Get a Security Suite for All-Around Protection
Every PC needs antivirus protection. Without protection from an antivirus, malware can steal your secure logins, loot your online bank accounts, or enlist your computer in a spam-spewing zombie army. The possibilities are endless—and nasty. But an antivirus is only one kind of protection. It doesn’t secure your communications the way a VPN does. It can’t fend off hack-attacks the way a firewall can. For all-around security and privacy protection, you want an integrated security suite. Getting a suite is better than cherry-picking possibly incompatible components, and cheaper, too.
The top security companies offer security suites that integrate a variety of features. Some stick to the basics, while others pile on tons of useful extras, from VPN to online backup to dedicated ransomware protection. Just read PCMag's reviews of security suites and select one that has the features you need. We've reviewed nearly 50 security suites and identified a collection of the best, of all types from simple entry-level suites to cross-platform multi-device extravaganzas.
This article briefly mentions the many tests we use to evaluate security suites and determine which are the best. If you want more details on the torture tests we perform on every product we review, please read the full explanation of how we test security software.
Basic and Advanced Security Suites
Most security companies offer at least three levels of security products, a standalone antivirus utility, an entry-level security suite, and an advanced suite with additional features. Most entry-level suites include antivirus, firewall, antispam, and parental control. The advanced "mega-suite" typically adds a backup component and some form of system tune-up utility, and some also add password management, a VPN, or other security extras.
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When a new product line comes out, we start by reviewing the antivirus. In our review of the entry-level suite, we summarize results from the antivirus review and dig deeper into the suite-specific features. And for a mega-suite review, we focus on the advanced features, referring to the entry-level suite review for features shared by both. Your choice of a basic or advanced security suite depends entirely on what features matter to you.
The suites we've rounded up here aim to protect consumers. You can use any of them in a small business, but as your company grows you may need to switch to a SaaS endpoint protection system. This type of service lets an administrator monitor and manage security for all the company's computers.
Windows Defender? Maybe
Over the years, the Windows Defender program built into Windows 10 has evolved into Microsoft Windows Defender Security Center. That imposing name reflects the fact that in addition to antivirus protection it manages Windows Firewall and other Windows security features. It doesn't truly qualify as a suite; it's just an antivirus that manages other Windows components. Independent antivirus test scores for Windows Defender have literally come in below zero in the past. They've been steadily improving; in one recent test, Windows Defender earned a perfect score. In our latest hands-on tests, it scored better than some competing products. You can still get better overall protection from the best third-party free antivirus utilities, but Windows Defender is looking better all the time. Even so, it can't replace a full-scale security suite.
Fighting Malware, Adware, and Spyware
Malware protection is the heart of a security suite; without an antivirus component, there's no suite. Naturally you want a suite whose antivirus is effective. When evaluating an antivirus, we look for high marks from the independent antivirus testing labs. The fact that the labs consider a product important enough to test is a vote of confidence. The very best antivirus products get high ratings from many labs.
We also perform our own hands-on testing. For one test we use a relatively static set of malware samples that's replaced once per year. We note how the antivirus reacts when we try to launch those samples and score it on how well it protects the test system. For another, we try to download very new malicious files from URLs no more than a few days old. Lab test results, our own test results, and other aspects like ease of use go into our antivirus rating.
A typical personal firewall offers protection in two main areas. On the one hand, it monitors all network traffic to prevent inappropriate access from outside the network. On the other, it keeps a watchful eye on running applications to make sure they don't misuse your network connection. The built-in Windows Firewall handles monitoring traffic but doesn't include program control. A few security suites skip the firewall component, figuring that Windows Firewall already does the most essential firewall tasks.
The last thing you want is a firewall that bombards you with incomprehensible queries about online activity. Should SetMeFree.exe be allowed to connect with 18.104.22.168 on port 8080? Allow or Block? Once, or always? Modern firewalls cut down on these queries by automatically configuring permissions for known programs. The very best also handle unknown programs by monitoring them closely for signs of improper network activity and other suspicious behaviors.
Squelch Some Spam
These days, most of us hardly ever see spam messages in our inboxes because our email providers filter them out. If you don't get this service from your provider, it can be hard to even find your valid mail amid all the offers of male enhancements, Russian brides, and economic stimulus payment scams.
If your provider doesn't squelch spam, it's smart to choose a suite that has spam filtering built in. Look for one that integrates with your email client. Client integration lets it divert spam into its own folder, and sometimes lets you train the spam filter by flagging any spam messages that get through or, worse, valid messages that wound up in the spam pile.
Phishing and Privacy Protection
The best antivirus in the world can't help you if a fraudulent website tricks you into giving away your security credentials. Phishing sites masquerade as bank sites, auction sites, even online dating sites. When you enter your username and password, though, your account is instantly compromised. Some clever ones will even pass along your credentials to the real site, to avoid raising suspicions. We test phishing protection using real-world fraudulent sites scraped from the internet.
