Introduction and security suites 1-2
It's a dangerous world, and every PC needs antivirus software to keep threats at bay: it's an absolute essential.
Don't assume that Microsoft's free tools are enough, either. Microsoft Security Essentials is compact and easy to use, but independent testing labs such as AV-Comparatives report that it offers very poor protection.
This doesn't have to be a problem if you're short of cash. Opting for a free solution doesn't have to mean compromising your security – there are some great freebie tools around.
Don't automatically rule out paid products, though. Independent testing reveals that commercial packages will often (although not always) deliver the best protection, as well as offering extra functionality. If you're looking for the maximum security then you should at least consider a paid package.
Here we've found 10 of the best home antivirus tools available for you to buy, listed in alphabetical order.
1. 360 Total Security
Qihoo 360 Technology is a leading Chinese security company with hundreds of millions of users for its desktop and antivirus products. Install the free, feature-packed 360 Total Security and you'll soon understand why.
The program offers no less than four antivirus engines, for example: Bitdefender, Avira, and two of the company's own. Perhaps inevitably this slows down scanning, with 360 Total Security taking twice as long to check our system as some of the competition.
It's also prone to false positives, but the independent testing labs show 360 Total Security is merciless with malware, and one of the market leaders in detecting and removing threats.
You also get capable antiphishing, network threat blocking, online shopping protection, a Windows update checker, USB drive tools and more. Bonus modules include a boot optimiser which highlights unnecessary Windows startup programs, and a clean-up tool which wipes away junk files.
The 360 Total Security interface isn't always straightforward, and there's no real documentation to explain how things work. The extras vary considerably in quality (CCleaner found more than twice the amount of junk files on our test PC), and it's not very configurable, either.
Still, 360 Total Security's excellent malware detection is what really matters here, and that alone makes the package well worth a closer look.
2. Avast Free Antivirus
Avast Free Antivirus got our attention right away with its finely balanced interface. It's not over-simplified, like some of the competition, but it's not too complicated either – you can see your system status at a glance, launch scans with a click, and easily access the program's many features.
AV-Test rated the Avast engine highly in its most recent test, too. It scored particularly well when dealing with zero-day threats, yet still delivered very few false positives (something which matches our own experience).
The package is better than most at blocking malicious URLs, and it's exceptionally configurable.
The Home Network Security scan is a useful bonus feature, quickly checking your network and reporting on common problems (it found our router was still using the default password, for example). A "Scan for outdated software" also has value, quickly checking common applications for missing updates. And a Browser Clean-up module displays your IE, Chrome or Firefox add-ons, and allows you to remove any you don't need.
It may not be quite the best of the free antivirus crop – we think Avira Free Antivirus offers better protection – but there's a lot to like here, and the Home Network Security scan could justify briefly installing the program all on its own.
Security suites 3-5
3. Avira Free Antivirus
If you're used to the flashy Windows 8-like interfaces of many modern security tools, Avira Free Antivirusmay look a little dated. There are no flat buttons here, no colourful tiles, and the program makes no attempt to hide its complexities: you'll need to explore an array of menus, tabs and dialog boxes to find out exactly what it can do.
Get past the basic looks, though, and Avira Free Antivirus isn't difficult to use. The package protects you from most threats entirely automatically, and if you do need to run a manual scan then clicking the "Scan System" button will get the job done.
Choosing Avira Free doesn't mean you're compromising on security, either. The company's engine is highly rated by the independent testing labs, and regularly outperforms the bulk of the commercial competition.
The package is also extremely configurable. To take a single example, if you're worried about others using your PC then you can password-protect individual Avira functions, perhaps ensuring only you have the right to restore quarantined threats.
Unsurprisingly for a free package, you don't get any extras (even basic web protection requires installing a separate browser extension), and there's minimal technical support.
Still, Avira Free Antivirus does offer good protection at no cost at all, and if you're an experienced PC user then it could be a great choice.
4. Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2015
£29.95 (1 PC, 1 year)
If you typically look at free antivirus products, then Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2015's £29.95 per year probably looks expensive. But don't automatically move on – you do get a great deal for your money.
