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Best mobile antivirus: how to choose a mobile security app

By Andrew Laughlin

Do you need antivirus for your Android smartphone or Apple iPhone? Is it worth paying for a security app, or are free versions just as good? Find out all you need to know in our in-depth guide.

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Whether you’re checking train times or connecting with friends, chances are you’re doing it on a smartphone or tablet.

However, just like a computer, your mobile device could be vulnerable to malware, viruses, and scams.

Apple iOS and Google Android have both improved their security over the years, but you can also download a free or paid mobile antivirus app to increase your protection. Read on to find out more.

If you want to protect your laptop or desktop computer from online threats, head over to our extensive and in-depth PC and Mac antivirus software reviews

Do I need mobile antivirus software?

Any device that connects to the internet is vulnerable to online threats, and that includes your smartphone or tablet.

As a baseline of protection, you should always keep your mobile or tablet updated to the more recent software issued by the manufacturer. This will bring the latest security fixes and patches. Also, ensure to back up your data (photos, music, etc) to reduce the impact if something does go wrong.

See below the built-in protections in Apple iOS and Google Android.

Further ahead, we look at mobile security software apps. As well as keeping your phone or tablet free from malware and other nasties, the best security apps will also help you avoid scams, keep your personal data private, and enable you to find or wipe a lost device.

Do I need mobile security software for Android?

Google’s Android operating system is used on millions of tablets and smartphones worldwide. While Android is still a more controlled environment than the world of Windows PCs - where users can inadvertently pick up malware or a virus from any number of sources - malware can still sneak onto Android devices.

Google has brought in a range of features to help keep your handset safe, bundled together in Google Play Protect. This new security centre is claimed to keep bogus apps off your device, and prevent malware and scams. It can also be used to track down a lost device.

Most Android devices come with Google Play Protect switched on and it works automatically without you having to do anything.

While Google Play Protect is better than no protection in Android, early reports after its 2017 launch indicated that it struggles to detect some malware and other threats.

As with all security software, Google Play Protect will improve as it learns how to deal with threats, but if you want extra protection, go for a free or paid-for security app.

Do I need security software for Apple iOS?

Just as with Mac computers compared to Windows PCs, Apple iOS devices are typically more impervious to malware compared to their Android counterparts.

Although nothing is ever 100% secure, iPads and iPhones are generally less vulnerable due to the in-built security measures implemented by Apple, and the fact that iOS is more ‘locked down’ compared to Android.  

Apple iOS is considered relatively secure and cases of malware are very rare. Plus, all apps for iOS come via Apple’s App Store, where they’re pre-checked for security.

Therefore, most Apple iOS users won’t need another security app on their iPad or iPhone, but it’s still vitally important that you install the latest software updates.

Also, maintain all the usual vigilance over other online threats, such as phishing attacks and fake shopping website trying to steal your data.

Mobile security software brands

All the big brands you’ll know from PC antivirus software also offer mobile security software services, including Avast, McAfee, Norton, Kaspersky, Trend Micro and Bitdefender.

Other, lesser known mobile security brands include Webroot, Lookout and 360 Security.

Most of the brands offer a paid-for security package, with prices ranging from around £5 to well over £50. Many also offer a basic free package, including Avira Antivirus Security 2018, Bitdefender Antivirus Free, Norton Security and Antivirus, Sophos Mobile Security and Webroot Security Free.

The quality of packages can vary immensely, but at least with a free app you can give it a try and, if it isn’t any good, you haven’t lost anything when you get rid of it.

Should I pay for mobile security software?

We don’t test mobile security software any more, but when we did both free and paid apps received Best Buy awards. So, you don’t necessarily have to pay to get effective extra protection for your mobile device.

Free apps, such as those available from companies like Avast, AVG, BitDefender, Lookout and McAfee, are popular for obvious reasons. Some free apps do all the basics brilliantly. If your only concerns are malware, a free app is the obvious choice. 

However, free antivirus downloads won’t come with the same bells and whistles as their paid-for cousins. Plus, free apps sometimes only have full functionality for a few weeks, and then you’re left with only the basic tools and features after the trial period ends.

If you have a pricey Android device, it may be worth investing in a paid-for security app. As well as offering malware protection and anti-spam tools, they often offer useful features, such as cloud-based (online) backup and the ability to remotely wipe a lost or stolen device.

Mobile security software features

While free mobile security apps will usually only offer very basic functions, if you pay for software you can access a range of more premium features. Although each package will vary, here are some typical features on offer.

Anti-phishing: Sniffs out dodgy-looking links and should bar you from accessing potentially dangerous websites designed to infect machines or steal your personal data.

App lock: Lets you protect certain apps and settings with a password to restrict who can use or edit them.

Backup: Preserves your personal information by saving it online using 'cloud' (internet-based) storage, as well as on your device. Backup happens either according to a schedule or before you complete a remote wipe. Backups can then be restored to any compatible device.

Call/SMS blocking: Filters and blocks unwanted calls and text messages, with warnings when you receive a suspicious text.

Parental controls: Lets you prevent access to certain types of content.

Privacy adviser: Scans and checks any apps you try to download, telling you which ones are asking for more access than they really need.

Remote location: Uses GPS to show your phone or tablet’s location on a map from any web browser.

Remote lock: Locks down your device remotely via SMS or web browser interface, preventing unauthorised access. Some apps even allow you to create a customised lock-screen message that displays your contact details to aid the safe return of your device.

Remote photo: Helps identify unauthorised users of your phone or tablet by taking their photo and sending it to you via email. Some apps take snaps through the device's camera and emails them to you when a password is entered incorrectly a few times.

Remote wipe: Preserves your privacy by enabling you to wipe all contacts, calendars, photos, texts, browsing history and memory card in your phone.

Safe browsing mode: Checks webpages in real time, as you’re browsing the web, keeping you protected when you click on links or every time you type in a web address.

SIM lock: Stops others from using your phone or tablet by locking it down when the SIM card is removed.

Tune up: Optimises battery, data and storage use by identifying apps that use too much battery life or slow down your device’s performance. This means you can shut down and uninstall those apps.

Uninstall protection: Prevents thieves from bypassing the mobile security app and wiping any device data and apps. A password is required to delete the app.

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