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The 4 Best (100% FREE) Antivirus Software of 2023
By Tibor Moes / Updated: September 2023
Do you need antivirus software? Yes, you absolutely do. Each time you venture online, you’re exposed to cyber hazards like malware, phishing scams, ransomware, and more. These digital pests can cripple your device, invade your privacy, and even lead to financial losses.
But not all antivirus shields are created equal. We strongly recommend opting for a paid solution over free antivirus software. Why? Firstly, premium packages offer advanced features like VPNs, password managers, and dark web monitoring. Secondly, it’s not uncommon for free antivirus brands to turn a profit by selling user data – an obvious privacy breach.
That being said, installing any antivirus tool is infinitely better than leaving your digital life unprotected. So, if you’re currently without, here’s our rundown of the best free antivirus software to consider.
The best paid antivirus software
- Malware Protection 100% 100%
- Security Features 100% 100%
Norton has the best protection and excellent privacy features. It’s not free, but has a 60-day return policy, so you can try it risk-free.
- Malware protection: 100%. In the last 10 tests, Norton removed all malware. It will protect you against all threats.
- Speed impact: 100%. In the last 10 tests, Norton had no impact on the speed of the test PC. It will not slow you down.
- Features: 100%. Anti-phishing, firewall, VPN, password manager, identity protection, cloud backup, and more.
Try it risk-free, thanks to its 60-day return policy.
The best free antivirus software
- Malware Protection 99% 99%
- Security Features 50% 50%
Panda Free Antivirus for Windows and Android is an excellent lightweight antivirus solution. It’s 100% free and includes a VPN.
- Malware protection: 99%. Panda averaged 99.9% in the malware protection tests. It is excellent at detecting and removing malware.
- Speed impact: 99%. Panda averaged 99% in the performance tests. So it has almost no impact on your PC’s speed.
- Features: 50%. Panda’s Free Antivirus offers anti-malware protection with a gaming mode and a VPN with a 150 MB / day data limit.
Panda’s paid plans have a 30-day return policy.
The best free antivirus of 2023
We have reviewed antivirus software since 2014. Based on our in-depth tests of 28 antivirus brands in 2023, these are the best free antivirus of 2023:
- 🥇 Norton Antivirus – The best paid antivirus
- 🥈 Panda Antivirus – The best free antvirus
- Bitdefender Antivirus
- Kaspersky Antivirus
We have tested their anti-malware protection, security features, speed impact, false positives, and price. Scroll down to read the in-depth reviews.
Ranked #1 out of 28 Antivirus
Norton is the best paid antivirus software. It has the best device, privacy, and identity protection. And a great price too.
- Malware protection: 100%. Norton averaged 6 out of 6 in the last 10 protection tests. It is excellent at detecting and removing malware.
- Speed impact: 100%. Norton averaged 6 out of 6 in the last 10 performance tests. It does not slow down your PC.
- Features: 100%. Norton offers anti-malware, anti-phishing, firewall, unlimited VPN, password manager, parental controls, and more.
- Price: 95%. Norton offers better value for money than all competitors, except for Kaspersky, which is slightly cheaper.
Discount: Temporarily save up to 70% 🔥
Norton 360 Antivirus Review
Norton offers the best antivirus protection on all operating systems.
Norton is one of the few brands with a 100% malware protection score. Its real-time malware protection tool, called SONAR, is the best.
To get to this score, we averaged the last 10 test scores by AV-Test, an independent test lab. We also ran our own tests, during which Norton was able to detect malware attacks and phishing attempts in real-time.
Norton SONAR applies heuristic analysis and machine learning to spot known and unknown security risks. This means it identifies new threats through suspicious behavior rather than malicious computer code.
Norton’s Smart Firewall checks incoming and outgoing connections for suspicious behavior. It stops any attack before it becomes a problem.
By contrast, Windows’ firewall only checks incoming connections. It does not monitor whether the software on your computer makes suspicious outgoing connections to other devices.
And that’s not all. Norton’s firewall also cloaks inactive ports, so hackers can’t find them through hacking techniques like port scanning.
Norton’s unlimited VPN (Virtual Private Network) is outstanding. It is fast, secure (AES-256 & OpenVPN), private (no logs), allows torrenting (P2P), and features auto-connect, a kill switch, ad tracker blocking, and a split tunnel.
Most VPN services, like those by Bitdefender, have a daily data limit of 200 MB. To remove the data limit, you’ll have to pay extra. Norton, however, includes its unlimited VPN for free.
Norton’s password manager is excellent. Creating passwords is easy. Auto-filling them is accurate. And you can access your password vault using biometrics scanners (fingerprint or facial recognition).
Prices & Packages
- Norton Antivirus Plus costs € 15 (Europe) or $ 20 (USA). It offers antivirus, a firewall, and a password manager. It protects 1 PC or Mac.
- Norton 360 Standard costs € 30 (Europe) or $ 40 (USA). It adds a VPN and dark web monitoring. It protects 1 (Europe) or 3 (USA) devices.
- Norton 360 Deluxe costs € 35 (Europe) or $ 50 (USA). It adds a privacy monitor and parental controls. It protects 5 devices.
- Norton 360 Advanced costs € 40 in Europe and is not sold in the USA. It adds identity theft protection and protects 10 devices.
