know and we’ll consider running a stand-alone review in a future issue.
What matters in an antivirus program and why
We’re passionate about our PCs, and we don’t spend endless hours researching parts and tweaking settings only to watch a security program rob us of the performance we so carefully crafted. To keep these programs honest, we compare how long it takes to boot into Windows versus a clean install. We also examine the impact on PCMark 7 and Vantage scores, and how long it takes to transfer 6GB of data. Finally, we measure the time it takes to run a first and subsequent system scan.
We know what we want when it comes to security software, but do the developers know? We deduct points for programs that try to upsell us additional security or that are hyperactive with unnecessary security alerts. At no time should we have reason to be annoyed or frustrated with an AV program. Period.
Most of the programs voted into this roundup are Internet security suites that promise to go above and beyond simple virus protection. In theory, these suites should include everything we need to stay safe on the web, and everything else is icing on the cake. At the same time, we don’t want to be bogged down with arbitrary add-ons that exist solely to beef up an AV’s resume. We’re looking for useful additions, and also how well they’re integrated into the core package. Extra points are awarded to AV programs that inform you when you need to update an app, plugin, or browser.
Let’s get one thing straight: You don’t need to pay for protection. If that’s the case, why bother reviewing non-free security suites? Put simply, we believe there’s value in security programs that bundle multiple layers of protection and features into a tidy package. However, the ones that charge an annual fee have to convince us that they’re worth paying for, unlike the free AV programs, which get an automatic pass in this category.
If you think this category should hold the most weight, we’re right there with you. Pricing and features don’t mean diddly-squat if an AV program turns a blind eye to malware. This is also the trickiest category to judge. Our approach is multipronged and starts with synthetic spyware and virus tests found on www.spycar.org and www.eircar.org. Next, we consult with independent testing labs Virus Bulletin (www.virusbtn.com), AV-Comparatives (www.av-comparatives.org), and AV-Test (www.av-test.org). Finally, we subject each program to our own collection of malware and dirty links.
Quiet as a mouse, lethal as a lion
Far and away our favorite feature of BitDefender is its Autopilot mode, which ought to be called “Shut Up and Leave Me Alone” mode. When engaged, BitDefender’s autopilot steps in as if to say, “I’ve got this, you just go about your business,” and as you do whatever it is you do on your PC, any and all security-related decisions that need to be made are handled silently in the background.
This feature alone is a godsend if you’re the designated IT guy for friends and family members—no more late-night calls about security pop-ups or, even worse, messed up machines because your mother-in-law granted permission to a dirty download even though a security warning advised against it. D'oh!
It also requires a fair amount of trust, which BitDefender earned as we did our best to break down its defenses. There wasn’t much that BitDefender didn’t recognize right off the bat as malicious, and the few dirty downloads it didn’t immediately identify were thwarted by its cloud-based definitions. Malware stands little chance, though it comes at a small cost.
There’s the price of the security suite itself, but you’ll also pay in performance. Our 6GB file transfer test took 11 seconds longer to perform with BitDefender installed, which translates into roughly a 10 percent performance hit. Both PCMark scores suffered slightly, though oddly enough, there was no increase in boot time. Scanning was also a mixed bag, with an initial sweep taking over half an hour, but reducing to less than four minutes during subsequent runs.
The performance hiccups aren’t enough to sour us on BitDefender. It offers a tough veil of protection that’s unobtrusive, and value-added features like a virtual keyboard for shopping sites, online storage, and a vulnerability scan that detects out-of-date software add to the overall package.
BitDefender replaced scheduled scans with an Auto Scan driver that hunts for viruses when resources are available.
BitDefender Total Security 2013
$80 (3 PCs, 1 Year), www.bitdefender.com
Security for social-networking butterflies
You can customize Trend Micro’s user interface by uploading a photo of your own or selecting from a handful of preloaded images.
It’s been three long years since we last reviewed Trend Micro, having exiled the program from our annual AV roundups for its particularly poor showing back then. We don’t hold grudges, however, and apparently neither do the Maximum PC readers who voted Trend Micro into this year’s AV cage match. Have things changed since then?
They most certainly have. Whereas the old Trend Micro cowered in the corner when we unleashed a flurry of malware, the latest version threw itself in harm’s way and made sure nothing outwardly awful infiltrated our test bed. Malware was able to sneak in by hiding in zip files, but they were quickly beheaded as soon as they stuck out their necks. As an extra precaution, we recommend enabling real-time scanning of compressed files, an option that’s not checked by default.
