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In an era when malware is a looming threat to personal computers—not to mention smartphones, routers, and even TVs—the benefits of antivirus software are obvious. But given the wide range of options, it’s tough to choose the one that provides the best protection. Despite constant threats, many people choose to go without any at all.
That’s why we put more than 30 antivirus programs, including about 10 free offerings, to the test, exposing computers running Windows 10 and macOS to a host of malware samples and malicious websites.
To evaluate the programs’ scam-fighting capabilities, we tossed in 200 phishing web pages, too. These are sites that try to trick consumers into providing sensitive information, such as passwords. Then we looked at how easy each AV program was to use and whether its operation had a negative effect on the computer’s overall performance.
As a result, you'll see some significant changes in the rankings. A few antivirus programs that previously had earned a CR recommendation no longer do.
ESET Internet Security (Windows) and ESET Cyber Security Pro (Mac) both lose the distinction, in large part because of ESET's Fair data-privacy score. Our testers found that the company did not grant users sufficient ability to control their personal data, enough information to fully grasp how the data might be shared, and assurance that data collection is limited to what’s required for the operation of the product.
Bitdefender received a Good data-privacy score, but our testers found similar concerns with the controls for personal data use and the info on how data might be shared. And that was enough to pull Bitdefender Antivirus for Mac below recommended status.
Other Windows programs lost recommended status primarily due to protection performance concerns. That list includes Avira Free Security Suite, Avira Antivirus Pro, Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition, and Bitdefender Internet Security.
In response to our data-privacy findings, Bitdefender released a statement saying the personal information of users is collected only when necessary and only used to “maintain, improve, and build better services.”
“We do not share the personal information of our users with third parties,” the company says, “except for specific reasons like legal obligations, hosting services, support channel communications, and marketing services for our own needs.”
Tony Anscombe, ESET’s chief security evangelist, released a similar statement saying that “for privacy concerned users, we limit the amount of personal data to the minimum required in order to activate the product.”
Both companies told CR that they extend protections provided under Europe’s relatively robust GDPR privacy law to users worldwide, but those protections are not fully outlined in their U.S. privacy policies, according to CR’s review.
Glen Rockford, the privacy program manager for CR’s Digital Lab, says companies need to make such policies explicitly clear (in writing and in legally binding documents) so that consumers know at all times which policies apply.
“While we are happy that the companies were responsive to our concerns and take data privacy seriously,” he says, “we believe it is essential that consumers know precisely where they stand and have clear recourse.”
For a full breakdown of the test results, see our updated antivirus software ratings. And here are some recommendations and tips based on what we learned.
Finding the Right AV Package
You don’t have to pay for solid AV protection. Avast Free Antivirus got high marks from our testers for its ability to stop threats against Windows computers. AVG Antivirus Free and Kaspersky Security Cloud Free also performed well.
Avast, which also owns AVG-branded antivirus products, came under fire last year when it was revealed that the company was using its antivirus products to collect user data, which it then sold. The company says it has since ceased this practice. Our testers rate the company's software Very Good, overall, for data privacy.
The Windows 10 Defender software that comes installed on new Windows computers didn't offer strong enough data security protections to receive CR's recommendation this time around, but it did receive an Excellent rating for data privacy, primarily because built-in protection does not expose your personal data to more third parties.
But paid programs have extra benefits. Shelling out money—generally $40 to $70—does get you additional protection, says Richard Fisco, who heads electronics testing for CR. Case in point: In addition to its top-rated malware-fighting abilities, F-Secure SAFE offers a parental filter and banking protection, along with anti-ransomware and spyware technology. Other paid products provide firewalls, spam filters, password managers, and email protections.
Another benefit to a paid program? With one of these, you don’t get peppered with pop-ups asking you to upgrade from the free version, Fisco says. “They can be almost as annoying as adware that pops up on social media and other websites, and constantly bugs you to buy something,” he says.
Our new Advertising rating helps you determine how troublesome those pop-ups could be.
Opening your wallet does not guarantee you a better product. HitmanPro Alert, $55, posted some of the lowest scores in our ratings when it came to malware protection without offering any meaningful extras. It also received just a Good rating for data privacy. Panda Dome Advanced performed almost as badly and received a Fair rating for data privacy, putting it near the bottom of the pack in that area.
Yes, Macs need AV, too. Less malware is aimed at Macs than at PCs, but that’s changing, Fisco says. The amount of malware written for Macs continues to rise. And though Windows PCs have Defender built in, Macs don’t come with anything comparable. As a result, Apple fans can’t afford to ignore cyberthreats any longer.
“And if you don’t protect yourself and you get an infected file,” Fisco says, “you can pass that malware on to a friend with a Windows PC.”
If you’re looking for free antivirus software for Mac computers, we recommend Avast Security for Mac. The top paid options include Kaspersky Internet Security for Mac and F-Secure SAFE. All three of these options received Very Good ratings for data privacy.
Download the software from trusted sites. If you click on a pop-up ad promising free AV protection, you could easily end up with malware on your computer. The ads are a common scam employed by cybercriminals. To be safe, go straight to the source and manually type in the web address for the company that offers the product you want to use.