- Norton 360 Select + LifeLock costs $ 99 in the USA and is not sold in Europe. It adds LifeLock identity theft protection and protects 10 devices.
In some countries, Norton 360 Advanced is called Norton 360 Premium. This is essentially the same product, without identity theft protection.
- Web protection: Block malicious websites via the Safe Web extension.
- Cloud backup: Back up important files in secure cloud storage.
- Parental controls: Monitor and protect your kids online.
- Privacy monitor: Scan data brokers for your personal information.
- Webcam protection: Prevent unauthorized access to your webcam.
- Dark web monitoring: Scan the dark web for your personal information.
- LifeLock identity theft protection: Discover and restore identity theft.
Note: Norton’s identity protection features are only available in the USA.
Conclusion: Is Norton the best antivirus software of 2023?
Yes, Norton is the best antivirus program in our test.
Modern security software needs to offer far more than just basic malware protection. By combining device security, online privacy, and identity theft protection, Norton is the best internet security suite you can buy.
Sadly, Norton doesn’t have a free version. However, you can try it for free for 60 days, thanks to its generous return policy.
You can try Norton risk-free, thanks to its 60-day return policy.
The best free antivirus software
Panda is the best free antivirus software. It includes real-time anti-malware protection and a free VPN with a 150 MB / day data limit.
- Malware protection: 99%. Panda averaged 99.9% in the malware protection tests. It is excellent at detecting and removing malware.
- Speed impact: 99%. Panda averaged 99% in the performance tests. So it has almost no impact on your PC’s speed.
- Features: 50%. Panda offers anti-malware and a free VPN with a 150 MB / day data limit. Get Panda’s paid plans for more features.
- Price: 75%. Panda’s free antivirus is an excellent option for basic and free protection. For complete protection, get the paid plans.
Panda Dome Antivirus Review
Panda Free Antivirus for Windows and Android is the best free antivirus software of 2023. This streamlined software stands out for its superior malware detection and a slew of valuable features, balancing security and simplicity.
- High-Performing Antivirus Scanner: Proven to outperform Windows Defender in detecting a range of threats including adware, spyware, and ransomware.
- Real-Time Protection: Effectively blocks malware files attempting to infiltrate your PC.
- Rescue Kit: This unique offering lets you create a bootable version of Panda on a USB to sanitize and resurrect an infected PC, a rarity among free antivirus solutions.
- Gaming Mode: A thoughtful addition that suspends notifications during gaming or full-screen video playback to avoid interruptions.
- Limited VPN: A secure VPN feature is included, albeit with a 150MB daily limit and a single server connection.
- Unlimited VPN: Enjoy unrestricted, secure browsing with the Panda Dome Premium’s unlimited VPN, offering unrestricted data and a broad network of servers worldwide.
- Firewall: Enhance your network security with an in-built firewall, offering real-time monitoring and control over incoming and outgoing network traffic to thwart unauthorized access.
- Password Manager: Keep your online accounts safe with a password manager that stores, generates, and manages strong, unique passwords, reducing the risk of password-related breaches.
- Anti-phishing: Stay safe from deceptive sites or emails attempting to steal your sensitive information with Panda’s anti-phishing protection that alerts you about such threats.
- Anti-ransomware: Protect your digital files from being held hostage with the anti-ransomware feature. It proactively identifies and blocks ransomware attacks to prevent data encryption.
- System Optimization Tools: Ensure your computer runs smoothly and efficiently with advanced system optimization tools. They help declutter your system, manage startup applications, and enhance its performance.
- Parental Controls: Safeguard your children’s online experience with parental controls, allowing you to monitor their online activity, limit internet access, and block inappropriate content.
Conclusion: Is Panda the best free antivirus software of 2023?
Yes, Panda is the best free antivirus software in our test. It is a solid, user-friendly tool, providing comprehensive real-time malware protection without costing a penny. It is especially impressive for its lightweight design, gaming mode, Rescue Kit, and inclusion of a VPN.
However, bear in mind the VPN’s limitations. If unlimited VPN usage, a firewall, anti-phishing tools, a password manager, or parental controls are on your wishlist, you might consider upgrading.
With various pricing tiers starting from €17.49 per year, finding the right fit is uncomplicated. Of course, trying Panda Free initially and deciding to upgrade later is always an option.
Panda’s paid plans have a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Ranked #2 out of 28 Antivirus
Bitdefender offers one of the best free antivirus solutions. Thanks to its cloud-based approach to scanning, it has a minimal speed impact.
- Malware protection: 95%. Bitdefender averaged 5.95 out of 6 in the last 10 protection tests. It is excellent at removing malware.
- Speed impact: 100%. Bitdefender averaged 6 out of 6 in the last 10 performance tests. It does not slow down your PC.
- Features: 50%. Bitdefender offers anti-malware and anti-phishing protection. Get Bitdefender’s paid plans for more features.
- Price: 75%. Bitdefender’s free antivirus is an excellent option for basic and free protection. For complete protection, get the paid plans.
Bitdefender Antivirus Review
Bitdefender Antivirus Free for Windows stands tall in the competitive landscape of free antivirus products. Known for its efficient, lightweight design coupled with sophisticated malware and web defenses, it offers premium-grade protection without a price tag.
