The Best Free Antivirus Protection of 2018. Malware, Spyware, and Adware Protection
As of this writing, the mid-term elections haven’t yet happened. When they do, you may or may not be pleased with the results. If you’re not happy, your thoughts may turn to the possibility that hackers hit government sites with DDoS attacks, or even launched malware attacks on voting machines to change the outcome. Alas, there’s nothing you can do on your own to fend off that sort of attack, except perhaps to vote in tech-savvy election officials. But you can do your bit to keep your own backyard clean by installing a powerful antivirus utility and keeping it fully up to date. We’ve torture-tested than 40 antivirus tools, so we can recommend the best ones for your consideration
The Best Free Antivirus Protection of 2018
We call it antivirus, but in truth it’s unlikely you’ll get hit with an actual computer virus. Malware these days is about making money, and there’s no easy way to cash in on spreading a virus. Ransomware as well as data-stealing Trojans are much more common, as are bots that let the bot-herder rent out your computer for nefarious purposes. Modern antivirus utilities handle Trojans, rootkits, spyware, adware, ransomware, and more. PCMag has reviewed more than 40 different commercial antivirus utilities, and that’s not even counting the many free antivirus tools. Out of that extensive field we’ve named five Editors’ Choice products.
Several other commercial antivirus utilities proved effective enough to earn an excellent four-star rating. We eliminated two special-purpose products that aren’t really like the rest: The Kure and VoodooSoft VoodooShield. That leaves the ten excellent products you see above. If you have malware, one of these products should do the job. All of them are traditional, full-scale, antivirus tools, with the ability to scan files for malware on access, on demand, or on schedule.
These commercial products offer protection beyond the antivirus built into Windows 10; the best free antivirus utilities also offer more. However, Microsoft Windows Defender Security Center is looking a bit better lately, with some very good scores from independent testing labs. In our hands-on tests, it showed a marked improvement since our previous review, enough to finally bring it up to three stars.
Listen to the Labs
We take the results reported by independent antivirus testing labs very seriously. The simple fact that a particular vendor’s product shows up in the results is a vote of confidence, of sorts. It means the lab considered the product significant, and also, the vendor felt the cost of testing was worthwhile. However, Of course, getting good scores in the tests is also important.
We follow four labs that regularly release detailed reports: SE Labs, AV-Test Institute, MRG-Effitas, and AV-Comparatives. We also note whether vendors have contracted with ICSA Labs and West Coast labs for certification. We’ve devised a system for aggregating their results to yield a rating from 0 to 10.
We Test Malware, Spyware, and Adware Defenses
We also subject every product to our own hands-on test of malware protection, in part to get a feeling for how the product works. Depending on how thoroughly the product prevents malware installation, it can earn up to 10 points for malware protection.
Our malware protection test necessarily uses the same set of samples for months. To check a product’s handling of brand-new malware, we test each product using 100 extremely new malware-hosting URLs supplied by MRG-Effitas, noting what percentage of them it blocked. Products get equal credit for preventing all access to the malicious URL and for wiping out the malware during download.
Some products earn absolutely stellar ratings from the independent labs, yet don’t fare as well in our hands-on tests. In such cases, we defer to the labs, as they bring significantly greater resources to their testing. Want to know more? You can dig in for a detailed description of how we test security software.
Multilayered Malware Protection
Antivirus products distinguish themselves by going beyond the basics of on-demand scanning and real-time malware protection. Some rate URLs that you visit or that show up in search results, using a red-yellow-green color-coding system. Some actively block processes on your system from connecting with known malware-hosting URLs or with fraudulent (phishing) pages.
Software has flaws, and sometimes those flaws affect your security. Prudent users keep Windows and all programs patched, fixing those flaws as soon as possible. The vulnerability scan offered by some antivirus products can verify that all necessary patches are present, and even apply any that are missing.
The Best Free Antivirus Protection of 2018
Spyware comes in many forms, from hidden programs that log your every keystroke to Trojans that masquerade as valid programs while mining your personal data. Any antivirus should handle spyware, along with all other types of malware, but some include specialized components devoted to spyware protection.