Independent testing labs generally gave Trend Micro high scores, so between their tests and ours we’re much more confident in TM’s ability to hold the fort when danger comes knocking. It’s also a good choice if you spend a lot of time on social networks. Trend Micro expanded the number of social networks it scans for dangerous links to now include Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Sina Weibo, in addition to Facebook, Twitter, and Mixi. There’s also a “Privacy Scanner” for Facebook that analyzes your settings and makes recommendations.
Not all is roses and rainbows, however. Trend Micro’s active scanner had the biggest negative impact on our file-transfer test, which took nearly 50 percent longer versus a clean install. We’re also disappointed Trend Micro doesn’t offer more fine-grain control over its settings. Part of the reason is because there’s no built-in firewall, just a “firewall booster” feature that aides the Windows firewall. Overall, Trend Micro is leaps and bounds better than three years ago, but there’s still room for improvement.
Trend Micro Maximum Security
$90 (3 PCs, 1 Year), www.trendmicro.com
No longer the performance hog it once was
For better or worse, reputations are hard to shed, and some folks still view McAfee as a gas-guzzling dump truck parked out on the front lawn, oftentimes uninvited. OEMs like to bundle McAfee with other trialware on new systems, a two-way relationship that also benefits McAfee, albeit at the expense of street cred. And then there’s the recent drama surrounding company co-founder John McAfee, who faked a heart attack to evade Belizean authorities (it’s a long, bizarre story that’s worth a Google search).
None of that really matters as far as we’re concerned, because the reality of how a product performs far outweighs the perception of the masses. So, how did McAfee perform? Like a roller coaster with several ups and a few downs.
This year’s build is redesigned with a touch-friendly tiled interface that’s obviously geared toward Windows 8 users, though it functions just fine with a mouse and keyboard and on Windows. All the main functions sit front and center, and it doesn’t take much effort to dig beneath the surface to where the advanced controls are located.
When surfing shady websites, McAfee did a good job blocking most malicious downloads, though it did let a few dirty files reach the desktop. Most that touched ground were quickly put under lock and key, but a few slipped through, including a file identified as a keygen by Malwarebytes.
System performance was another mixed bag. McAfee didn’t affect our test bed’s boot time, nor did it bog down our PCMark 7 benchmark run. PCMark Vantage, on the other hand, scored 1,700 points lower. Subjectively, the system didn’t feel sluggish with McAfee installed, which hasn’t always been the case.
We can’t say whether power users are ready to forgive McAfee for past sins, but as it stands, it’s an above-average scanner filled with features.
McAfee’s redesigned interface will especially appeal to users with touchscreen displays.
McAfee Internet Security 2013
$80 (3 PCs, 1 Year), home.mcafee.com
Old dog in security learned some new tricks
ESET Smart Security 6’s dashboard is largely unchanged from versions 4 and 5 in appearance. It consists of a main window with a handful of navigational prompts in the left-hand pane including Home, Computer scan, Update, Setup, Tools, Help and support, and Training. The main window changes as you click through each one but the left-hand pane never does, making navigation a breeze. If you find yourself knee-deep in an advanced setting and want to hightail it out of there, just click on Home or any of the other headings.
There’s nothing flashy about ESET’s interface. It hasn’t been modernized for Windows 8 or touchscreen displays, or for 2013 in general, and you can’t customize the layout or upload your own background image à la Trend Micro. Dig beneath the surface, however, and you’ll uncover a gold mine of options. In the Setup screen, for example, there are headings for Computer, Network, Web and email, and Parental control, and each of those have their own subheadings that you can, at minimum, enable or disable. In addition to all that, there’s an advanced setup screen accessible via a link at the bottom of the window. Less-savvy users will find the sheer depth of settings overwhelming, and even advanced users might lose track of everything they tweaked. If you’re setting up ESET for multiple clients, you can export and import configurations to save time.
We dinged the program last year for letting a few nasty containments through, a rare misstep for a program that’s collected a dozen straight VB100 awards from Virus Bulletin in the past two years. It fared much better in our tests this time around.
ESET’s interface is unchanged from the previous two versions, but there are some new features, such as Social Media Scanner and a suite of anti-theft tools.