With a cloud-based approach, Bitdefender ensures minimal system impact, making it an appealing choice for those in need of robust but unobtrusive security.
- 100% Malware Detection: Demonstrated flawless efficiency in tests, identifying every threat.
- Real-Time Protection: Constantly monitors and defends against emerging threats.
- Cloud-Based Scanner: Performs detection and analysis remotely, reducing the strain on your PC and preventing any noticeable slowdown, even during full scans.
- Anti-Phishing Protection: Excellently blocks fraudulent websites, surpassing even the built-in protections in popular browsers like Chrome and Firefox.
- Multi-Layer Ransomware Protection: Premium plans include advanced defenses against ransomware.
- Online Banking Protection: Offers secure browsing for financial transactions.
- VPN & Device Optimization Tools: Enhance your online privacy and system performance.
- Password Manager & Parental Controls: Manage passwords securely and oversee your child’s online activities.
- Profiles Feature: Tailor your system performance for specific tasks, such as:
- Work Profile: Boosts email security and reduces system lag.
- Movie Profile: Stops notifications and minimizes background processes.
- Game Profile: Optimizes performance for gaming.
- Public Wi-Fi Profile: Activates protections when using public Wi-Fi.
- Battery Mode Profile: Adjusts software settings to conserve battery life
Conclusion: Is Bitdefender the best free antivirus software of 2023?
Bitdefender’s Free Antivirus for Windows is an exceptional, no-nonsense solution to shield your device from cyber threats. With impeccable detection rates and minimal impact on system performance, it offers a solid security foundation.
If additional features such as ransomware protection, VPN, or a customizable profile system appeal to you, the affordable premium plans present excellent value. With options starting from just €25.49 per year, Bitdefender provides an accessible gateway to a fully protected digital life.
Bitdefender’s paid plans have a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Ranked #5 out of 28 Antivirus
Kaspersky has excellent protection at a low price. But the war in Ukraine raises concerns about its ties to the Russian government.
- Malware protection: 100%. Kaspersky averaged 6 out of 6 in the last 10 protection tests. It is excellent at removing malware.
- Speed impact: 100%. Kasperksy averaged 6 out of 6 in the last 10 performance tests. So it does not slow down your PC.
- Features: 60%. Kaspersky offers excellent anti-malware and several limited bonus features. Get the paid plans for more features.
- Price: 75%. Kaspersky’s free antivirus is an excellent option for basic and free protection. For complete protection, get the paid plans.
Kaspersky Anti-Virus Review
Kaspersky Free Antivirus for Windows and Android brings a blend of security essentials to the table, combining efficient malware detection with a selection of handy extra features.
This solution is well-suited for users who seek robust core antivirus protection, paired with an intuitive and well-laid-out interface.
- Impressive Malware Detection and Removal: It matches industry leaders in spotting and eliminating malware, with a proven 100% detection rate during tests.
- Real-Time Protection: Offers constant vigilance against emerging threats, effectively blocking them in real time.
- User-friendly Interface: The display is designed for easy access to various scans and settings. Features are clearly labeled and supplemented by useful tips.
- Limited-Use VPN: Offers 300MB of daily data, automatically connecting to the nearest server.
- Password Manager: Stores up to 15 entries, including both logins and sensitive documents.
- Data Breach Monitoring: Checks the email associated with the Kaspersky account for any signs of a data breach.
- Basic System Cleanup Tools: Basic tools to help maintain a clean system.
- Virtual Keyboard: Adds an extra layer of security against keystroke loggers.
- Unlimited VPN & Password Manager: The paid plans offer unrestricted VPN data and an expanded capacity for password storage.
- Automated Data Breach Monitoring: Monitors data breaches automatically, rather than requiring manual checks.
- Advanced System Optimization Tools: Improves your system’s speed and overall performance.
- Additional Features: Parental controls and advanced web protections, among others, are included in the upgrade.
Conclusion: Is Kaspersky the best free antivirus software of 2023?
Kaspersky’s Free Antivirus delivers a competent malware scanner and a set of helpful bonus features, albeit with some limitations. The included VPN and password manager have usage caps, and the data breach monitoring feature is limited to a single email account.
To enjoy a full suite of features without restrictions, consider one of Kaspersky’s competitively priced premium plans. Starting at $ 47.99 per year, these plans add valuable enhancements, such as unlimited VPN use, advanced web protections, and parental controls, to your security arsenal.
Kaspersky’s paid plans have a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Below, we compare the following products:
- Norton 360 Standard
- Bitdefender Internet Security with the Premium VPN
- Panda Dome Premium
- Kaspersky Plus
These are the most affordable products at each brand, which allow you to protect at least 1 PC with the most essential features: Anti-Malware, Anti-Phishing (Web Protection), Firewall, Password Manager and Unlimited VPN (no data limit).
Test score comparison
We’ve compared the 10 most recent test scores of all antivirus brands. The tests were performed by AV-Test, the German anti-malware test lab. They use three factors:
- Protection (1-6): Antivirus protection against malware attacks.
- Performance (1-6): System slowdown caused by the antivirus.
- Usability (1-6): Frequency of false alarms and disruptions.
We used their results, and this formula, to calculate the final score:
Final Score = 60% Protection + 20% Performance + 20% Usability.