You expect an antivirus to identify and eliminate bad programs, and to leave good programs alone. What about unknowns, programs it can’t identify as good or bad? Behavior-based detection can, in theory, protect you against malware that’s so new researchers have never encountered it. However, this isn’t always an unmixed blessing. It’s not uncommon for behavioral detection systems to flag many innocuous behaviors performed by legitimate programs.
Whitelisting is another approach to the problem of unknown programs. A whitelist-based security system only allows known good programs to run. Unknowns are banned. This mode doesn’t suit all situations, but also, it can be useful. Sandboxing lets unknown programs run, but it isolates them from full access to your system, so they can’t do permanent harm. These various added layers serve to enhance your protection against malware.
Firewalls, Ransomware Protection, and More
Firewalls and spam filtering aren’t common antivirus features, but some of our top products include them as bonus features. In fact, some of these antivirus products are more feature-packed than certain products sold as security suites.
Among the other bonus features you’ll find are secure browsers for financial transactions, secure deletion of sensitive files, wiping traces of computer and browsing history, credit monitoring, virtual keyboard to foil keyloggers, cross-platform protection, and more. You’ll even find products that enhance their automatic malware protection with the expertise of human security technicians. And of course we’ve already mentioned sandboxing, vulnerability scanning, and application whitelisting.
We’re seeing more and more antivirus products adding modules specifically designed for ransomware protection. Some work by preventing unauthorized changes to protected files. Others keep watch for suspicious behaviors that suggest malware. Some even aim to reverse the damage. Given the growth of this scourge, any added protection is beneficial.
Beyond Antivirus: VPN
Your antivirus utility works in the background to keep out any faint possibility of infestation by malware, but its abilities don’t extend beyond the bounds of your computer. When you connect to the wild and wooly internet, you risk the possibility that your data could be compromised in transit. Sticking to HTTPS websites when possible can help, but for full protection of your data in transit you should install a virtual private network, or VPN. This component is important enough that we’re starting to see it as a bonus feature in some antivirus tools.
What’s the Best Malware Protection?
Which antivirus should you choose? You have a wealth of options. Kaspersky Anti-Virus earned perfect scores in all the latest independent lab tests, and Bitdefender Antivirus Plus came very close. A single subscription for McAfee AntiVirus Plus lets you install protection on all of your Windows, Android, Mac OS, and iOS devices. And its unusual behavior-based detection technology means Webroot SecureAnywhere Antivirus is the tiniest antivirus around. We’ve named these four Editors’ Choice for commercial antivirus, but they’re not the only products worth consideration. Read the reviews of our top-rated products, and then make your own decision.
Note that we have reviewed many more antivirus utilities than we could include in the chart of top products. If your favorite software isn’t listed there, chances are we did review it. The blurbs below include every product that managed 3.5 stars or better. All the utilities listed in this feature are Windows antivirus apps. If you’re a macOS user, don’t despair, however; PCMag has a separate roundup dedicated solely to the best Mac antivirus software.
Editors’ Note: We are aware of the allegations of Kaspersky Labs’ inappropriate ties to the Russian government. Until we see some actual proof of these allegations, we will treat them as unproven, and continue to recommend Kaspersky’s security products as long as their performance continues to merit our endorsement.
Best Antivirus Protection Featured in This Roundup:
The Best Free Antivirus Protection of 2018
$25.99 at Bitdefender
Pros: Outstanding scores in independent lab tests and our web protection tests. Multi-layered ransomware protection. Password manager. Banking protection. Offers a virtual private network, or VPN. Many security-centered bonus features.
Cons: Unlimited VPN access requires a separate subscription. With antivirus disabled, ransomware-specific features missed one uncommon sample.
Bottom Line: With outstanding antivirus test results and a collection of features that puts some security suites to shame, Bitdefender Antivirus Plus is a top choice.
$29.99 at Kaspersky Lab
Pros: Perfect scores from four independent testing labs. Perfect score in our phishing protection test. Good scores in our malware-blocking and malicious URL blocking tests. Numerous bonus scans. Full-scale phone and live chat support.