Steering users away from phishing sites helps protect privacy, but that's not the only way suites can keep your private information out of the wrong hands. Some offer specific protection for user-defined sensitive data, credit cards, bank accounts, that sort of thing. Any attempt to transmit sensitive data from your computer sets of an alarm. Some contract with third-party companies to offer credit protection. Other spyware protection techniques include foiling keyloggers, preventing misuse of your webcam, and supplying a hardened browser that lets you do online banking in an environment isolated from other processes.
What About Parental Control?
We don't penalize a suite for omitting parental control. Not everyone has kids, and not every parent feels comfortable about controlling and monitoring their children's computer use. However, if parental control is present, it has to work properly.
Blocking inappropriate websites and controlling how much time the child spends on the Internet (or on the computer) are the core components of a parental control system. Some suites add advanced features like instant message monitoring, limiting games based on ESRB ratings, and tracking the child's location. Others can't even manage the basics successfully.
VPN Protects Your Communications
Local antivirus and security suites protect your data and documents, but their protection doesn't extend to your internet communications. A virtual private network, or VPN, secures your internet traffic and can also serve to hide your actual IP address or location from snoops. Most VPN companies have just the one product, but some security suite companies have ventured into the VPN realm.
Typically, though, you don't get full VPN protection as part of your suite. Some install a free edition, or a free trial. Others offer a link that sends you online to subscribe. Norton 360 and McAfee Total Protection are rare exceptions, both offering a VPN without such limits.
Don't Bog Me Down
One big reason to use a security suite rather than a collection of individual utilities is that the integrated suite can do its tasks using fewer processes and a smaller chunk of your system's resources. Or at least, that's what ought to happen. Few modern suites have an appreciable effect on performance.
For a hands-on measure of just what effect installing a suite has, we time three common system actions with and without the suite installed, averaging many runs of each test. One test measures system boot time, another moves and copies a large collection of files between drives, and a third zips and unzips that same file collection repeatedly. Suites with the very lightest touch have almost no effect on the time required.
Backup and Tune-Up Utilities
In a sense, having a backup of all your files is the ultimate security. Even if stray debris from a close-call asteroid destroys your computer, you can still restore from backup. Some companies reserve backup for their mega-suite offering, while others include it in the entry-level suite. Read our reviews carefully, as backup capabilities vary wildly. At the low end, some companies give you nothing you couldn't get for free from IDrive or another online backup service. At the high end you might get 25GB or more of online storage hosted by the company, along with the ability to make local backups.
Tuning up your system performance has no direct connection with security, unless it serves to counteract the security suite's performance drag. However, tune-up components often include privacy-related features such as clearing traces of browsing history, wiping out temporary files, and deleting lists of recently used documents. For a dedicated system-cleaning app, read our roundup of the Best Tune-Up Utilities.
Mac, Android, and iOS Security
Windows still dominates the desktop, but many households include Macs as well. Cross-platform multi-device suites give you once source of protection for all your devices. Typically you don't get as many features on macOS. In fact, most companies just offer a Mac antivirus, not a full suite. Do take advantage of the option to protect your Macs. They're not immune to malware.
Android devices are ubiquitous, and the Android platform isn't locked down the way iOS is. Even if you stay away from third-party app stores and refrain from jailbreaking your device, you can still get hit with Trojans, ransomware, and other kinds of Android malware. Smart users protect their devices with an Android antivirus. All the best Android antivirus utilities include antitheft features such as the ability to locate, lock, or wipe a lost or stolen device. Many include bonus features like blocking unwanted calls or warning when you connect to an insecure Wi-Fi network.
As for iPhones and other iOS devices, Apple's built-in security makes life tough both for malware coders and antivirus writers. Many cross-platform suites simply skip iOS; those that don't typically offer a seriously stripped-down experience. Given the platform's intrinsic security, it rarely makes sense to expend one of your licenses installing protection on an iPhone.
What's Not Here?
We've evaluated nearly fifty security suites, including entry-level suites, feature-packed mega-suites, and suites that extend protection across multiple different platforms. The products listed in this article have all received at least four stars.
In some cases, two products from the same company appear in the chart. For example, Bitdefender Internet Security is an Editors' Choice for entry-level suite, and Bitdefender Total Security earned the same honor as a security mega-suite. The same pattern holds for Kaspersky; Norton also claimed two entries with two products earning four stars or better.
What's the Best Security Suite?
This article identifies ten security suites that we definitely recommend, including multi-device suites, mega-suites, and entry-level suites. If you're looking for a suite that covers the basics without getting in the way, Bitdefender Internet Security and Kaspersky Internet Security are our Editors' Choice winners. In the mega-suite range, Editors' Choice goes to Bitdefender Total Security, with more features than you can imagine.
Norton 360 Deluxe, which protects up to five devices, and Kaspersky, which protects up to 20, are our Editors' Choice products for cross-platform multi-device security suite. Note that to get more Norton licenses, you must upgrade to one of the subscriptions that bundles LifeLock identity theft remediation—each level gets you more suite licenses and VPN licenses, as well as more hosted storage for online backup. With a powerful, integrated suite protecting your devices, you can stay protected without worrying about balancing security against performance.