Bundled with the latest version is a Social Media Scanner that combs your Facebook profile for infected content. It’s also available as a free download, so that alone isn’t enough to tip the scales in ESET’s favor. There are plenty of other tools, however, such as parental controls and, new to this release, anti-theft features that can help you locate a lost or stolen mobile device. If someone swipes your laptop, you can engage the webcam, track its location, or initiate a Phantom Account so that your real account—and all your personal data—is hidden from the thief. You can even send a message, such as “Reward if found.”
A slow on-demand scanner and an aging interface are all that prevent ESET from earning a Kick Ass award.
ESET Smart Security 6
$60 (1 PC, 1 Year), www.eset.com
No single product is all-knowing when it comes to malware, which is always evolving, so it’s a good idea to solicit a second or even third opinion on occasion. We recommend running an on-demand scanner around once a month, and also any time you have reason to believe something may have slipped past your AV software. Does your system suddenly feel sluggish? Are your web searches getting hijacked? These are both indicators that a foul file has infiltrated your PC.
One of our favorite on-demand scanners is Malwarebytes (free, www.malwarebytes.org). Not only is Malwarebytes adept at uncovering pesky programs that manage to hide from your AV scanner, but it also has a way of running even when malicious programs specifically try to prevent it from firing up. Just head to Start > All Programs > Malwarebytes Anti-Malware > Tools and click the Malwarebytes Anti- Malware Chameleon icon.
Another program we recommend adding to your toolbox is Comodo Cleaning Essentials (free, www.comodo.com), which allows you to terminate, delete, or suspend any untrusted item with a single mouse click. It doesn’t require installation, making it a handy program to tote around on a USB stick.
If an infection is preventing your AV scanner from running, don’t panic. Yet another option is web scanning. There are lots to choose from, including Panda ActiveScan (free, http://bit.ly/2T0ite). Alternately, if all you need is a background check on a single file, upload it to VirusTotal (free, www.virustotal.com), which will check it against dozens of AV scan engines.
When more of the same isn’t necessarily a bad thing
If you’re familiar with last year’s build, you’ll feel right at home in
Last year’s overhaul gave birth to an interface designed for touch, a theme that’s been carried over to the 2013 release, which is a near carbon copy. In fact, our entire experience with KIS 2013 gave us a serious sense of déjà vu.
Familiarity kicked in when we were once again duped by what at first appeared to be a subsonic installation routine, only to find ourselves mired in an unusually long update process that took north of 10 minutes on a high-speed connection. Subsequent definition updates zip through cyberspace at a much faster pace.
Also like previous versions, Kaspersky’s scan engine sprints to the finish line, especially after performing an initial sweep. Our first full scan took 14 minutes and 26 seconds, and a second scan shaved 13 minutes off that time by skipping over files that hadn’t changed.
The similarities continue. Once again, Kaspersky watched us download several contaminated files to the desktop before springing into action, whereas some of the other AV programs would cut off the same downloads before they could finish. To its credit, Kaspersky neutralized almost every threat and its track record among independent testing laboratories is very good; it even earned a Product of the Year award from AV-Comparatives.
Brand-new to KIS 2013 is a feature called Safe Run that’s designed to protect your online banking sessions. Safe Run detects when you navigate to a popular payment service like PayPal or a banking website and opens up a protected browser to isolate your transaction. You can also use a virtual keyboard as an additional layer of protection (from keyloggers).
While the Safe Run feature is unique, Kaspersky hasn’t yet jumped on the social-media bandwagon like some of the other programs. Still, it’s a fleshed-out and polished security solution that’s tough on malware.
Kaspersky Internet Security 2013
$80 (3 PC, 1 Year), www.kaspersky.com
Why buy the security suite when the protection’s free?
Before Windows got its act together, it was imperative to download a third-party firewall to keep the bad guys at bay, and ZoneAlarm was often at the top of the list. The firewall in Windows is much improved these days, and if you’re sitting behind a router, you’re further protected against malicious inbound traffic. Does that render ZoneAlarm obsolete?
Not as far as we’re concerned. Like the ones included in other advanced security suites, ZoneAlarm’s firewall offers more sophisticated protection and is able to sniff out mischievous code trying to sneak its way in (or out) by masquerading as a legitimate program. We also give ZoneAlarm credit for hushing its firewall, which is much better about making security-minded decisions in the background rather than bombarding the user with pop-ups.
Here’s the thing: Even if all you have is a ball of lint in your pocket, you can afford ZoneAlarm’s free antivirus + firewall combination, which has many of the same features as the $80 suite reviewed here. Should you decide to plunge into paid territory, the only extras are 24/7 technical support, parental controls, spam controls, and automatic hourly signature updates.
