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How to buy the best antivirus software

Say 'hasta la vista' to malware on your home computer, tablet or smartphone.

antivirus sofware shield and padlock on laptop on a teal background

Are you tootling along with an antivirus program on your PC, oblivious to the security threat to your smartphone and tablet? 

Keeping your PC protected from the ever-evolving plague of threats from viruses and other malware is a constant cat-and-mouse game. These days antivirus software does far more than just stop viruses, but does it do enough?

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Devices under threat from viruses

Security threats come from multiple fronts, including websites, email, instant messaging, and social media. And it's not just your PC that needs protection. The Android OS running on tablets and smartphones is the fastest growing target for malware makers.

As people increasingly turn to tablets and smartphones to replace the desktop PC and laptop, malware makers are exploiting the mobile platforms which increasingly hold a lot of the sensitive personal information that used to be found only on mainstream computers.

A full security suite brings together tools to tackle all these threats, providing desktop and mobile protection. Or you can go with different providers for your desktop and mobile devices.

All-in-one protection

Some of the software makers bundle multiple products together to create a security suite to protect your computer, mobile and tablet. This can make keeping track of updates and passwords much easier.

An antivirus security suite wraps up all its components in one easy-to-administer package that makes sure everything works together without the conflicts you can encounter when running separate programs from different makers. It also provides a central place for support. 

The core components of most suites include antivirus, anti-spam, anti-spyware and a firewall, but may also include tools such as secure password storage, start-up management, anti-phishing and parental controls, and may even back up your data to an attached hard drive or online. Some suites also allow access to online files via mobile devices like smartphones.

Virus protection for Macs

Mac malware is nowhere near as prevalent as malware targeted at Windows, but it does exist and it can still cause grief. Also, certain types of threats such as phishing and other browser-based or email scams work equally well across all platforms. There is no room for complacency.

Plenty of the big name companies make a security product for the Mac (OS X and macOS), but it may not have all the features of its PC counterpart. In some cases they're anti-malware only, or lack features such as parental controls, active firewall and system tuner. So, check the features of the Mac program carefully. Keep in mind that the protection performance of a Mac product does not necessarily correspond to that of a Windows product, even if from the same company.

There are also Mac-specific programs not available for Windows, and some may include the detection of Windows malware. This is a good feature, because although Windows malware won't affect Macs, it can still be unwittingly passed on to other Windows users. Any Mac running Windows (via Boot Camp, Parallels Desktop, VMware Fusion or Oracle's VirtualBox) will need Windows security protection.

As with Windows PCs, a little caution and common sense along with good software will help keep you safe. It's a good idea to keep a separate administrator account on your computer and not give your user account admin privileges. Also use secure passwords and keep the OS and all your software up to date, especially with security patches.

Top tips for protecting your computer

Good security software is essential, but there are other simple things you can and should do to make sure you have a secure PC. 

Auto update

Set Windows updates to occur automatically, or frequently check the Microsoft website for security updates and patches. This will help make sure you install all official Windows security patches and updates as they become available.

Enable options

Even the most powerful security software will only do what you tell it to, via its settings and options. Make sure you've enabled the ones you need, as not all will be enabled by default. You still need to exercise caution and common sense.

Link danger

Even with security software installed, you can still expose your PC to danger. Many security holes are caused by user error or social engineering (see Jargon buster below). Be very careful before clicking on an ad or a download link, and don't open emails or attachments that look suspicious. Never click an email link to access or fill in bank details – banks never provide this kind of link. Always type in the full web address of your bank's website in your browser. Also, check your bank statements regularly and look for unusual transactions.

Monitor your children

Know what they're doing online and don't give them administrator/owner access to your computer or mobile devices. You can use parental controls in Windows to limit their exposure.

Online shopping

Before buying online and when using internet banking, always look for a padlock icon in your browser window (next to the web address), which indicates the site is secure. You can double click it to check that the security certificate matches the company you think you're dealing with. A secure website's address also begins with "https:".


Use a strong password – at least eight characters, with letters, numbers, capitals and symbols – and change it regularly. Password manager software can reduce the burden of continual password changes.

Personal privacy

Don't share any personal information online about yourself or your family without knowing exactly where it's going and how it will be used.

Scan email in and out

Set your software to not only scan email attachments before opening them, but also scan outgoing mail. Some malware can surreptitiously send out emails to every contact in your address book. 

Turn off sharing

If you're not using file sharing or printer sharing then turn off these options in your operating system. 

Watch warning fatigue

Don't become blasé about security warnings and just click them off without checking them out carefully. Disregarding a security warning is like telling the program to not protect you.

Update your knowledge about security software

Having a good security suite is very important, but there are lots of issues around online security, privacy and protecting your information that you should keep on top of. Here are some links to find more information:

The cost and pricing practices of security software

The computer antivirus software we review will vary depending on the number of users it allows for the licence period – for example, three users for one year is typical, but some programs may support up to 10 users. Many also provide a multi-year licence, but the price will vary. Check the vendor's website for the latest pricing and look for discounts and special offers.

Many brands offer what may at first appear to be a 'discounted' price, but be sure to read the fine print. This price is usually only for an initial subscription period, such as the first year. After this, the price per year can more than double. This is often called the 'renewal price'. 

Be very careful to pay attention to any renewal pricing when you sign up to a security service subscription.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.