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Thursday, August 13, 2020

The best antivirus protection for Windows 10 in 2020

An online security quiver needs plenty of arrows — a VPN
 to protect your internet traffic, a password manager to keep track of login credentials and an end-to-end encrypted messaging app to keep people from spying on your communications. But for Windows users, that list also needs to include antivirus software that monitors downloads and observes your system’s activity for malicious software and suspicious software behavior.

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And here’s the first thing to know about searching for the best antivirus software and antivirus products: Microsoft Defender Antivirus — the free virus protection program and Internet security software that comes with Windows 10 and until recently was called Windows Defender — does a good job of protecting your PC and providing Internet security. (Amazingly, Microsoft provided no built-in protection for Windows back in the days of Windows 98 and XP.) Using Microsoft Defender should be your starting point for the best antivirus security on Windows, and most users will find they don’t need to go any further.

However, guarding your privacy and keeping your personal data safe extends beyond virus protection, and that’s where third-party antivirus software shines. A full protection package can monitor your Windows computer as well as MacOS, iOS and Android devices and include a password manager, a VPN, parental controls, secure online backup, identity theft protection — all worthwhile tools that can guard your privacy and keep your data secure.

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To help you decide, we’ve put together a list of the best antivirus products for Windows 10, encompassing both free antivirus programs and subscription options. These picks of the best antivirus programs are a combination of recommendations from independent third-party labs AV-Test, AV-Comparatives and SE Labs, as well as our own hands-on testing. We update this periodically.

Our recommendations

Looking for free antivirus protection or virus detection, willing to pay for an antivirus program that offers broad coverage across all your devices, including from ransomware and phishing, or need to remove a computer virus or malware from your PC right now? Here’s where to start.

Microsoft

Free version? Yes, built into Windows 10

Paid version: Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection is available to corporate users for a fee

Honestly, if you practice safe computing — you keep your software up to date, you use strong passwords (with the help of a password manager), you steer clear of unexpected emails and you don’t click suspicious links — you probably can avoid zero-day attacks and ransomware attacks. And with the free Microsoft Defender Antivirus software running on Windows 10, you have a safety net if you do let your guard down. (Note that Microsoft changed the name of Windows Defender to Microsoft Defender and has expanded the service to other platforms.) This antivirus program is built into Windows and it’s turned on by default, so just let it do its thing, and this antivirus solution will cover the basics. Microsoft pushes new updates frequently. Defender also lets you tune the level of protection you want, giving you control over blocking potentially unwanted apps and protecting folders and files from a ransomware attack. 

Note that Windows 10 will automatically disable its own Windows Defender antivirus when you install third-party antivirus. If you uninstall the third-party protection, Windows 10 will turn back on its own antivirus.

Norton

Platforms: Windows 10 plus MacOS, Android, iOS

Cost: $150 per year for five devices, on sale for $100

For a long time, Norton Security — now called NortonLifeLock, and no longer part of Symantec — has earned high marks from AV-Test, AV Comparatives and SE Labs for virus and malware detection. A five-device subscription for Norton 360 with LifeLock Select is normally $150, but you can sign up for $100 for the first year to get coverage across PCs, Macs, Android devices, and iPhones and iPads. (Note, we don’t think antivirus protection is terribly useful outside the Windows realm.) In addition to malware and virus protection, this security suite provides 100GB of backup to the cloud, safe-browsing tools, a VPN, password manager, parental controls and LifeLock identity theft protection and fraud alert. While not all of those services are necessarily best in their respective class, getting them all in one package is a pretty compelling option.

