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The best antivirus software in 2021

Best antivirus software
(Image credit: Pexels/Soumil Kumar)

If you need to know about the best antivirus software then you're in the right place. There's nothing remotely exciting about antivirus software, but it's essential if you want to keep your work safe and secure. It can be a dangerous internet out there and a sophisticated cyber-attack can hit you when you least expect it, so it pays to invest in decent online protection.

Best antivirus software: Top 3 picks

1. Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2020
2. Norton Antivirus
3. Bitdefender Antivirus

Finding the right antivirus software can be a bit of a challenge, though, especially when every package is throwing a stack of baffling technical jargon at you. We're here to make things easier, though. If you're confused and have no idea which protection software to choose, hopefully our designer-friendly guide to the best antivirus software for both PC and Mac will help point you in the right direction. 

Do I need antivirus software?

Having antivirus software doing its thing in the background will give you peace of mind. Without it, you're open to serious risk. Could you cope if ransomware encrypted all digital content across your network, for instance? Yes, hopefully, as long as you run regular backups, but even if that's true, you could still spend an age cleaning up your systems.

You're less exposed if you use a Mac, but that doesn't mean you're entirely safe. There is some Mac malware (malicious software) around – and even if you avoid this, it's important that you don't pass on an infected PDF or other document to clients (horror of horrors) or colleagues.

Long story short? Getting the best antivirus software is vital if you want to stay safe online. And it doesn't need to be complicated. Whatever your situation, there's choice available to suit all, including free antivirus software options for any cash-strapped creatives out there. 

In this guide, we'll point you in the direction of the best best antivirus software options around (with minimal jargon as it hurts our brains) to help you make an informed decision. We'll start with paid-for versions of antivirus software, but you can jump to other sections of this article below:

The best antivirus software

Best antivirus software: Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2020

(Image credit: Future)

01. Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2020

Solid and reliable: this is the best antivirus software overall

Platform: Windows only. Mac, Android, iOS protection available separately with an upgrade
Best for: Demanding and experienced users who need maximum antivirus power
Reasons to buy
+Stuffed with features+Multi-layered anti-ransomware+Leading edge detection rates
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive if for just one device

Founded back in 2001, Romania-based Bitdefender is now a top-rated security giant which protects more than 500 million users worldwide. How did they do it? Checking the specs for Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2020 gives one indication: it's absolutely crammed with high-end features and functionality, more than some of the competition offer in their full security suites.

There's accurate antivirus, for instance. A password manager to manage your logons. Web filtering prevents you accessing malicious URLs, a file shredder securely deletes confidential or personal files, and a vulnerability scanner spots outdated software and missing Windows patches. That's just the start. Multi-layered ransomware protection keeps your digital content safe from hackers. A VPN protects your connection over insecure public wifi (though beware, there's only a tiny 200MB daily traffic allowance), and a secure and isolated browser keeps your banking, shopping or other personal activities safe from snoopers.

For all its feature overload, Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2020 is generally very easy to use. It doesn't hassle you with alerts or baffle you with complicated settings; mostly you can leave the program to handle everything itself. And whatever you're doing, Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2020 keeps you safer than most. The company is loved by the independent testing labs, and for example AV-Comparatives' October 2018 Real-World Protection report) saw Bitdefender ranked a clear first out of 18, with a protection rate of 100% and no false positives at all.

If you've more devices to protect, check out Bitdefender TOTAL SECURITY 2020. It may look expensive at £34.99 ($45.50) for year one, £69.99 ($91) on renewal, but that gets you protection for up to six Windows, Mac, iOS or Android devices in any combination.

Norton Antivirus Basic

02. Norton Antivirus Plus

Top value and excellent performance

Platform: Windows only
Best for: Users who want great value protection without compromising power
Reasons to buy
+Mighty malware protection+Minimal impact on system performance
Reasons to avoid
-Unreliable browser extensions

The one in the list you've probably all heard of, and there's a valid reason for that. Norton AntiVirus Plus (formerly Norton AntiVirus Basic) has been around for a long while now, and that's probably because its bloody good at what it does. Not only does it automatically protect your PC all on its own, it's also excellent value for money. 

Norton changed the name of its product in the US in late April 2019, however not in the UK, which makes things slightly confusing. But the long and short of it is Norton AntiVirus Plus is a direct replacement for the old Norton AntiVirus Basic, albeit it with a few extra functions thrown in for good measure. A couple of said functions are a very good thing: bonus 2GB of cloud backup and a password manager, however the name change has been coupled with a price hike, which is not such a welcome addition. 

Standout features include a URL blocker to help fend off malicious websites and excellent file reputation service to keep you protected from suspect downloads. And if all that fails against malware, Norton also comes armed with intelligent behaviour monitoring, using virus definitions to immediately stamp out any threats. 

Norton also puts the user in control, offering scans on demand and even the ability to set up and save custom demands to check any weak spots you think you might have. 