Bitdefender's engine is one of the most accurate and reliable around, for instance, and it's been that way for a very long time (AV-Test has ranked Bitdefender as number one for protection for the last three years).
The package also scores well for performance, and it won't hog your system's resources. A new Activity Profiles feature takes this even further by automatically optimising its settings, for example disabling non-critical services to speed up your system when you launch a game.
Bitdefender's Wallet is an impressive extra, a password manager which not only remembers user names and passwords, but can optionally fill in your credit card details with web forms. There's also a very secure browser, an excellent pre-boot Rescue Mode, custom protection for your USB keys, and more.
The package isn't perfect, of course. It insisted we remove another password manager before it would install, annoyingly, and browsing protection is only average. But Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2015's rock-solid engine and excellent bonus features mean it's one of the best antivirus packages around.
5. F-Secure Anti-Virus
£29.95 (3 PCs, 1 year)
While most antivirus tools try to win you over with the length of their feature list, F-Secure Anti-Virustakes a much more stripped-back approach. There are no software update checkers here, no USB immunisers, no system cleaners, not even any significant browsing protection. Instead the program just focuses on its core tasks of blocking known malware, and detecting brand new threats before they can do any harm.
This simplicity brings some immediate benefits. The interface is very straightforward, with no complications or hassles. Its lightweight nature means there's barely any effect on your PC performance. Scan speeds are another highlight, with the program completing its checks almost twice as quickly as some of the competition.
These rapid scans don't compromise accuracy, either, with a recent AV-Test report finding F-Secure was one of only five packages to protect against 100% of the test threats. Not every lab is so positive, but from our own experience we think it deserves the higher rating.
F-Secure Anti-Virus isn't going to be for everyone, especially when competitors like Kaspersky and Bitdefender offer better protection and more features. Still, the package is more accurate than most, less likely to conflict with other software, and much faster, and that's worth a lot. If you need to protect three systems then it's reasonable value, too.
Security suites 6-8
6. G DATA Antivirus
£29.95 (1 PC, 1 year)
Many antivirus programs ask to remove incompatible software during installation. That's fine if it's a full security suite, but when G DATA Antivirus asked us to uninstall "Visual Studio 2010 x64 Redistributables" we thought that was going a little too far.
Fortunately there's at least the option to ignore these demands, and after a lengthy but otherwise straightforward installation the program console appears. It's bulky, a little awkward (program status is on one tab, you launch scans from another), but we still figured out the basics in about a minute flat.
The core strength of G DATA Antivirus is its accuracy. The program's use of two finely balanced engines really does catch significantly more malware. We've seen extremely impressive results ourselves, and they're regularly confirmed by independent VB100 testing and at AV-Test (G DATA received a maximum 6/6 protection score in its most recent tests).
Unfortunately G DATA Antivirus also has a measurable effect on your PC's performance, noticeably slowing it down in some situations. The program doesn't have any extras, either, beyond a relatively feeble boot optimiser. We'd rank G DATA Antivirus closer to the bottom of this list than the top, but its high detection rates mean the package may still be worth a look.
7. Kaspersky Anti-Virus 2015
£29.99 (1 PC, 1 year)
Kaspersky Anti-Virus 2015 is a capable security package which offers strong all-round protection from the very latest threats. Malicious links are highlighted and blocked, downloads and email attachments inspected, malware removed. If anything does manage to bypass your defences, a virtual keyboard allows you to enter personal data without it being intercepted.
The program keeps any operational hassles to a minimum. Anti-Virus 2015 handles most challenges entirely on its own, but if you do need to take manual control then a clear and straightforward interface makes life easy.
One welcome new feature offers some protection against CryptoLocker-type ransomware. If a suspect program tries to encrypt a document then Kaspersky automatically backs it up, restoring the file once the infection has been removed. (This isn't perfect – the threat has to be detected in the same session and before Kaspersky Anti-Virus 2015 is closed down – but it could still save you from a real disaster.)
The testing labs vary a little in their Kaspersky ratings. AV-Test says the technology protected against 100% of threats in its most recent two tests, with minimal false positives; AV-Comparatives typically ranks it a little lower, although still in the top five. Either way, it's an impressive package, and on balance Kaspersky Anti-Virus 2015 can easily justify its premium price.