Bitdefender

Platforms: Windows 10 plus MacOS, Android, iOS

Free version? Yes

Paid version: $45 per year for five PCs

If you’d like to take a step up in securing your PC without taxing your wallet, it’s hard to beat Bitdefender’s free antivirus software for Windows 10. The Windows security software offers real-time monitoring for viruses, malware, spyware and ransomware protection. Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition is easy to set up and stays out of your way until you need it. And the protection this antivirus product offers is solid. Bitdefender consistently earns top marks for its antivirus protection and usability from the respected AV-Test independent testing lab. The free antivirus version covers one Windows PC. For broader protection, Bitdefender Total Security 2020 is usually $90 and available at the moment for $45 for the first year. The subscription lets you protect five devices (Windows, MacOS, iOS and Android), set up parental controls on a kid’s computer and run a VPN.

Malwarebytes

Platforms: Windows 10 plus MacOS, Android

Free version? Yes, after 14-day trial expires

Paid version: $30 per year for one device, $80 per year for five devices

Malwarebytes does protect your PC from a virus or malware attack, scoring reasonably well in recent independent testing for guarding against malware infections. But that’s not really what Malwarebytes is known for. If you find yourself in trouble, the go-to disinfectant for many is Malwarebytes. You can get protection and disinfection for one device for $30 a year, regularly $40. To cover five devices — any combination of Windows, MacOS and Android — it’s $80 for a year. To get the free antivirus version, download this trial version, which “downgrades” to a no-fee on-demand cleaner with fewer features that detects and removes viruses and malware when you run an on-demand scan after 14 days.

Also worth considering

In addition to the four antivirus apps we recommend above, a handful of other anti-malware tools are worth considering among the best antivirus protection if you find them at a better price or just prefer to use one over our picks above.

Platforms: Windows 10 plus MacOS, Android, iOS

Cost: $100 per year for five devices, on sale for $35

It feels like McAfee has been around forever, first on its own in the ’80s, then as part of Intel starting in 2010, and then again on its own when Intel spun it off in 2017. And it’s been around forever because quarter after quarter it creates solid, modern antivirus software that protects your PC. (In recent evaluations by AV-Test, it had high scores on both protection and performance.) McAfee Total Protection guards five devices against viruses and offers ransomware protection, wards off malicious websites and includes a password manager for $35 (usually $100) for the first year. If you agree to auto-renew your subscription, you get access to McAfee ID Theft Protection Essentials, which monitors for ID fraud.

Platforms: Windows 10 plus MacOS, Android, iOS

Cost: $90 per year for 10 devices, on sale for $50

Maybe not as well known to consumers because of its focus on enterprise security, Trend Micro quietly brings its business expertise to the home with its Trend Micro Maximum Security tools. Trend Micro’s software earns high marks from AV-Test — consistently scoring well for detecting zero-day attacks and widespread viruses and malware. And Trend Micro does a good job of not taxing system resources. Trend Micro’s 10-device subscription for computers and mobile devices is $90, but discounted currently at $40.

Platform: Windows

Cost: $80 per year for five PCs

If you’re looking for something easy to set up and use, ESET NOD32 antivirus may meet your needs. It earns high scores for usability and offers solid virus protection. A five-device option is $80 for a year, with a 30-day free trial.

Platform: Windows plus MacOS

Free version? Yes

Paid version: $45 per year for 10 PCs

The free version of Sophos Home gives you virus protection for three Windows PCs — using the company’s high-scoring anti-malware tool — plus a 30-day trial of the company’s malware-removal tool. With a $45 annual subscription, you can cover 10 PCs.

What about Avast?

Test after test, Avast’s antivirus for Windows performs well for malware detection. And we’ve included its antivirus in our list of recommended apps before. But Avast was in the news for several months for its non-antivirus business, so we want to look at the company, specifically the reports at the end of last year that Avast allegedly collected user data with its browser plug-ins and antivirus software and then this year that it sold data it collected through its subsidiary company Jumpshot.

In response to the reports that his company gathered and sold the details of its customers’ online activities, Avast’s CEO Ondrej Vlcek said in a statement that he understood that his company’s actions raised questions of trust in his company. To address that, he said that in January of this year, Avast terminated Jumpshot data collection and will wind down Jumpshot’s operations because the data collection business is not in line with Avast’s privacy priorities.