So what are the downsides? We'll be honest, there aren't many. But one worth mentioning is issues with some browser extensions, Chrome in particular can be a big temperamental when running Norton's Identity Safe password manager. But it's not a deal-breaker for us, especially when you don't actually have to use that particular function. The rest of the software delivers in abundance when it comes to keeping your PC safe and it's super-affordable and easy to use – what more could you want? 

Webroot SecureAnywhere AntiVirus

03. Webroot SecureAnywhere AntiVirus

Maximum protection, minimum effort

Platform: Windows, Mac; Android and iOS protection available separately
Best for: Staying out of your way and keeping you safe
Reasons to buy
+Very fast+Ultra-lightweight+Effective antiransomware
Reasons to avoid
-Rarely tested by the labs

Security powerhouses like Bitdefender Antivirus Plus have their place, but many professional users are looking for something simpler, more lightweight, which doesn't hog system resources or require any attention or management. If that sounds like you, it might be worth taking a look at Webroot SecureAnywhere AntiVirus.

The package is so tiny – just a few megabytes – that it installs in seconds. It grabs the absolute minimum of RAM and doesn't soak up your network bandwidth by downloading antivirus definition updates, as Webroot handles its detection in the cloud. System scans are very, very fast. The Webroot website claims an average of 20 seconds, our tests say closer to 60, but that's still a huge improvement on the 10, 20, maybe 30-minute system scan times of other products. Despite the apparent simplicity, SecureAnywhere isn't lacking in features. As well as antivirus, the package blocks attempts to hijack your webcam, protects you from identity theft and blocks access to phishing and other malicious sites. 

There's a major highlight in Webroot's anti-ransomware technology. SecureAnywhere not only tries to block threats before they can cause any damage, but if something gets through anyway and encrypts some files, the program can often recover them. If there's an issue here, is that Webroot isn't often assessed by the independent testing labs, making it more difficult to get a feel for how accurate it is. SecureAnywhere was included in MRG-Effitas Q2 2018 online banking test, though, where it blocked 100% of financial malware, and was one of only three packages out of 11 to pass all tests (the others were Bitdefender Internet Security and Kaspersky Internet Security).

A 14-day free trial makes it easy to sample SecureAnywhere's abilities for yourself, and an exceptional 70-day money-back guarantee suggests Webroot is confident you'll be happy with the product.

ESET NOD32 Antivirus

04. ESET NOD32 Antivirus

One for the antivirus experts

Platform: Windows only
Best for: Experienced antivirus users who want expert protection
Reasons to buy
+Expert protection+Powerful
Reasons to avoid
-Confusing for beginners-More costly than others

In comparison to other antivirus software on this list, ESET NOD32 Antivirus has a pretty unimpressive feature list. You'll find no password manager, firewall, vulnerability scanner here. So why has it made it on our best picks, you ask? 

Well, it's because ESET focuses on the main job in hand, and that's protection. And it does it with gusto. Armed with real-time malware protection, URL filtering to block malicious website, unmatched heuristic detection and modules to prevent attacks using PowerShell and malicious scripts, you can be sure your PC is in safe hands. 

It's worth noting ESET NOD32 that isn't a great choice for those new to the world of antivirus software. This is much more for users with a deeper understanding of how it all works, plus designers will want to cry when using/looking at its unintuitive interface. 

But those not totally baffled by this technical world of computing will love ESET's power and capabilities, in particular the recently added UEFI Scanner, which gets to work protecting your machine before Windows has even started. 

A top choice for people in the know about antivirus software, and if you want all the added extras we mentioned above not included in this model, you can get the ESET Smart Security Premium edition for a slightly higher premium. There's also the option to try before you buy with this free trial version

Kaspersky Anti-Virus 2019

05. Kaspersky Anti-Virus

Solid all-round protection for a bargain price

Platform: Windows only. Mac, Android, iOS protection available separately with an upgrade
Best for: Delivering solid all-round protection for a bargain price
Reasons to buy
+Easy to use+Decent detection rates+Good value for multiple devices
Reasons to avoid
-Relatively basic feature set

Eugene Kaspersky began developing antivirus as a hobby in 1987. It proved a very smart choice, as he went on to found Kaspersky Labs in 1997, and the company now helps to secure more than 400 million users and 270,000 corporate clients. Kaspersky Antivirus can't match the feature set of Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2020. There are a few extras – an on-screen keyboard cuts the chance of typed data being intercepted by malware, while a Vulnerability Scanner looks out for problems with Windows – but mostly it focuses on the security essentials. 

This simplicity keeps the program easy to use, though. A straightforward interface has just four main buttons, and you can be running a full system scan in a couple of clicks. But there's also some flexibility, with options to run quick scans of commonly-infected areas only, selective scans of particular files and folders, or external device scans to uncover threats on USB keys or other external drives.

Reports from the independent testing labs show Kaspersky is more accurate than most. AV-Test's October 2018 Windows Home User test found the package blocked 100% of sample threats in both test months. AV-Comparatives October 2018 Real-World Protection Test results weren't as impressive, with Kaspersky ranking 14th out of 18, but it still blocked 99% of threats.

