Test bench: Antivirus software for PCs and laptops

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Online ne’er-do-wells are a constant threat to not only your computer but also your personal information. We assess four ways to keep them at bay

Best for fast virus scanning
Webroot Secure Anywhere Complete 2012
£35 (three PCs, one year)
A typical antivirus program sits on your PC and compares data on the hard drive with its list of known security threats, which is updated as new dangers arise. Secure Anywhere takes a different approach: it sends the data it collects from your machine via the internet to servers, so the scanning is done remotely. The advantage is software that doesn’t slow your computer. The results are impressive: over a typical broadband connection, our test PC — with 435,379 files over two hard drives — was scanned in 12 seconds, with no noticeable impact on performance. The Webroot software comes with offline features too, including a firewall, system cleaner (which tidies up and optimises your operating system) and a so-called sandbox tool (in which programs are run until it is proven that they are not malicious).
Verdict Fast, powerful and unobtrusive.
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Best for ultimate protection
G Data Internet Security 2012
£28 (one PC, one year)
G Data Internet Security 2012 uses everything in its arsenal to keep a PC free from malware, not least two separate virus-scanning engines that check each file, with virus definitions updated hourly. This approach undoubtedly adds an extra level of protection, but at a price: our guinea pig PC slowed dramatically while the virus scan was in progress, taking 1 hour and 41 minutes in total — the worst on test. Likewise, the software’s spam protection and plug-in for the Outlook email program added a few seconds to the usual email Send and Receive times. The result is a solid, though sometimes cumbersome, security package.
Verdict Leaves no stone unturned to protect your PC, but will slow it down in the process.
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Best for free protection Microsoft Security Essentials
Free
The prices quoted here are for yearly subscriptions to antivirus protection, so costs can mount. There are free alternatives, though, and one of the best is Microsoft Security Essentials. As you would expect from Microsoft, it works well with the company’s Windows software, and while it may not be as feature-packed as its paid-for competitors, it still provides basic protection, with automatic updates. You can decide when you want it to scan your computer, and it does a great job of finding and removing viruses without generating dozens of annoying pop-up messages — a problem with previous Microsoft antivirus software — or slowing the PC.
Verdict Among the best free protection you can get for a Windows PC.

Best for family protection Kaspersky Internet Security 2012
£22 (one PC, one year)
The first concern of the software on test is to keep viruses and other malware off a computer. Kaspersky does this and more by acting as a gatekeeper to the route through which most malware arrives: your children’s online forays. Its website filtering tools give you a decent amount of say over what sites children can visit, what content they can see and whom they can talk to. Instant messaging chats are logged, so your children’s conversations can be followed. We found the package effective and easy to use. Regular antivirus protection was solid, although a full scan took 1 hour and 19 minutes.
Verdict The parental controls are a useful addition to an excellent antivirus program.
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What is Malware?

“Malware” is a contraction of “malicious software”. Examples are Trojan horse programs, which sneak into your PC inside seemingly legitimate software; spyware, which monitors how you use your computer and then sends this private — and highly valuable — information to hackers; and computer worms and viruses, which can spread themselves between machines either as attachments to files or through websites and emails.

Some malware is written simply to cause trouble or to make a political or ideological point; some to profit individuals or companies. Trojan horses, for example, are often disguised as antivirus software: run the program and it will start causing the problems it is supposed to be diagnosing, before suggesting you pay for an expensive — and useless — upgrade. The software on this page will not ask you for any more than the amount of the annual subscription.

After installing your software, keep it updated regularly to ensure you are protected from the latest threats, and ask it to do a full scan of your PC every week and a partial scan of key areas more frequently. Use a software firewall to keep out malicious attacks: some of the products on test supply one, or you could use Microsoft’s (look under the Security tab in the Control Panel).

Finally, be careful online: enable website scanning on the paid-for software on test and it will warn you when you might be about to open an infected page; download files only when you are sure of their contents; and be wary of emails from people you don’t know and never open their attachments — never mind how tempting that video of a skateboarding dog may sound.