Cons: Bonus scans overlap each other significantly.
Bottom Line: Kaspersky Anti-Virus sweeps the antivirus testing labs, with all perfect scores. It remains an antivirus Editors’ Choice.
$18.99 at Webroot
Pros: Perfect score in malware protection test. Light on system resources. Good scores in malicious and fraudulent URL tests. Ransomware protection. Fastest scan. Advanced features.
Cons: No lab test results.
Bottom Line: Small, speedy Webroot SecureAnywhere AntiVirus hardly uses any of your system’s resources. It aces our hands-on malware protection test, and it can even roll back ransomware activity.
$19.99 at McAfee
Pros: Protection for every Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS device in your household. Good scores in hands-on tests. Perfect score in antiphishing test. Includes new ransomware protection and PC Boost, plus many bonus features.
Cons: Ransom Guard missed one hand-modified ransomware sample. PC Boost web speedup works only in Chrome. Mac edition less feature-rich than Windows or Android. Still fewer features for iOS.
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Bottom Line: A single subscription for McAfee AntiVirus Plus lets you protect every Windows, Android, macOS, and iOS device in your household. It’s quite a deal, and the current edition adds some new and useful features.
$39.99 at AVAST Software
Pros: Excellent scores in our hands-on tests. Good scores from independent labs. Wi-Fi inspector. Password manager. Numerous useful, security-related bonus features. Pro-only Sandbox and Real Site features.
Cons: Password manager features limited. Some bonus features require separate purchase. Pro-only features don’t merit the price.
Bottom Line: Avast Pro Antivirus 2017 offers the same wealth of features as its free edition, and not a lot more. It’s an excellent product, but for most people the free version will suffice.
$39.95 at Check Point Software
Pros: Advanced firewall. Antivirus licensed from Kaspersky. Unique and effective phishing protection. Includes useful bonus tools.
Cons: Sparse results from independent labs. Advanced features too advanced for average user. At max sensitivity, OSFirewall flagged both good and bad programs. Phishing protection only in Chrome.
Bottom Line: With the powerful ZoneAlarm firewall, antivirus licensed from Kaspersky, and a unique new approach to phishing protection, Check Point ZoneAlarm PRO Antivirus + Firewall 2017 is worth a look.
$27.99 at ESET North America
Pros: Good scores from independent testing labs. New UEFI scanner finds malware in firmware. HIPS component blocks exploits. Speedy full scan. Comprehensive device control.
Cons: So-so phishing protection. Device control too complex for most users.
Bottom Line: ESET NOD32 Antivirus gets good scores in lab tests and our own tests, and its unusual new UEFI scanner can detect a malware infestation in your PC’s firmware.
$29.99 at Sophos
Pros: Excellent antiphishing score. Very good malicious URL blocking score. Protects against ransomware, keyloggers, and exploits. Remote management for up to 10 PCs or Macs. Inexpensive.
Cons: Lab test results not current. Advanced features require uncommon tech expertise. Limited parental control and webcam protection.
Bottom Line: The new Sophos Home Premium security suite brings consumers powerful protection technology forged in the company’s Enterprise-level products, including ransomware protection, keylogger blocking, exploit mitigation, and more.
$19.99 at Symantec
Pros: Excellent scores in our malware and exploit protection tests, and our malicious URL blocking test. Good scores from independent antivirus labs. Includes spam filter, password manager, and other bonus features.
Cons: Poor antiphishing score. First full scan unusually slow. Limited tech support. No Virus Protection Promise. Expensive.
Bottom Line: Symantec Norton AntiVirus Basic gets good scores from the independent labs and very good scores in most of our hands-on tests. However, it tanked our antiphishing test this time around, it’s expensive, and it lacks full tech support.
Pros: On reboot, restores your PC to a clean, malware-free state. Exempts personal folders from being wiped. Ransomware recovery proved effective in testing. Live-chat tech support built in.