Brands not listed in the table haven’t participated in the analysis by AV-Test. This is usually not a good sign. Because most reputable brands, except Panda, ESET, and Sophos, partake in the test.
We’ve compared the prices of the top antivirus products for Windows. To make it a fair comparison, we looked at what it would cost us, to protect a Windows PC with the following essential features:
- Anti-phishing (web protection)
- Password manager
- Unlimited VPN (no data limit)
A few notes:
- Some brands are missing features, lowering their value for money.
- Prices are second-year prices in the USA, without first-year discounts.
- Prices are rounded up for readability (e.g., $99.99 becomes $100).
Brands have different prices outside the USA. See those on their website.
We’ve compared the user reviews of all antivirus brands. We’ve used the scores and review count of TrustPilot, a leading user review platform. However, take these results with a grain of salt, as some brands actively attempt to increase their ratings.
Personally, we are wary of exceptionally high scores. Especially those by brands such as TotalAV, known for aggressive marketing and sales tactics.
We consider scores between 4.0 and 4.5 good and realistic. Higher scores are dubious, and lower scores indicate that the brand might have a poor product or customer service. McAfee’s scores, for instance, are worrying.
Antivirus software buying guide
Below we cover a range of topics:
- What is antivirus software?
- How does antivirus software work?
- Is Microsoft Defender good enough?
- What are the risks of free antivirus software?
- Does Windows 11 need antivirus software?
- How do we test antivirus software?
- How to choose the best free antivirus software?
- What cyber threats can antivirus protect you from?
- What cyber threat can antivirus not protect you from?
- What antivirus software have we tested?
Clicks the links to be taken to the one of your choice:
What is antivirus software?
Antivirus software is a digital program or suite of programs designed to safeguard your computer or network against a wide range of malicious software. These include viruses, worms, Trojans, ransomware, spyware, adware, and other forms of harmful software.
The primary purpose of antivirus software is to detect, block, and remove any threats to your system. It provides a shield against the constant onslaught of potential malware, securing your sensitive data from unauthorized access, corruption, or theft.
Besides protection, most modern antivirus software comes equipped with tools for system optimization, secure browsing, password management, and more, which overall contribute to a safer and smoother digital experience.
For more, read our blog post on what antivirus software is.
How does antivirus software work?
Antivirus software uses several methodologies to identify and eradicate threats. The strategies vary from traditional signature-based detection to heuristic and behavior-based detection.
Signature-based detection is one of the oldest techniques used by antivirus software. Each piece of malware has a unique code or ‘signature.’ These signatures are stored in vast databases managed by cybersecurity firms. Antivirus software regularly updates its database of known malware signatures.
When a file enters your system, the antivirus software scans it and compares the file’s code against the signatures in the database. If a match is found, the file is flagged as a threat, and the user is alerted. The software then takes action based on predefined user settings, such as quarantining or deleting the infected file.
While effective against known threats, this method struggles with new malware for which a signature hasn’t yet been defined. This limitation paved the way for more advanced detection techniques like heuristic analysis and behavior-based detection.
Heuristic analysis is a method used to detect unknown or new malware strains that haven’t been added to the signature database yet. This method does not merely look for known signatures; instead, it analyzes the file’s structure, code, and other characteristics to determine if it behaves like a known malware.
If a file exhibits behavior that resembles known malware – such as attempting to write data to an executable file or trying to access sensitive information – the heuristic analysis can flag it as potentially harmful. While it is a more proactive approach than signature-based detection, it also has a higher likelihood of false positives, flagging benign files as malicious.
Behavior-based detection, also known as behavioral analysis or anomaly detection, monitors the behavior of applications in real-time. It aims to spot unusual behavior or anomalies, such as sudden data encryption or unauthorized modification of system settings, which could indicate a malware attack.
Unlike heuristic analysis, which analyzes a file before it executes, behavior-based detection allows the file to run in a controlled environment, monitoring its actions for any suspicious activities. This method is particularly effective against zero-day threats, ransomware, and advanced persistent threats (APTs) that might evade signature-based and heuristic detection methods. However, similar to heuristic analysis, it can also lead to false positives.
In conclusion, no single method can provide foolproof protection against all types of malware. The best antivirus software typically incorporates a blend of these techniques to deliver comprehensive protection against known, unknown, and emerging threats.
For more, read our blog post on how antivirus software works.
Is Microsoft Defender good enough?
Microsoft Defender, formerly known as Windows Defender, is a free antivirus solution that comes integrated into Windows 10 and Windows 11. Its prime responsibility is to shield your device against an array of malicious software, including viruses, ransomware, and spyware.
In recent years, Microsoft Defender has significantly evolved, with its detection rates and security capabilities now being on par with many stand-alone free antivirus software. Microsoft Defender provides several protective features, including:
- Real-Time Protection: This feature scans files, programs, and applications in real-time, blocking or quarantining anything suspicious before it can harm your device.
- Cloud-Delivered Protection: With the latest threat definitions being updated in real-time, this feature provides fast and comprehensive protection against emerging malware threats.
- Ransomware Protection: Microsoft Defender offers built-in ransomware protection via the Controlled folder access feature. It safeguards your files and folders from unauthorized changes.