Kaspersky Anti-Virus is a PC-only product, but upgrading to Kaspersky Total Security adds protection for Macs, iOS and Android devices. It's fractionally more expensive at an initial £27.99 ($36.40) for a 1 year, 1 device licence, but if you've plenty of hardware to cover, there are savings to be made. You can buy a 5 device, 2-year licence for £76.99 ($100), for instance, around £7.70 ($10) per device per year.

Kaspersky made the headlines in 2017 for the wrong reasons, with both the UK and US governments banning some departments from using its products . This must be a concern, but the government statements are mostly about areas of national security, and the UK says its recommendations don't apply to home users. As we've seen no evidence that Kaspersky has done anything wrong, we're not going to allow this to affect our views.

The best free antivirus software

Free antivirus software is great option for anyone feeling a financial pinch. You need to be careful here though as some packages are worse than useless (we're not kidding), but the good news is others (listed below) deliver top-notch protection. Experts can go further and build their own multi-layered security suite, maybe with a free antivirus package and a separate antiransomware app to shield your documents from harm.

Let's take a look at the three best free antivirus software options in detail...

Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition

06. Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition

The best things in life are free. Almost.

Platform: Windows, Mac, Android
Best for: Delivering solid all-round protection for a bargain price
Reasons to buy
+Automatic, fast scanning+Excellent virus detection
Reasons to avoid
-No scheduled scan option-Limited control

We've got a lot of love for Bitdefender. Not only did it top our paid-for option, it's also our top pick for free antivirus software too. As with most free software, premium features aren't available, and that's to be expected. But the stripped back version still leaves users with quality product, complete with well constructed scanning mechanisms and unrivalled virus definitions. 

Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition lacks the control users get with the premium version, but that's a small price to pay when you considering the service you're getting for nothing. That said,  Bitdefender AntiVirus Plus is so affordable (it's roughly £2 per month) and with all the extras you get with it – integrated password manager, permanent file shredder and and free online 24/7 support, etc – we'd highly recommend the (very small) investment.

Sophos Home

07. Sophos Home

Cybersecurity for the whole family

Platform: Windows, Mac
Best for: A household full of PCs
Reasons to buy
+Simple and easy to use+Great content control
Reasons to avoid
-No scheduled scanning-Limited control

If you're after antivirus software for the whole family, Sophos Home is an excellent choice. Not only does it protect your PCs from viruses and malware, it also offers anti-phishing and content control to keep your little people from accidentally browsing where they shouldn't. So if you've got a house full of PCs that you can't always patrol, Sophos is the free antivirus software for you. 

Features are quite limited, however, with no option to schedule scans and limited controls for advanced users, for example. But for a free service, Sophos provides all the fundamentals needed to keep your household protected from online threats.

Sophos also offers a premium edition if you want extra features, which, at the time of writing, has 50% off the retail price (meaning you can get it for a very reasonable £25).  

Avira Antivirus

08. Avira Antivirus

Top job on accuracy and reliability

Platform: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS **Best for:** Bargain hunters, or anyone who needs to cover many devices and platforms
Reasons to buy
+Free products for all platforms+Loads of features+Rated highly by the testing labs
Reasons to avoid
-Commercial products aren't cheap

The world is full of free antivirus tools, especially for Android, but these aren't always what they seem. In March 2018, AV-Test tested 204 Android antivirus apps and found that 131 of these – a chunky 64 per cent – missed at least half the test threats. Avira products are very different, fortunately. The company has been around for years and it's built a great reputation for accuracy and reliability. Don't just take our word for it. 

Avira Antivirus generally scores well in independent testing, most recently ranking sixth out of 18 in AV-TEST's October Real-World Protection Test with a perfect 100% protection score. Although Avira started in the Windows world, it now has free products for Mac, iOS and Android. These have all kinds of tools, depending on the package you get – antivirus, ransomware, VPN, password manager, anti-theft and more – and they're all very usable, with few of the annoying ads and stupid restrictions you'll often see with other freebies.

Avira's Connect system even allows you to check and manage all your Avira-enabled devices from one central console. That's good news for businesses with several employees, or if you just want to keep an eye on what the rest of the family are doing. Avira Antivirus Pro is a commercial version which looks a little pricy at £29.99 ($39), but also adds some very important features, especially for business users. You get separate layers of email and network protection, Device Control helps define which devices can be attached to your system, secure browsing enables protecting shopping, banking and other confidential internet activities, and there's email and phone support if anything goes wrong.

The best business antivirus software

If you’re looking for the best antivirus software for your business, we have a strong selection for you here. All the options below offer enterprise-level protection against threats – but don’t necessarily break the bank. In fact, sometimes the price per installation is cheaper than our best antivirus packages highlighted above.

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After 15 years of software development experience covering everything from nuclear power to healthcare, Mike Williams now works as a freelance writer with a particular interest in security issues.