These newer reports follow another in 2019 from Avast that its internal network was breached, possibly to insert malware into its CCleaner software, similar to an earlier CCleaner hack that occurred prior to Avast’s acquiring the Windows utility.

Avast is now saying the right things about taking its customers’ privacy seriously, but it only came to that point after reacting to investigative reporting that revealed the Jumpshot practices. (The CCleaner revelations, while concerning, were self-disclosed, which is important to building user trust.) We hope Avast’s more privacy-friendly policies mean that there will be no further Jumpshot-style activities. In the meantime, we’d recommend using one of the many other solid choices in this realm (listed above).

What about Kaspersky?

Because the company has been in the news the past few years, let’s talk about Kaspersky Lab — specifically about the federal ban that blocks US government agencies from using Kaspersky products.

Based in Moscow, Kaspersky Lab has for years produced some of the best antivirus software for business antivirus needs and home customers. But in 2017 the US government prohibited Kaspersky software on federal government computers because of alleged ties between Kaspersky and the Russian government.

Notably, the ban does not apply to its consumer products. But, as with China-based Huawei, the question remains: If the federal government doesn’t think the products are safe enough for its own devices, should consumers avoid them as well?

In a statement sent to CNET, the company said, “Kaspersky Lab has no ties to any government, and the company has never, nor will ever, engage in cyber offensive activities. Kaspersky Lab maintains that no public evidence of any wrongdoing has been presented by the US government, and that the US government’s actions against Kaspersky Lab were unconstitutional.”

In Kaspersky’s favor, it continues to earn top scores and awards for virus and malware detection and endpoint security from independent testing labs. And it’s reasonably priced.

In the end, even though no one has ever publicly produced a “smoking gun” linking the company to Russian intrigue, we think any of the options listed above are a safer bet. And, if you are a US government employee or work with the federal government, you’ll want to steer clear of Kaspersky.

Antivirus basics: What to look for

Picking the best antivirus software for Windows means finding one that keeps your PC safe, doesn’t take up a lot of system resources, is easy to use and stays out of the way till you need it. Here’s what to look for.

Effectiveness. Antivirus software scans for known viruses and malware, of course, and can offer real-time protection. And it watches for shady websites and suspicious links to keep you out of trouble. It can also offer ransomware protection and monitor unexpected behavior that may be a sign of new and not-yet-identified viruses and malware. You want antivirus software that can successfully identify these unknown online threats without flagging too many false positives.

Light on system resources. You don’t want antivirus software that taxes your PC’s resources. If after you install the program, websites open slowly, apps download or open sluggishly or file copies take longer than expected, you may want to try another service. The good news is, all our picks offer a free trial to let you try out the antivirus program, so if your system feels sluggish after installation, you may want to keep looking.

Cost and discounts. Don’t just pay the sticker price for antivirus protection. Before you buy, check for discounts on a company’s website. Another way to save: The prices we list above are for 10 devices — if the company offered that package — but you can trim your cost with antivirus packages if you need to cover just three or five devices. You may also find discounts on an app‘s Amazon page.

Privacy. To be effective, antivirus software needs to monitor what’s going on with your PC and check in with company servers about unusual behavior. The companies say they anonymize this technical data as much as possible to protect your privacy. But if you want to know more, the security companies on our list post privacy policies on their websites, so read their privacy statements to learn what the companies do with the information you share.

Protection for other platforms. Microsoft is by far the biggest target for viruses and malware. But Android is second, with just under 1% of apps installed on Android devices with Google Play Protect in the potentially harmful app, or PHA, category.

The threat to MacOS and especially iOS is low, in part because of the tight control Apple has over its app stores. While the Mac does come under attack via sideloaded apps, it’s rare, and if you download apps only from the Mac and iOS app stores and keep your guard up when clicking links and download files, you should be OK without an antivirus app on Apple devices.

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