- Firewall and Network Protection: An integrated firewall shields your device from network attacks and prevents unauthorized access to your network.
- Browser Integration: Microsoft Defender SmartScreen integrates with Edge browser to block known malicious websites, downloads, and phishing attempts.
Despite these robust features, the question of whether Microsoft Defender is ‘good enough’ largely depends on the specific needs of the user. For general users with basic online habits and a primary focus on ease-of-use and integration, Microsoft Defender might suffice.
However, when it comes to a more comprehensive security suite like Norton 360, Microsoft Defender falls short. Norton 360 offers a host of advanced security features not available in Microsoft Defender:
- Advanced Firewall: Norton’s smart firewall not only monitors inbound and outbound traffic but also includes advanced intrusion prevention capabilities that can identify suspicious behavior.
- VPN Service: Norton 360 includes a no-log VPN service that provides secure and anonymous browsing, a feature absent in Microsoft Defender.
- Parental Controls: Norton 360 provides sophisticated parental control features to help parents manage and monitor their children’s online activity.
- Password Manager: Norton 360 comes with a password manager that aids in creating, storing, and managing complex passwords securely, a component Microsoft Defender lacks.
- Webcam Protection: Norton 360 includes webcam protection, which prevents unauthorized access to your device’s webcam.
- Cloud Backup: Norton 360 provides cloud backup options, which are an excellent defense against data loss from ransomware attacks or system failures.
In conclusion, while Microsoft Defender is a viable choice for basic protection, its security features are not as comprehensive as those offered by premium suites like Norton 360. If you’re looking for a complete package that provides advanced protection, privacy tools, backup options, and more, investing in a more robust solution like Norton 360 would be a wise decision.
For more, read our review of Microsoft Defender.
What are the risks of free antivirus software?
While free antivirus software can serve as a handy tool in your cyber defense strategy, it’s crucial to remember that there might be certain drawbacks and risks associated with them.
Firstly, the level of protection offered by free antivirus solutions can greatly vary. Some of them do indeed deliver efficient real-time protection against malware, rivaling and even exceeding the capabilities of built-in options like Microsoft Defender.
On the other hand, certain free antivirus software may fall short in their protective abilities. For instance, when considering results from independent testing laboratories such as AV-Test, we find that some free brands do not match up to their counterparts in terms of malware detection and prevention.
Additionally, free antivirus solutions often come with a restricted set of features. Unlike their paid counterparts, they usually lack advanced functionalities like a secure VPN, password manager, parental controls, and other valuable tools that can bolster your cybersecurity posture. This can lead to limitations in offering comprehensive protection against a diverse range of threats.
Another critical aspect to consider is the business model of free antivirus software. Many of these products are provided for free as a means to promote a company’s premium offerings. However, in some instances, companies have been found to resort to less desirable methods to support their free products.
A notorious example is Avast, which, in the past, faced scrutiny for collecting and selling user data. Although Avast has since ceased this practice, it serves as a cautionary tale regarding the potential privacy risks involved with free antivirus software.
In conclusion, while free antivirus software can provide a basic level of protection, there are potential risks and limitations to consider. It’s crucial to scrutinize the capabilities, features, and privacy policies of any antivirus solution, free or paid, before deciding to trust it with your digital security.
For those seeking advanced protection features and peace of mind, investing in a reputable paid antivirus product might be a more suitable choice.
Does Windows 11 need antivirus software?
Windows 11, the latest operating system from Microsoft, has elevated its in-built security capabilities, offering an enhanced level of protection to its users. However, this doesn’t imply that additional antivirus software is unnecessary. Let’s delve into this topic in more detail.
Windows 11 boasts a comprehensive suite of security features baked directly into the system. At the core of these is Microsoft Defender, an advanced antivirus solution capable of real-time malware detection and removal. Coupled with this, there’s the firewall protection, which helps monitor and control incoming and outgoing network traffic based on predetermined security rules.
Additionally, Windows 11 introduces hardware-based security features, such as TPM 2.0 and Secure Boot, aiming to add an extra layer of protection against sophisticated threats. TPM (Trusted Platform Module) 2.0 secures cryptographic keys and other sensitive data, while Secure Boot helps protect your system from low-level attacks and rootkits.
When it comes to free antivirus solutions, they can offer additional protection layers but often bring limited benefits over the built-in Microsoft Defender. While some free antivirus software may deliver improved user interfaces or slightly different detection methods, they often lack advanced features, and their malware detection capabilities rarely exceed that of Microsoft Defender.
However, premium antivirus solutions provide an extensive range of additional security features that can greatly enhance Windows 11 security. They often include VPNs for secure browsing, advanced firewalls, parental controls, identity theft protection, password managers, and more robust malware detection methodologies, such as behavior-based detection, heuristic analysis, and sandboxing capabilities. Additionally, they offer dedicated customer support and regular updates to handle newly emerging threats promptly.
In conclusion, while Windows 11 has significantly improved in terms of built-in security features, premium antivirus software can still provide an invaluable layer of advanced protection. It’s always prudent to consider your specific security needs, threat exposure, and the sensitivity of the data you handle before deciding on your antivirus strategy.
For more, read our blog post on whether Windows 11 needs antivirus.
How do we test antivirus software?
