Security Shootout: 10 Top Antivirus Apps Put to the Test


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We test 10 popular antivirus apps to find out which are best at defeating today's myriad malware menaces

Once upon a time, the typical computer virus was annoying, and even a little destructive, but nowhere near as dangerous as what computer users face today. The stakes are much higher now, and if you’re not careful or haven’t taken the proper precautions, you’re a sitting duck for hackers to steal your identity and sell your private information to the highest underground bidder. Imagine waking up to find your bank account drained or your credit destroyed. And lest you think we’re exaggerating, consider that most U.S. military personnel aren’t even allowed to tote USB thumb drives and other removable storage devices anymore because of the potential harm of a virus outbreak.

The solution to all this is to not be caught with your virtual pants around your ankles, and lucky for us, antivirus vendors have stepped up their game with increasingly robust all-in-one security suites. In fact, unlike other technology categories, the field of AV continues to expand rather than consolidate, with an overwhelming number of apps promising protection and unique features. That’s where we come in.

To help you sift through the cruft, we’re going to revisit the latest versions of the antivirus apps that showed the most promise (or have been granted a mulligan) from last year’s roundup (January 2009), and we’ll pit them against five of the most reader-requested antivirus suites we haven’t yet reviewed. You’ll notice we’ve narrowed our focus to only two freebie apps this time around (Avira, last year’s champ, and Microsoft Security Essentials, Redmond’s highly anticipated replacement to Windows Live OneCare), so if you do decide to shell out for paid software, you’ll have a wider variety of suites to compare. If the app you’re interested in isn’t included here, let us know and be on the lookout for individual reviews in future issues.

Putting AV to the Test

For AV software to make the grade, it has to excel in each of these five areas

System Performance and Scan Speed

If there’s one thing we learned from last year’s roundup, it’s that not all security suites are as lean as they claim to be. Nor are all of them speedy. To separate the praiseworthy from the pretenders, we look at what effect each AV app has on our system resources, as well as subject each one to a full PCMark Vantage run and compare the results to that of a pre-AV state. We also evaluate how long it takes each security suite to sweep through our system, since an after-hours scan isn’t always an option.


We fully expect to spend a little time configuring our security options and digging through the advanced settings when we first fire up our AV software, but once we’re finished tweaking, we don’t want to be bothered. Security software shouldn’t subject us to useless pop-ups and benign notifications.

Features and Implementation

It can be a tough sell convincing users they should shell out for a security suite when free alternatives abound. But let us be clear about one thing: We’re not looking for which AV solution can cram the most bullet points on the side of the box. We do expect a certain baseline feature-set—spam blocking, spyware protection, real-time scanning, etc.—but we’re also looking for any unique (and useful) additions, as well as how intelligently they’re integrated.


If we’re being totally honest, PC users can be a stingy bunch. Don’t believe us? Then explain why BitTorrent is so popular (and no, it’s not because everyone is in a rush to download the latest Linux distro). Freebie alternatives hold a clear advantage in this category, but we’re willing to concede the value of an effective, all-in-one security suite over piecing together a mish-mash of free antimalware products. The prices for all the paid apps featured here pertain to a one-year license.

Virus Detection

This is really what it’s all about, and to determine the overall effectiveness of each AV app, we take a multipronged approach. First, we fire off a pair of synthetic spyware and virus tests courtesy of and . This is followed by a bombardment of our own collection of malware. Finally, we hit up the seedier side of the web with reckless abandon.

Once we’re finished with our in-house testing, we compare the results with those of Virus Bulletin ( ), an independent testing lab. We also take into consideration whether an app has consistently performed well year after year.

Next Page: The Reviews >>

The Pros and Cons of an Internet-Based AV Approach

We get it—you’re a power user who pushes the limits of your PC, and you’re not about to stuff a full-blown security suite into your finely tuned rig, no matter how lean the footprint might be. After all, if you’re not doing anything risky, then you have little to worry about, right?

Fair enough, but keep in mind there are some things that are simply out of your control. USB keys, digital photo frames, and even driver discs have been found to contain malware. So even if you refuse to install AV software, you should consider turning to the cloud once a month.

Almost every major AV vendor offers free online scanning, but there are pros and cons to this approach. On the plus side, cloud-based scanners tend to always be up to date, and because you’re not installing any software, there’s nothing to rob your system of any resources. Groovy, right? Not so fast, Peter Brady. By relying solely on the cloud, there’s nothing to stop your system from becoming infected in the first place, whereas taking a proactive approach effectively puts up a wall against malware.

When it comes to checking out just a file or two, we especially like Virus Total ( ). After you upload the questionable file, Virus Total taps into 40 different updated scan engines, so if the file turns out to be dirty, there’s a good chance one of the engines will catch it. For more comprehensive scanning, head over to Panda ActiveScan 2.0 ( ).

New Threats Call for a New Breed of Antivirus

Most tech historians credit Richard Skrenta for having written the world’s first computer virus. At the time a 15-year-old freshman in high school, Skrenta wrote what would be called “Elk Cloner” on an Apple II computer as a practical joke.

Today, there are more than a million viruses in the wild, but it’s not just the sheer numbers that pose a problem for antivirus programs. The biggest issue for AV software is how to detect a virus strain never before seen, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Worms like Conficker end up costing corporations millions of dollars while continuing to evolve at a rapid pace.

It’s no longer enough to simply update AV definitions when new threats are detected, and while pulse updates—minor updates throughout the day rather than one big one every 24 hours—have helped, AV vendors have had to get just as creative as the hackers they’re trying to combat. AV apps now employ heuristic scanning, whereby the scan engine looks at certain instructions or commands that are out of the ordinary. A good scanner will also look for signs of suspicious behavior, such as attempting to change security settings or copying files to system directories. When it detects pieces of code or behaviors that aren’t consistent with how most clean programs operate, it’s a red flag that something malicious might be going on.

In the end, the best line of defense is still you, the user. Rely on smart computing first and your AV software second.

The Final Word

What became all too obvious during our comparative evaluation of AV suites is that a strict appraisal of feature lists, and even performance numbers, tells just part of the story. Only by using these apps in a real-world way were we able to conclude, for example, that ESET Smart Security remains a favorite, that the free Microsoft Security Essentials is a great solution for cheapskates, that McAfee has redeemed itself, and that Trend Micro Internet Security Pro just plain sucks.

Scan 1 (Min:Sec)
Scan 2 (Min:Sec) PCMark
(Seconds Added)
16:18 4:47
5,760 +18
Avira 6:37
Trend Micro
5,801 +18
5,738 +24
32:57 5,857

Email Scanning
IM Scanning
Spyware Protection
Rootkit Protection
Identity Protection
Spam Controls
Parental Controls
Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Yes Yes Yes No Yes No
Avira No
Yes Yes No No No No
Yes Yes No No No No
Yes Yes Yes No Yes No
Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Trend Micro Yes
Yes No Yes No Yes Yes
Yes Yes
Yes No Yes Yes
Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
No Yes Yes Yes No No No

All compared AV apps also employed heuristic analysis.

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