8. Panda Free Antivirus
Using free antivirus software can be a smart choice, but there may be a few issues. Install Panda Free Antivirus, for example, and by default it'll change your browser home and search pages, although you can at least avoid this if you're paying attention.
The situation improves as soon as the program launches, though, its attractive Windows 8-style interface making it easy to access Panda's various features. It's not just visually impressive, either – you can also edit the layout, removing tiles you don't need and adding others.
Panda's scanning speeds were a fraction below average for us. Malware detection was impressive in our small-scale tests, but the verdicts from the major labs are a little more mixed. AV-Comparatives in particular gave the package stellar ratings for most of 2014, but protection ratings fell a little towards the end of the year.
There are plenty of other useful features here. URL filtering does an above average job of blocking malicious sites. Process Monitor acts like a smart Task Manager, displaying running processes and highlighting anything dubious. Also, USB Vaccine protects your USB keys from some infections, while the Rescue Kit builds a bootable recovery environment to help remove stubborn threats.
Panda Free Antivirus has its issues, then, but does offer above average protection and some genuinely useful extras. If you're looking for a free product which is also very easy to use then it's worth a look.
Security suites 9-10
9. Trend Micro Antivirus+ Security
£19.95 (1 PC, 1 year)
Trend Micro Antivirus+ Security didn't make a great first impression. The installer forced us to remove "incompatible software" – and then it didn't continue after we'd done that, forcing us to start again. Also, the setup process equipped IE and Firefox with no less than three new extensions.
Fortunately the situation soon improved. The program's brand new interface is clear, simple and straightforward; even total novices will quickly figure out the basics. And everyone will benefit from Trend Micro's lightweight and extremely accurate antivirus engine, which generally scores highly with the independent testing labs (it came first out of 22 in AV-Comparative's December 2014 Real-World Protection Test, and that's not an unusual event).
Antivirus is just the start. Trend Micro Antivirus+ Security does an excellent job of protecting you from malicious sites, checking links as they're clicked and preventing access to anything dangerous.
There's spam filtering, too, although for some reason this was turned off by default on our test system. Turning it back on (Settings > Internet & Email Controls > Web Threats) blocked most spam from our inbox. It's not quite up to the standard of the best standalone filters, but by security suite standards the filter performs very well.
It's not all good news. The program is quite harsh on some small utilities, removing items like NirSoft's Mail PassView and describing them as "spyware". Independent testing labs have also reported that Trend Micro's engine wrongly blocks a few more files and URLs than some of the competition.
Still, high levels of threat detection and the decent spam filter mean that on balance Trend Micro Antivirus+ Security earns a thumbs up from us.
10. Webroot SecureAnywhere AntiVirus
£29.99 (1 PC, 1 year)
If you're tired of bulky security tools hogging your PC's resources then Webroot SecureAnywhere AntiVirus will appeal right away. The program's core files grabbed only around 8MB of drive space, and it doesn't require bulky signature updates, instead detecting threats by behaviour monitoring and its cloud service.
The end result is extremely simple. Install the program and it begins protecting you immediately (no reboot required). A daily system scan is scheduled by default. If you need any more, launching SecureAnywhere displays a simple console with your current system status, and a "Scan My Computer" button to give you a check-up right now.
Our own tests suggest this is very effective, with SecureAnywhere AntiVirus delivering above average detection rates and very few false positives. But we'd like some confirmation of that from the big testing labs, who run much larger-scale tests, and at the moment they're not assessing Webroot products.
What we can say for sure is that SecureAnywhere AntiVirus does well in blocking phishing sites, probably because it doesn't rely on blacklists: links you visit are assessed in real time.
The program also offers quality identity protection, and some excellent low-level tools for experienced users, including a sandbox and a few low-level system and Windows tweaks.
We'd like to see more assessments of its accuracy, then, but on balance Webroot SecureAnywhere AntiVirus looks like a solid security tool. And its 70-day money-back guarantee suggests Webroot is confident you'll think so, too.