Our evaluation of antivirus software encompasses a wide range of factors, each given a weighted score to provide a comprehensive assessment of the software’s overall effectiveness. Our testing methodology incorporates six primary elements:
- Anti-malware protection (30%)
- Security and privacy features (30%)
- Speed impact (10%)
- False positives (10%)
- Price (10%)
- Ownership and reputation (10%)
This rigorous process ensures that we examine each software from various angles, providing a well-rounded analysis and a fair representation of its performance. Now, let’s delve deeper into the details of our testing procedure.
Anti-malware protection (30%)
A significant chunk of our assessment revolves around anti-malware protection since it forms the backbone of any antivirus software. We use two primary techniques for this purpose: in-house testing and the analysis of AV-Test results.
Our in-house testing involves creating a controlled environment where we expose a test computer to hundreds of malware samples via a USB drive. Our focus here is on the software’s ability to identify these threats effectively.
The testing doesn’t stop at mere detection; we simulate real-life malware attacks as well. This involves executing malware files and launching ransomware attacks to see how well the real-time protection reacts. The ability of an antivirus solution to detect and halt these attacks provides critical insights into its real-world effectiveness.
We also consider the results from AV-Test, an independent organization that evaluates and rates antivirus software. AV-Test conducts rigorous testing on Windows, Mac, and Android platforms, and their comprehensive protection tests include real-world testing and widespread and prevalent malware tests. Real-world tests involve web and email threats, while widespread and prevalent malware tests evaluate the software’s ability to detect already known malware. By including AV-Test results in our assessment, we ensure our findings are corroborated by an external, independent entity, thus bolstering the accuracy and reliability of our review.
In conclusion, when assessing anti-malware protection, we place a premium on comprehensive detection capabilities, effective real-time protection, and a robust response to varied threat types.
Security and privacy features (30%)
An antivirus software isn’t just about eliminating malware. It must also offer a comprehensive suite of security and privacy features to safeguard users against various cyber threats. This section of our evaluation process explores how different antivirus programs stack up in these areas, which collectively account for 30% of our overall assessment.
Web protection (anti-phishing)
A top-notch antivirus tool should offer robust web protection, primarily anti-phishing capabilities. Phishing attacks, wherein cybercriminals impersonate trusted entities to trick victims into revealing sensitive information, are all too common. We test this feature by introducing the antivirus to known phishing sites to observe whether it effectively flags and blocks these threats.
A firewall acts as a security guard, scrutinizing incoming and outgoing network traffic based on predetermined rules. We examine the quality and effectiveness of an antivirus software’s built-in firewall. Our tests involve attempts to bypass these firewalls using various techniques to ensure they are robust enough to keep intruders at bay.
Password managers help store and manage users’ passwords securely. In testing this feature, we analyze the ease of use, security levels, and additional features like password generators and autofill capabilities. The ability to store an unlimited number of passwords across multiple devices is also a desirable trait we look for.
Virtual private network (VPN)
VPNs are essential tools for maintaining online privacy as they encrypt the user’s data and mask their IP address. We assess the speed, server variety, data limits, and the security protocols of the integrated VPN service, alongside its ability to bypass geo-restrictions.
For users with children, parental control features that can block inappropriate content, limit screen time, and monitor online activities are critical. We assess these features for their comprehensiveness, flexibility, and ease of use.
Identity theft protection
We evaluate if the software offers features like identity theft protection that can safeguard personal and financial information from cybercriminals. The availability of credit monitoring, social security number (SSN) tracking, and recovery assistance are key aspects we look at during our evaluation.
Secure cloud storage (cloud backup)
We examine whether the software offers secure cloud storage or backup solutions that can protect users’ data against loss due to ransomware attacks or hardware failures. We assess the storage space provided, the ease of backup, and the security protocols in place.
Given the rise of ransomware attacks, we test the antivirus software’s capability to defend against such threats. This involves simulating ransomware attacks to see how effectively the software detects, blocks, and eliminates these threats, and if it can recover encrypted files.
Dark web monitoring
Finally, we analyze if the software includes dark web monitoring – a feature that scans the dark web for any leaked personal information. We look at how thorough these scans are, what kind of information they track, and how promptly they alert the user when leaks are detected.
In sum, our comprehensive evaluation process ensures that each antivirus software is tested for a wide array of security and privacy features, thereby offering users a holistic view of what to expect from each product.
An antivirus program can come with various entry-level functions, such as spam filters and secure browsers, and premium options like online storage with enhanced security. We consider the following bonus features worthy of your consideration:
- Ad Blocker
- Email protection
- File encryption
- File shredder
- Gaming mode
- Microphone protection
- PC maintenance features
- Secure browser (hardened browser to protect your online banking)
- Spam filter
- Startup optimizer
- Tune up tools
- Virtual keyboard
- Webcam protection
Speed impact (10%)
When testing an antivirus software’s performance impact, we analyze the degree to which the software slows down a device during everyday tasks. To achieve the most precise results, we utilize AV-Test’s performance tests as our primary reference. T
hese tests assess how much the antivirus software impacts the speed of the computer while conducting common tasks such as loading popular websites, downloading and installing frequently used applications, copying files, and launching standard software applications.
This way, we ensure that the antivirus you choose will provide protection without impeding your device’s performance.
