Security software showdown! 9 antivirus suites empirically tested

Illustration by Asaf Hanuka

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If you’re like a lot of people, when it comes time to renew your security software, you may ask yourself, “Do I really need to upgrade to the latest version?” The answer is yes. Keeping up-to-date is generally a good idea, as new threats surface constantly. And if you value mobile security or use a social network, this year’s crop of security suites is worth paying attention to.

An increasing number of security suites now feature special tools to help protect you on social networks—a growing target for spammers, scammers, and other parties who want to get at your personal information. For example, Trend Micro’s Titanium Internet Security suite comes with a handy tool that highlights any possible areas of concern involving your Facebook privacy settings. Various suites also include tools that will scan links on social networks so that you aren’t duped into clicking a malicious link hidden behind a URL shortener.

If you own a smartphone or tablet, or both, the security class of 2013 has some new tools for you. And some security packages come with a mobile app that provides protection against mobile malware or includes other features such as GPS tracking to help you find your phone should it go missing. These apps often also include remote-wipe capabilities that let you delete the contents of a missing phone or tablet so your private data doesn’t end up falling into the wrong hands.

In addition, Windows 8 has changed the way security software makers design their programs. Many of the suites we looked at this year sport redesigned interfaces that include larger buttons and controls made to be more touch-friendly.

As usual, we teamed up with the fine folks at AV-Test, a respected antivirus testing lab based in Germany. AV-Test ran each suite through a comprehensive battery of tests to find out how well each would stand up to the worst malware currently in existence. AV-Test also performed speed testing to determine whether the suites will slow your PC to a crawl. We analyzed the data that AV-Test provided, and then tried each of the products ourselves to give you an idea of which suites you should go for—and which ones you should pass on.

Here are the suites we tested. You can click on each link to read individual reviews, or simply read this list for quick star ratings and summaries.

1. F-Secure Internet Security 2013 — 4.5 stars (Superior). F-Secure’s latest suite offers excellent protection and a friendly user interface.

2. Norton Internet Security 2013 — 4.5 stars (Superior). With its great detection rate and Windows 8-ready design, Norton’s suite is definitely worth a look.

3. Trend Micro Titanium Internet Security 2013 — 4.5 stars (Superior). This “titanium” suite earned high marks in almost all our detection tests, and it has a nice interface.

4. Bitdefender Internet Security 2013 — 4.5 stars (Superior). Bitdefender has a user-friendly interface that will appeal to people of all experience levels.

5. Kaspersky Internet Security 2013 — 4 stars (Very Good). Kaspersky lets both beginners and advanced users get the most out of its suite, and scored well in our tests.

6. McAfee Internet Security 2013 — 4 stars (Very Good). McAfee didn’t earn top marks, but it’s still a proficient, user-friendly antimalware program.

7. G Data InternetSecurity 2013 — 3.5 stars (Very Good). G Data has an effective suite, but in­­stallation is a hassle, with a settings panel that's more suited to advanced users.

8. AVG Internet Security 2013 — 3.5 stars (Very Good). AVG’s security program is perfectly re­­spectable. But perfectly respectable just doesn’t cut it these days.

9. Avira Internet Security 2013 — 3.5 stars (Very Good). This suite is competent at detecting, disabling, and cleaning up malware, but its user interface is unfriendly.

BEST OVERALL: F-Secure Internet Security 2013 F-Secure's 2013 suite kept our test system free of malware and did a great job of cleaning up infections that made it onto our PC. It's speedy and well designed, too.

BEST PROTECTION: Trend Micro Titanium Internet Security 2013
This suite had the most well rounded protection of all the suites we looked at. It proved effective at keeping malware at bay and at cleaning up infected PCs.

BEST SPEED: Norton Internet Security The days of Norton being ridiculed as slow are long gone: Norton's newest suite had lightning-quick scan times, and its impact on overall PC performance was minimal.

BEST INTERFACE: Norton Internet Security We liked Norton's polished, easy-to-use interface and one-click installation process. It's also designed to be Windows 8-friendly.

A competitive field

The security software market is highly competitive and it showed in our test results. In
our testing, no suite detected less than 97.8 percent of recent known malware samples,
and blocked below around 94.4 percent of new malware in our "real-world" attack-
blocking tests. False positives were also largely a non-issue. But if you look closely,
there are still some notable differences.

We noticed a fairly wide difference in terms of ease of use between the suites we
looked at. While some—like Norton and Trend Micro—were very user friendly and
polished, others—like Avira and G Data—were less so and seemed to be designed with
expert users in mind.

In the end, even the lower-ranked suites performed reasonably well, but simply didn't
stand out enough to claim a higher ranking.

What you don't get in these suites

For the sake of this story, we looked at mainstream Internet security suites, but most
security companies also sell more feature-complete "advanced" suites. These suites
include products like Norton 360, Trend Micro Titanium Maximum Security, and AVG
Premium Security.

For the most part, these advanced suites feature the same basic antivirus engine as the
more basic suites, but will also include PC maintenance tools, online backup, additional
parental controls and privacy controls, and more.

What comes in the more advanced packages compared to the more basic suites does
very between manufacturers, though: Some include a mobile app with the basic suite,
while others include it only in their advanced suites. In general, though, the basic suites
contain just about everything you'll need to keep your PC protected.

Threats to watch for in 2013

(by Tony Bradley)

More sophisticated phishing Email and text messages that contain links to malicious websites will improve in quality to the point that they'll be virtually indistinguishable from legitimate communications. The messages will become more polished and professional—no more broken English and poor grammar.

Watering-hole attacks A drive-by download is a twist on the concept of browser-based attacks. In this sort of attack, cybercriminals post malicious content on a Web page, and then try to figure out some way to lure you to visit the website. If the PC you use to visit the website is vulnerable to the exploit used by the attack, malware is downloaded and the system is compromised. In 2013, though, attackers will continue to hone in with more precise attacks known as "watering hole" attacks. Rather than casting a wide net (as attackers do with drive-by downloads), the watering hole attack is more precise.

Data breaches In 2013, attackers will continue to target weak security on Internet-facing database systems to acquire thousands or millions of compromised records at once rather than going after individual users. Unfortunately, there isn't much you can do to prevent this sort of attack, but you can go on the defensive by being vigilant. Monitor your bank and credit card statements and report anything suspicious to your financial institution.

 Note: Click on the chart image below to see a summary of our findings.

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