Antivirus suites are only as good as their latest tests. And in AV-test.org’s latest roundup for July and August, the usual suspects—BitDefender, Kaspersky, McAfee, and Symantec—came out on top.
The same holds true for the free options. If you’re a cheapskate, you can download Panda Security’s free cloud antivirus and have a good chance that it will catch everything that the shadowy corners of the Web can throw at it—as it did in AV-test’s own proving ground.
But if you think that Microsoft’s own Windows Defender (or Microsoft Security Essentials in Windows 7) antimalware solution will do the job, you’re almost entirely wrong. Microsoft caught less than 80 percent of both the known malware that AV-test.org threw at it, as well as the unknown or so-called zero-day malware that it was tested against. It’s like saying your roof will catch 80 percent of the rain—eventually, there’s going to be a leak.
Why this matters: It’s a good idea to re-evaluate your antivirus solution regularly. Is it up-to-date? Getting the job done? If there are any lessons at all, it’s that the big names in the antivirus industry have earned their reputations. Check to see if yours is among them.
There are two major test houses that periodically evaluate major antivirus suites and Internet security services: AV-test and AV-comparatives.org. AV-comparatives.org, which recently published its own August rankings, also treats Microsoft as the baseline, claiming that it caught only 85.5 percent of the antimalware samples it was tested against.
The victor? Panda again, which caught every malware sample that AV-comparatives tested against. (Note the high number of false positives, however, meaning that safe files were incorrectly flagged as malware.) The only other suite to do the same was Avira, although it’s not clear whether AV-comparatives used the paid Internet Security suite, as AV-test.org did, or the free, standalone antivirus version.
AV-test.org also ranked paid antivirus solutions for businesses. Each and every one—BitDefender, F-Secure, and Symantec—caught 100 percent of the tested malware. Microsoft, again, came in dead last, managing only to catch between 74 and 79 percent.
There’s absolutely no guarantee that any of the antivirus products that have historically performed well will continue to do so—or will snag the next piece of malware your PC encounters. However, one trend is positive: In a recent, prolonged test by AV-test.org, the traditional antivirus powerhouses continued to do well.
Here are a few points to consider when designing an antimalware strategy for your PC:
Microsoft alone doesn’t cut it. Whether you consider a paid or free option, you’re going to need something else.
Historically, paid antimalware solutions like BitDefender, McAfee and Symantec continue to perform well, so the effectiveness of their antivirus protection should be seen as about equal. Other factors may help you decide among these suites, such as support for mobile devices or special security features like McAfee’s LiveSafe encrypted cloud storage.
Antimalware, while still useful, still can’t block a direct attack on your machine. (A firewall can.) Nor can it prevent you from clicking on a poisoned link sent you by your “Uncle Steve”—or someone posing as him. Consider an Internet security suite for this very reason; here’s our evaluation of the 2014 security suites. Otherwise, make sure you have some additional protection besides a simple antivirus solution.
As PCWorld's senior editor, Mark focuses on Microsoft news and chip technology, among other beats. He has formerly written for PCMag, BYTE, Slashdot, eWEEK, and ReadWrite.