Let’s backtrack a moment and talk about AV performance. ZoneAlarm wouldn’t tell us which company it licenses its scan engine from, though we believe it’s still Kaspersky, which the company confirmed several years ago. The initial definition update was just as pokey as Kaspersky, and we also noticed similarities in how downloads are able to reach the desktop before they’re neutralized. Scanning our test bed was nearly as quick, too.
ZoneAlarm also includes identity protection, Facebook privacy scanning, advanced do-not-track controls, and 5GB of online backup. It’s a well-rounded feature-set, and it’s all available in the free version, too. There’s just not enough added value to recommend the paid suite.
If ZoneAlarm detects an issue, the corresponding module in the dashboard will turn red.
ZoneAlarm Internet Security 2013
$80 (3 PCs, 1 Year), www.zonealarm.com
Big-time protection with a small footprint
First things first—last year, we said that if Symantec ever removes Norton’s real-time (and real hokey) Threat Map from the UI, we won’t have anything left to piss and moan about. Well, guess what? Symantec finally got rid of the useless Threat Map, which displayed hotspots of AV activity around the world, and wouldn’t you know it, we’re fresh out of complaints.
That doesn’t mean we can’t nitpick. At nearly 24-and-a-half minutes for an initial sweep of our test bed and a little over 10 minutes for a subsequent scan, Norton finds itself a few car lengths behind pole position in this roundup. And as long as we’re picking nits, we’re a bit disappointed Norton still hasn’t adopted a virtual keyboard as an added layer of protection against keyloggers, which would come in handy when signing into banking sites. Oh, and it’s not free.
Big whoop—our manufactured reprimands notwithstanding, Norton Internet Security (NIS) is the total package. Notice we left out the year from the product name. That’s because Symantec dropped the annual label and has promised to push out new product and feature updates throughout the year so that you always have the latest version, so long as your subscription is current.
On the surface, NIS looks similar to last year’s release, minus the Threat Map and with larger tiles on the main screen. Between automatic background scans and pulse updates that are doled out every five to 15 minutes, there’s really no reason to bring up the interface, unless you want to check how many days are remaining on your subscription or need to adjust advanced settings. In case of the latter, Norton allows you to dig as deep as you want to go.
In addition to virus scans, Norton will analyze your Facebook wall and check the trust level of programs running on your system.
Symantec is constantly improving its SONAR technology, which analyzes how programs behave to determine if they pose a threat. It also takes into account how old a file is and how many other Norton users have downloaded it. This can be problematic for inexperienced developers learning the ropes of clean code, though SONAR is easily disabled. In most cases, we recommend leaving it on and letting it zap potential threats.
Speaking of which, NIS pounces on poisonous downloads like a fumbled football. That is, if it doesn’t block the offending site first. On top of it all, Norton had the least impact on system performance out of all the paid suites.
Norton Internet Security
$80 (3 PC, 1 Year), www.norton.com
Just because you have antivirus software installed doesn’t mean you can roll around the web with impunity. New and emerging threats, also called “zero-day” attacks, are those that are so recent that software developers haven’t had a chance to plug up the vulnerability they’re trying to exploit. The same holds true for your AV software—until there’s a definition update, zero-day threats have a free pass to run amok. That’s why behavior-based scanning is so popular, but even the best-rated apps sometimes fall short in this area. It’s all the more reason to be vigilant, but how?
Well, your best line of defense is to practice smart computing habits and avoid putting yourself in high-risk situations. Pirating software is one the quickest ways to contract a digital disease, but it’s far from the only one. Venturing over to seedier sides of the web—the URLs that only get typed into incognito browser sessions—is another hotspot for malware (excuse the pun).
As an added layer of protection, consider surfing with Sandboxie (free, www.sandboxie.com), which wraps a virtual layer around your browser so that any changes programs make while surfing the web are isolated from the OS.
Pro-level protection that’s pro bono
At first, Avast is almost relentless in trying to get freeloaders to upgrade, but over time, its solicitations calm down considerably.
For some, a paid security suite is a luxury that just doesn’t fit within the budget. Luckily, there are programs like Avast you can enlist as your PC’s personal bodyguard for nothing in return.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Avast requires a modicum of system resources to work its mojo, and though it’s free to install, Avast frequently tries to sway you into purchasing additional protection. It starts during the installation scheme, and again you’re encouraged to upgrade to a paid package when you fill out the registration form, which you have to do within 30 days for it to continue working. On top of it all, there’s a persistent banner ad integrated into Avast’s main menu.
