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Updated: 11 Mar 2021

Do you need antivirus for a Mac? Latest macOS security software on test

Find out if your Apple needs additional protection or can go it alone
Laptop antivirus

The old adage goes that Macs can't get viruses, so why would you bother downloading, let alone paying for, antivirus software? We have a few reasons.

No computer is immune from cyberattacks, so each year Which? tests Mac antivirus software to their limits with hundreds of virus attacks including worms and ransomware to see how they fare. Read on to see your protection options.

Browse all our antivirus software reviews, or skip straight to the best antivirus packages from our tough tests.

Built-in Mac security

While the adage mentioned above isn't strictly true, it is fair to say that there aren't many viruses for Mac computers, which makes them hard to come by. Our lab tests Windows antivirus software with several thousand Windows-specific viruses each year, but tests only a few dozen on Mac computers. That isn't to say that it's impossible to catch a Mac virus, but the number of different strains is much smaller.

There are two ways MacOS looks to defend against malware:

  • XProtect This is a detection tool built in to macOS that is kept up-to-date with the very latest virus 'signatures'. Signatures are telltale signs that a file is in fact a malicious virus, and means it doesn't need to be intensively scanned to work out that it's harmful. XProtect is kept up-to-date independently of system updates, so you won't need to restart your Mac to get the latest signatures. If XProtect detects you've downloaded malware, it will let you know and move the file straight into the Bin.
  • Malware Removal Tool This automatic tool will get rid of malware that hasn't been picked up by XProtect and, if you have automatic security updates switched on (we recommend you do), will get rid of files that are malicious.

Apple also treats software downloaded from the web differently to software downloaded from its own App Store.

Indeed, macOS is pretty explicit about apps that haven't been authenticated (signed by a registered developer and notarised by Apple). Whenever you download a program from the web, you'll be presented with a warning to remind you that it won't have gone through Apple's checks. While this doesn't necessarily mean a program will contain viruses, not being checked by Apple also means that the software won't have gone through basic privacy and reliability checks, either.

If your Mac has completely blocked you from opening an app because it isn't signed or notarised, you might want to think twice about opening it. But Apple does allow you to do so via the Security & Privacy menu within the Settings app.

If you stay within Apple's walled garden, you'll decrease your chances of picking up malware.

Why you should still consider antivirus for Mac

Even if you don't let a piece of malware run, we have found that macOS' built-in security scanning doesn't always detect dormant viruses just sitting on the hard drive. If you never had any intention of running the viruses yourself, you could inadvertently share them with somebody you know who might not be so fortunate.

And there's more to antivirus than simply protection from viruses. Almost all the security suites we test come with additional protection against phishing attacks, where websites pretend to be legit in order to steal your data. We have found that the very best Mac security suites will also bolster your phishing protection quite significantly, and perform better than the protection built in to the Mac versions of Safari, Chrome, Firefox and Opera web browsers.

For this reason, if you're nervous about threats on the web, it would make sense to at least consider a Mac security suite.

Wondering about VPNs? Read our VPN reviews to see which one is right for you.

Antivirus options for Apple Macs

While there's no cheap way to get yourself a Mac, those who don't fancy a yearly subscription to a security suite can rest easy in the knowledge that this year we tested two free options - and while neither are Best Buys, one of them was perfectly acceptable.

If you're a Which? member, you can see the very best antivirus options on our best antivirus for Mac advice guide. And for everybody else, we've highlighted five options from the biggest brands.

Paid antivirus for Mac

Norton Security Deluxe

One of the biggest names in antivirus has a relatively inexpensive Mac option. What's more, if you have Windows computers in your household you can mix and match the different device types under the same subscription. Subscribing gets you various other benefits, although some, such as the 50GB of cloud storage, is only available for Windows computers. See whether it's worth paying for in our Norton Security Deluxe for Mac review.

Kaspersky Internet Security

Kaspersky's security suite includes basic protection as well as tools specifically designed to protect your files from ransomware and a bolstered web browser for banking. Like Norton, you can mix and match a Kaspersky multi-device Internet Security subscription between Windows and Macs. See if it's worth the cost in our full Kaspersky Internet Security for Mac review.

Bitdefender Antivirus for Mac

Bitdefender comes with phishing protection and a VPN for keeping your web browsing safe from prying eyes, but can this AV production take on its big-brand rivals? It's performed well in our tests in previous years, so read our full Bitdefender Antivirus for Mac review to find out.

Free antivirus for Mac

This relatively simple piece of software comes with live virus protection, virus scanning and a piece of VPN software. While it won't set pulses racing with its features, for many this will be a plus point, with no unwanted bloat. That said, the software doesn't feature any phishing protection, either, which seems like a strange omission. See how it did in our lab tests in our Avira Free Security Suite for Mac review.

AVG Antivirus for Mac (free)

If you don't want extra features and also don't fancy shelling out for yet another digital subscription, AVG Free might be the option for you. There are no frills, but it should deliver when it comes to basic protection, adding that last layer of defense for when all else fails. See how it fared in our antivirus lab by reading the full AVG Antivirus for Mac review.

Avira Free Security Suite for Mac

How we test antivirus

Our antivirus test lab is riddled with threats. It has set up dozens of computers in 40 countries around the world to act as 'honeypots' for millions of viruses. These honeypots capture viruses that are fresh into the wild and may have only existed for days. This makes the task for the security software very challenging, because many of them rely upon huge databases of so-called virus 'definitions' to tell whether or not a file is harmful.

Grabbing new threats means they will also have to rely on their own intuition - rather than simply checking a database - using more advanced techniques to decide if there's a threat. We also use a mix of scenarios on both Windows and macOS, including viruses stored on USB sticks, and even malicious real-world phishing webpages designed to steal your data. Only the most secure software can fend off all these types of attacks effectively.

Malware can be more of a concern if you're using an old phone. Read our guide on mobile phone security for more.