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Whether it’s a month of Netflix to go with your new mobile contract, or a year of free insurance when you buy a new car, we’re used to companies bundling extras with their products to make them seem better value than the rest.
Security software companies do this to the extreme. Ever noticed that most antivirus software is now called a ‘security suite’ or ‘total protection’? In a market where all the products have become so reliable, adding extra features has become a game of cat-and-mouse, with extras disappearing and reappearing year in, year out.
But the big question is, are any of them actually worth paying extra for? Or should you just opt for the free or more basic packages that just include antivirus software and nothing else? Below, we take you through seven features you’re likely to see, and evaluate whether they’re worth paying extra for.
Browse our full list of the best antivirus software for Windows.
A bundled VPN
Should you pay extra? Probably not.
Lots of security suites come with VPN (virtual private network) software included in the price. VPNs help you to control your privacy online, although you should read our guide on how to buy the best VPN to work out whether it’s something you need.
The main issue with VPN software bundled with your antivirus is that it typically offers a miserly amount of data. Avira Antivirus Pro, for example, comes with just 1GB a month. This is about as little as you’d get from a free trial with another VPN company, and only makes sense if you use a VPN rarely. Similarly, Bitdefender offers just 200MB a day, which is only enough for a bit of light browsing on a given day.
If that’s all you need, great. But if you want more, consider paying for a proper subscription. If your antivirus software comes with it anyway, don’t feel like you’re wasting money by not using it.
Should you pay extra? No.
This is a classic value-added feature that can occasionally be helpful, but it’s not so useful that it’s worth paying extra for.
It’s a really common feature in free antivirus tools, and you can all but guarantee that no matter what you do, your antivirus will find ‘advanced’ problems that require you to shell out to fix them. We’ve rarely seen any of those ‘advanced’ problems turn out to be anything more than basic settings tweak which, frankly, we could take or leave.
In all but the most extreme circumstances, all that this software will find is ‘junk’ files, and it will want to empty your Downloads folder and possibly delete all your web-browser cookies. Some may also suggest that you update some software. In some cases this could be quite handy, but ultimately you can do this yourself without paying. Keep your Downloads folder tidy, and use the Storage Settings tools in Windows 10 and MacOS to keep junk files at bay.
In addition, ensure you only keep programs you want installed by using the ‘Add or remove programs’ tool in Windows 10, or delete the app from the Finder app in MacOS.
Should you pay extra? Yes (but only if you need it).
Family controls let you set rules and manage a number of devices within your family. Features include setting screen-time limits, preventing certain apps from being installed, and keeping track of the location of smartphones (make sure you let the kids know before you do the latter). Where applicable, they’ll also provide antivirus protection to those devices.
This can be incredibly handy, especially if your household has a mix of Windows, Mac, iOS and Android devices. Keep in mind, though, that you don’t strictly need to pay to have this level of control over the kids’ tech. Microsoft Family Safety, Apple parental controls and Google Family Link all provide very similar features for their respective devices, so paying for such a tool isn’t strictly necessary.
But if you want a one-stop shop to manage and protect your family’s devices, paying extra for this could be a good shout. Two examples of antivirus suites with family controls are F-Secure and BullGuard.
Should you pay extra? Yes, if you’re worried (and if it actually works).
A banking browser, also known as safe browsing, purports to provide extra protection to prevent keyloggers and hackers seeing what you’re up to when you’re banking online. Kaspersky and Norton are two examples of security software companies that provide this as part of their paid-for products.
Like ransomware protection (see below), this really shouldn’t be necessary if your antivirus is working properly. If there’s a keylogger or some other nefarious activity happening on your computer, your antivirus should have already spotted and eliminated it.
With that said, banking fraud remains a common and devastating crime, so any tools that help to prevent it shouldn’t be dismissed entirely. But beware: in our testing we’ve had mixed results with these browsers actually working at all. Often they don’t appear to do anything, while at other times they fail to recognise when you visit a banking website and so don’t activate. Our reviews explain where this is the case.
Should you pay extra? No.
For one, these tools are typically free and tend to be browser-based, so you don’t need to install or pay for any antivirus software to get them working. Avast Safe Price and Avira Safe Shopping are two examples of this.
They may be useful, and claim to be able to filter out deals from retailers that haven’t been vetted. But this is really no different from using any other deal-finding toolbar that you happen to trust. Whichever toolbar you use, you’re allowing the company to see all your shopping habits and, in the case of Avast, passing that information to a third-party company to serve you better deals. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it rather steps beyond what you’d expect and want a piece of security software to do. With a myriad of ways to compare prices online, we think toolbars for this purpose are mostly unnecessary.
Should you pay extra? Yes, if you’re very worried about ransomware.
Ransomware is nasty: it locks up your files and asks you to pay a fee to unlock them again.
However, despite its infamous reputation, ransomware is relatively uncommon compared with other types of viruses, according to our test lab. There are much easier ways to get money out of you by stealing credit card information or trying to scam you via text message or email. But it does still happen, which is why security companies often highlight it in their marketing and include ‘ransomware protection’ as a premium feature.
In truth, ransomware protection is not the right name for this feature, as this implies that without it, ransomware is free to do what it wants on your computer. This isn’t true.
What it actually does is monitor specific files that you value highly, and prevents any other programs from modifying or deleting them without your permission.
Sounds handy, but keep in mind that if your antivirus is any good, it will stop the ransomware from running at all, and therefore never allow it to even get close to locking up your files. We know this because we’ve used free software, which offers ransomware protection as a paid upgrade, and found that the free software is equally adept at stopping ransomware as the paid-for version. This shows that all you’re actually paying for is the file-monitoring feature. Ultimately, if you’re extremely worried about ransomware, you should use a service such as OneDrive or Google Drive to keep your files backed up.
Should you pay extra? Yes, if you have a lot of smart devices.
Wi-fi security scanners are a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to features. Some simply claim to let you know whenever a new device connects to the network, while others will attempt to scan all the devices on the network and find out whether they’re out of date or have known security flaws. Bitdefender is one example of a package that does the whole lot.
This type of tool can be useful, but only if you’re using old or cheap kit. We’ve found in the past that there could be up to 100,000 security cameras at risk of being hacked. If you’re using smart devices such as security cameras or motion sensors and you aren’t sure whether they’re actually kept up to date by the manufacturer, it could be useful. But if you’re using gadgets from a big brand such as Ring or Netgear, you probably know exactly when and how they’re updated, and a tool such as this can tell you whatever it likes – but are you really going to ditch your entire security system because your wi-fi scanner told you there are some issues with it?
These tools also let you know whether your router is up to date. This can be very useful, especially if you’re using a router supplied by your ISP that’s starting to show its age. We’ve found that older routers can pose a security risk, so a wi-fi scanning tool can be a good way to find out whether that’s the case.
For more on out-of-date routers see the April 2021 issue of Which? Magazine.