Security software: Choosing the best antivirus software Types of antivirus software

Anti-virus 5

If you own a computer and use the internet, it’s essential that you install the best security software to protect yourself from a wide range of online threats. 

These include everything from viruses and malicious software (known as malware) that can cripple your computer and erase files, to spyware that can snoop on your activities and allow hackers to take remote control of your PC.

The internet is full of threats, but that's no reason not to enjoy the best of the web - they key is keeping your PC properly protected.

Viruses and malware infect your computer in several ways. You can transfer an infected file from a device such as a USB memory stick. 

However, most malware is spread via the internet, and can be hidden within attachments in email messages or via links to infected websites. Files downloaded from the internet can include a virus, so it’s important check these with security software.

Read our reviews of the best free and paid-for security software

How to stop viruses and malware

Without protecting your PC with security software, there’s a strong chance that malware could infect your computer or expose your private information to criminals. 

The best way to protect your computer from malware, spyware and viruses is to have three types of security software installed on your computer. Most paid-for security software includes all three elements as a security suite.

  • A firewall – this acts as a gatekeeper to protect your computer from incoming attacks from the internet, by monitoring and filtering data traffic leaving and arriving on your computer.
  • Antivirus software – this helps to protect against viruses, trojans and other security threats by scanning and stopping viruses being installed on your computer. If you do get a virus installed on your PC, anti-virus software will be able to remove it.
  • Antispyware software – spyware is malicious software that secretly downloads to your computer. Once installed, it can monitor your activity, collect information about you and send it out onto the internet, and even take over your web browser (called ‘hijacking’). Anti-spyware software scans your computer to detect this, and removes any spyware it finds. By keeping anti-spyware software running, it can prevent spyware from being installed in the first place.

Other useful security tools to have installed on your PC include spam filters to block unsolicited mail and parental controls to help keep your children safe online.

Free or paid-for security software?

Most people keep their PC safe by buying a security suite, which includes antivirus and antispyware software, and a firewall. A security suite costs around £40 and usually includes a year’s subscription to software updates to keep it up-to-date with details about the latest threats. The best security software suites come with extra features such as parental controls, maintenance and back-up tools.

However, you may not need to buy security software. Depending on the type of computer you have, it may already come with certain security features installed on it. Alternatively, you can download free security tools from the internet that provide a good level of protection – some free software tools are Best Buys.

Learn more by reading our guide to Free and paid-for security software

Antivirus software for Mac

Despite their reputation for being more secure than Windows PCs, Apple Mac computers are not immune from viruses and malware. With more Apple products being sold, the target audience for hackers is becoming more attractive. This makes it more likely that viruses will be designed specifically to attack Macs, so it makes sense to think about Mac security software.

Apple has boosted security in the latest version of the operating system. Mac OS X Mountain Lion’s security features include the anti-malware Gatekeeper tool, along with anti-phishing, privacy and parental controls.

However, Apple Macs do not include antivirus or antispyware software, although they do have a built-in firewall to block attacks from malicious users online. There’s plenty of paid-for and free security software for the Mac to choose from. 

Learn more by reading our guide to anti-virus software tools for the Mac 

Windows 8 security software

The biggest shake-up in PC security for years has been Microsoft’s launch of Windows 8. Unlike previous versions, it comes with lots of security features baked right into the operating system, and Which? found Windows 8 to be very secure in our tests.

One of the key changes in Windows 8 is the replacement of Microsoft Security Essentials with Windows Defender. Defender has been beefed up to include antivirus protection along with antispyware features. It runs in the background and notifies you when you need to take action. Windows 8 users are further protected by a two-way firewall that monitors the information going back and forth to the internet.

Other Windows 8 security features include a SmartScreen filter to help protect against phishing scams and parental controls to monitor children’s activities online.

But just how good is Windows 8's built-in security? Is it time to ditch the annual subscription for your current security package? 

Read our page on Windows 8 Security features to help you make up your mind

More on this…

  • Best Buy security software – keep your computer secure with Which? Best Buy security and antivirus tools
  • Security software tests – discover how we test antivirus, antispyware and firewall software so you can buy with confidence 
  • Windows 8 security features reviewed – learn more about the pros and cons of Windows 8’s security features