False positives (10%)
In our examination, we also account for the rate of false positives an antivirus software generates. False positives occur when an antivirus mistakenly identifies a safe file or application as a threat. Too many false positives can create unnecessary interruptions and diminish the user experience.
To measure this aspect, we refer to AV-Test’s usability tests, which involve scanning over a million known benign files and applications. A lower rate of false positives translates to a higher score in this category of our evaluation.
Pricing is an important aspect of any purchase decision, and antivirus software is no different. But it’s not just about the bottom-line cost; the focus is on value for money. This involves comparing the range of features and protection levels you receive in relation to the price you pay.
It’s also essential to note that many companies offer introductory discounts for the first year, with prices increasing significantly from the second year onwards. Thus, we factor in both first-year and subsequent years’ pricing in our analysis.
Ownership and reputation (10%)
An antivirus software’s ownership and the company’s reputation play a significant role in our evaluation. This is due to the extensive access these applications have to your device and data. Trustworthy companies that respect user privacy are fundamental.
Not all companies maintain these standards, as was seen in the case of Avast, which faced backlash when it was revealed that they were selling user data through a subsidiary called Jumpshot. Thus, we research each company’s history, track record, and ownership structure to understand their stance on data privacy and other ethical considerations.
By breaking down these individual elements, we ensure that our analysis is thorough, offering users a comprehensive overview of the antivirus software market, helping them make an informed and safe choice.
For more, read our blog post on how we test antivirus software.
How to choose the best free antivirus software?
Selecting the best free antivirus software requires a careful analysis of various elements, similar to choosing a paid antivirus. While you may not get the full range of features offered by premium versions, a quality free antivirus can still provide adequate protection. Here’s what to consider:
Reliable protection from malware
For any antivirus software, free or otherwise, dependable malware protection should be a primary concern. The program should not only remove existing malware but also effectively block new threats in real-time. Independent lab tests such as those conducted by AV-Test and AV-Comparatives can provide valuable insights into the reliability of a free antivirus solution’s malware protection capabilities.
Emerging threats demand that any antivirus software remains current with its defense mechanisms. Regular security updates ensure that your free antivirus software keeps pace with evolving malware threats. Check if the antivirus solution you’re considering maintains a consistent schedule of security updates to keep its threat detection as current as possible.
While a free antivirus might not offer the complete suite of security features that a paid version does, it should still include essential protections. This might encompass email scanning, a secure browser for online shopping and banking, and possibly a basic firewall. Be sure to evaluate the free features on offer and consider their relevance to your security needs.
Even a free antivirus solution should not significantly slow down your device. Be aware that constant scanning and other security processes can sometimes impact device performance. As such, opt for an antivirus solution that provides robust protection while minimizing its impact on system speed. Independent test results can offer useful comparisons on this front.
While customer support might be limited for free antivirus versions, some level of assistance is essential. It’s worth choosing a product that offers some form of support, be it through email, community forums, or a resource-rich website with FAQs and troubleshooting guides.
First-year and second price
While this factor is mostly applicable to paid antivirus software, some free versions offer premium features on a trial basis, which can then lead to charges. Ensure that the antivirus solution you opt for is entirely free or, if it does offer a paid version, you’re content with the services it provides once the trial period ends.
By considering these factors, you can select a free antivirus solution that provides solid protection against malware threats, with a set of features that match your security needs, all without compromising your device’s performance.
If you have a specific operating system that you would like to protect, we probably have a dedicated antivirus comparison for it:
- The best antivirus of 2023 – For all OS.
- The best antivirus for Windows 11 – For Microsoft’s latest desktop OS.
- The best antivirus for macOS – For Apple’s desktop OS.
- The best antivirus for Android – For Google’s mobile OS.
- The best antivirus for iPhone – For Apple’s mobile OS.
- The best antivirus with a VPN – For both security and privacy.
- The best VPN providers – For a dedicated privacy solution.
Click the links to be taken to your comparison of choice.
What cyber threats can antivirus protect you from?
Antivirus software plays a crucial role in safeguarding digital devices against a myriad of cyber threats. It’s important to note, however, that while antivirus can guard against many forms of malicious software, it’s not a panacea for all digital threats. Let’s delve into some of the key cyber threats that antivirus can shield you from:
Malware, or malicious software, refers to a broad range of software specifically designed to harm or exploit any computing device or network. This includes viruses, worms, trojans, ransomware, spyware, adware, and others. Antivirus software actively monitors for malware signatures, quarantine them, and eliminates them to keep your system safe.
Adware is a form of malware that inundates you with unwanted ads. While not always harmful itself, adware can be incredibly annoying and can often pave the way for other, more dangerous malware. Antivirus software can detect and block adware, providing a more secure and clean browsing experience.
A botnet is a network of compromised computers that hackers control to carry out tasks like sending spam or launching Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks. Antivirus software can prevent your device from becoming part of a botnet by blocking the malware that hackers use to hijack computers.
Keyloggers are malicious programs that record every keystroke on a victim’s device, allowing attackers to steal sensitive information such as passwords or credit card numbers. Antivirus software can detect and eliminate keyloggers before they can cause harm.
Ransomware is a type of malware that encrypts a victim’s files, with the attacker then demanding a ransom to restore access. Some advanced antivirus solutions include specific anti-ransomware components to detect and block such threats.