Should you remain steadfast in your conviction to save your money, you won’t be the worse for wear since the free version takes security just as seriously as its paid brethren. The level of fine-grain control is almost dizzying, and one setting we recommend checking right off the bat is to scan for potentially unwanted programs (PUPs).
Avast usually scores high marks from independent testing labs, and we can see why. It’s very good at sniffing out hidden dangers, and when we were finished stepping on virtual landmines, Avast mitigated the damage, leaving just a few harmless remnants behind. Only Norton blocked more malware.
Avast automatically shoves suspicious programs into a sandbox, thereby isolating them from the OS. Unfortunately, you can’t invoke the sandbox at will, nor will you find a firewall or antispam controls, features that are reserved for the Pro version.
Unique to Avast is a remote assistance tool. If you (or your parents) run into a jam, you can share a special code with another Avast user to open up a remote support session similar to programs like LogMeIn—nifty!
Avast Free Antivirus Version 7
Decent option for low-risk users
Move along, Windows 8 users, there’s nothing for you to see here. Windows 8 already has its own built-in antivirus solution called Windows Defender, which acts more like MSE than like Windows Defender on older versions of Windows, Microsoft claims.
If you’re rocking Windows 7 or earlier, MSE offers more robust protection than Windows Defender, and it’s free to boot. But it’s also somewhat limited in scope compared to its freebie competitors. There are just a handful of settings to play with, such as enabling/disabling real-time protection and setting up file-type exclusions. You can also schedule an automatic scan and (optionally) allocate CPU usage from 10-100 percent in 10 percent increments (50 percent is the default setting). Beyond those controls, micromanagers will quickly grow bored.
MSE wielded one of the lowest system footprints of all the antivirus solutions we tested. It had virtually no impact on PCMark and only added a few seconds to our 6GB file transfer test. That’s impressive, but lest Microsoft pull a muscle patting itself on the back, MSE’s scan engine ran abysmally slow in our tests. It took over an hour to sweep our hard drive, more than twice as long as the next-slowest contender, and even a subsequent scan took a comparatively lengthy 25 minutes to complete.
So the scan engine is slow, but is it methodical? That’s a bit harder to assess. MSE was recently criticized for failing to receive certification from AV-Test.org, though Microsoft contends that 0.0033 percent of MSE users “were impacted by malware samples not detected during the test.” Other labs rate MSE favorably, though in our own tests, MSE was average, blocking most dirty downloads but also letting a few malicious programs write to the registry.
MSE passes muster for low-risk users, but there are better AV solutions.
Once you initiate a scan, you either have to let it complete the run or cancel the process; there’s no pause button.
Microsoft Security Essentials 4.1
An old favorite now faces stiff competition
You know that long-distance friend of yours who looks drastically different every time you meet up? If he were an antivirus program, he’d be AVG, which once again is sporting a new style. This latest version is clearly influenced by Windows 8, though the tiled interface only runs skin-deep. Once you click (or touch) through to the advanced settings, the tiles disappear and a new two-pane window pops up with categories on the left-hand side and checkboxes shoveled to the right.
There are plenty of options to keep you busy, and like last year’s release, you can upload custom sounds and attach them to specific events. One thing we found annoying is that a few of the settings are ploys to upsell AVG’s paid security software, and it’s not always clear at first glance. For example, one of the main tiles reads Fix Performance, yet there’s nothing to indicate it’s not included in the free version until after it’s finished analyzing your system for registry errors and other potentially performance-hobbling cruft.
For anyone paranoid about privacy, the Do Not Track feature integrated into AVG’s browser toolbar tattles on websites and advertisers trying to collect data about your online activity. It works with IE, Chrome, and Firefox. There’s also an Identity Alert feature (not to be confused with Identity Protection, which AVG uses to describe behavior-based scanning), but that’s another paid extra.
AVG’s interface is a little cluttered, in part because it lists modules that are only part of the paid security suite.
Large file transfers are noticeably slower with AVG installed, though not much else gets bogged down. Scan times were among the fastest, and though we were able to overwhelm AVG’s defenses with dirty downloads, it defused most of the payloads, and was especially adept at blocking browser exploits.
Out of the three free AV contenders, Avast offers the best balance of performance and features; AVG is a close second.
AVG Antivirus Free 2013