Cons: Malware can act freely until eliminated by reboot. Doesn’t offer 24-hour tech support.
Bottom Line: When your PC has The Kure installed, you can wipe out malware just by rebooting. Your own documents aren’t affected, and it even has the ability to reverse the effects of encrypting ransomware.
$24.95 at Trend Micro
Pros: Excellent scores in our antiphishing and malicious URL blocking tests. Multi-faceted ransomware protection. New Mute Mode prevents interruptions when you’re busy. Includes spam filter, firewall booster.
Cons: Mixed results in independent lab tests. Ransomware protection not suited to PCs with multiple users.
Bottom Line: In addition to effective malware protection, Trend Micro Antivirus+ Security offers layered protection against ransomware, spam filtering, and a firewall booster.
$19.99 at VoodooSoft
Pros: Prevents non-whitelisted programs from launching when computer is at risk. New machine-learning tool flags malware. Checks blocked files against 57 antivirus scanners. Free edition for consumers.
Cons: Could possibly whitelist malware running prior to installation. Flagged some legitimate programs as suspicious, some as malicious.
Bottom Line: VoodooShield takes a whitelist approach to antivirus protection, but without getting in the user’s way. A new machine-learning component brings it closer to the abilities of a standalone antivirus.
Best Price at Amazon
Pros: Excellent score in our hands-on malware blocking test. Very good score in our malicious URL test. Bonus tools.
Cons: No ratings from independent testing labs. No in-house security research. By default, does not delete found malware. Poor antiphishing score.
Bottom Line: The technology that Ashampoo Anti-Virus licenses from other companies does very well in most of our tests, but you’re probably better off just going straight to those other vendors.
$29.00 at Cylance
Pros: Easy installation, no configuration. Good scores in our tests.
Cons: Not included in regular independent lab tests. No protection against fraudulent or malicious URLs. Lacks additional protection layers found in many competitors.
Bottom Line: Commissioned lab tests and our own tests show that the machine-learning detection engine in Cylance Smart Antivirus really can identify malware, but it lacks the full range of protection features found in many competitors.
$29.95 at Emsisoft
Pros: Very good independent lab scores. Excellent score in our malware protection test. Behavioral detection successfully blocked ransomware. Surfing protection is browser-independent. Inexpensive.
Cons: Dismal score in our phishing protection test. Few scores from independent labs. Behavioral detection failed against ransomware launched at startup.
Bottom Line: Emsisoft Anti-Malware effectively handles the basic tasks of malware protection, including ransomware. Its few lab test results are good, as are its scores on our in-house malware protection tests, though it tanked on our antiphishing test.
$39.99 at F-Secure
Pros: Good score in our hands-on malware-blocking test. Speedy full scan. Behavior-based DeepGuard detects brand-new malware. Advanced network protection. Streamlined, simple interface.
Cons: Failed to block disk-encrypting ransomware and ransomware launched at startup. No antiphishing URL blocking. Lab test scores good, not great.
Bottom Line: F-Secure Anti-Virus’s fast full scan and DeepGuard behavior-based detection system make it a powerful malware fighter, but it failed some of our ransomware protection tests.
Best Price at Amazon
Pros: Excellent score in our malware-blocking test. Good results from independent testing labs. Effective behavior-based detection. Protects against banking Trojans, keyloggers, ransomware, and exploits.
Cons: So-so score in our malicious URL blocking test. Poor antiphishing. Very slow full scan.
Bottom Line: G Data Antivirus 2017 gets decent marks from the independent testing labs, and it includes components designed to fight specific malware types, including ransomware. However, in our own tests, its scores ranged from excellent to poor
Pros: Includes exploit protection, ransomware protection, behavior-based detection. Can work in conjunction with traditional antivirus. Works well with Windows Defender.
Cons: Advanced protection systems are difficult to test. Scores poorly in tests designed for traditional antivirus.
Bottom Line: Malwarebytes Premium has so many advanced protection layers that the company deems it an antivirus replacement. However, we still advise using it in conjunction with a dedicated antivirus utility.
Credit to PC Mag