Rootkits are a type of stealthy malware designed to hide the existence of certain processes or programs from normal methods of detection, allowing them to gain privileged access to a computer. Modern antivirus programs can detect and remove rootkits to keep your system secure.
Spyware is software that spies on your computer activities for the purpose of stealing sensitive information without your consent. Antivirus software has spyware detection capabilities to identify and eradicate such threats.
Trojans are deceptive software that appear legitimate but perform malicious activities once installed, such as stealing data or damaging the system. Antivirus programs can identify and remove Trojan threats effectively.
Viruses are malicious programs that can replicate and spread to other systems, often causing harm to files or system structures. Antivirus software is specifically designed to detect, quarantine, and remove viruses.
Worms are self-replicating malware that spread across networks, exploiting vulnerabilities and consuming bandwidth. Antivirus solutions can detect and eradicate worms, preventing them from spreading and causing damage.
With a quality antivirus solution, you can guard against these and many other threats. However, as the threat landscape evolves, it’s crucial to keep your antivirus software up-to-date and remain vigilant about your online activities.
What cyber threat can antivirus not protect you from?
While antivirus software is an essential tool for safeguarding your digital devices against various types of malware, it’s not a cure-all for every cyber threat. Certain threats, primarily those involving human decision-making or exploiting previously unknown vulnerabilities, can bypass antivirus software. Here’s a closer look at some of these threats:
Phishing involves fraudulent attempts to obtain sensitive information such as usernames, passwords, and credit card details by disguising oneself as a trustworthy entity in electronic communication.
While some antivirus software includes anti-phishing features, it’s not foolproof, and a user can still fall for a phishing attack if they’re not vigilant. No software can completely protect against human error, making awareness and caution essential when dealing with unfamiliar or suspicious emails and websites.
Online scams range from advanced fee fraud, where scammers ask for a small upfront fee to unlock a much larger sum of money, to romance scams, where fraudsters form emotional connections with victims to scam them out of money.
Antivirus software can’t protect users from these scams, as they often involve deceit rather than malware. The best defense against such scams is user education and vigilance.
For more, read our blog post on online scams.
Social engineering is the art of manipulating people so they give up confidential information. This can involve techniques such as pretexting, baiting, and tailgating, none of which involve malicious software. Since this form of threat exploits human vulnerabilities rather than technical ones, antivirus software offers little protection against it. Here too, user awareness and education are key defenses.
For more, read our blog post on social engineering.
Zero-day exploits take advantage of software vulnerabilities that are unknown to the software maker, hence the term “zero-day” (meaning there have been zero days to fix the issue). By the time the vulnerability is discovered and a patch is issued, attackers may have already exploited it. Antivirus software struggles to protect against zero-day exploits, as they rely on known malware signatures and behaviors for detection. Advanced antivirus software may include heuristic analysis to detect previously unknown threats, but this is not foolproof.
While antivirus software provides vital protection against many types of cyber threats, it’s important to remember that it’s just one part of a comprehensive approach to cybersecurity. Good digital habits, staying informed about current threats, and using other security tools such as firewalls and secure networks, can significantly enhance your overall security.
For more, read our blog post on zero-day exploits.
What antivirus software have we tested?
We have tested 28 antivirus brands, ranging from entry-level free antivirus programs, to mid-range paid antivirus software and full-featured internet security suites. Below is the list of the 20 most important brands:
- Bitdefender Antivirus
- McAfee Antivirus
- Microsoft Defender (Windows Defender)
- Norton Antivirus
- PC Matic
- Trend Micro
The best antivirus programs are Norton 360 Deluxe, Norton 360 Advanced, and Bitdefender Total Security. By comparison, the other antivirus software cost too much, offer less capable protection from malware threats, or have no unlimited VPN access.
Popular free antivirus programs that we haven’t included on this page are Avast Free Antivirus (Avast One Essential), Avira Free Security, and AVG Antivirus Free. All of them offer solid antivirus software for Windows.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below are the most frequently asked questions.
What is the best free antivirus software?
Panda is our top choice for free antivirus software. Check our website for unique discounts on premium antivirus solutions, including Norton.
Do you need free antivirus software?
Microsoft Defender offers capable protection, so free antivirus isn’t absolutely necessary. However, for robust security, paid antivirus is recommended.
How does antivirus work?
Antivirus software scans for known malware signatures and suspicious behaviors, providing real-time protection against cyber threats.
Will antivirus software slow down your device?
Quality antivirus software, like Norton, won’t slow down your device. However, lower-quality options may impact system performance.
Is free antivirus software safe?
Free antivirus programs can provide basic protection but often lack advanced features found in paid software, making them less safe overall.
Is Kaspersky still safe?
Despite its Russian origin, no evidence suggests Kaspersky is unsafe. However, always choose antivirus software you’re comfortable using.
Languages and sources
Similar pages in other languages on SoftwareLab.org:
Below are the sources and tools we’ve used to test the antivirus software:
- Apple Platform Security
- AV-Comparatives Consumer
- AV-Test Android
- AV-Test macOS
- AV-Test Windows
- GRC Firewall Test
- Microsoft Defender
- SpeedTest VPN
- Trustpilot Security Software
Author: Tibor Moes
Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab
Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.
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