We should all know the rules of how to protect our privacy and keep Windows secure: Don't tap questionable links or download apps from shady sites, don't open unexpected messages and emails, don't give out personal information, use secure passwords, and keep your Windows software up to date.
You can also take a few extra steps to make sure you're safe online with a PC: Use a password manager to keep track of login credentials, a VPN to protect your internet traffic, and an end-to-end encrypted messaging app to keep people from spying on your communications.
But if you are looking for a place to start with keeping your Windows device secure, a good first step is to run the best antivirus software. The best antivirus solution monitors your app downloads and watches for malicious software and suspicious software behavior.
And here's the first important thing for you to know about the best antivirus software: Microsoft Defender -- the free antivirus program and security software that comes free with Windows 10 and until recently was called Microsoft Windows Defender -- does a fine job of protecting your PC. (Amazingly, Microsoft provided no built-in protection for Windows back in the days of Windows 98 and XP.) Using Microsoft Defender should be your starting point for the best antivirus security on Windows, and most users will find they don't need to go any further.
However, you can make the case that the Windows security ecosystem is healthier when users don't depend on just one company for protection from a virus or malware. If you favor robust platform diversity, you can easily find solid virus or malware protection from third-party security companies that are up to the task of guarding your PC for free. And most let you also protect all your devices with an annual subscription -- though, it's important to note, that's largely unnecessary outside the Windows realm.
To that end, we've put together a list of the best antivirus solutions for Windows, encompassing both free antivirus programs and subscription options. These picks of the best antivirus programs are a combination of recommendations from independent third-party labs AV-Test and AV-Comparatives and our hands-on testing.
Note that the free and paid services discussed here are independently chosen by our editors. CNET gets a share of the revenue if you subscribe to any of the paid services through the links on this page.
Looking for free antivirus protection or virus detection, willing to pay for broad antivirus coverage across all your devices, or needing to remove a virus or malware from your PC right now? Here's where to start.
Free version? Yes, built into Windows 10
Paid version: Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection is available to corporate users for a fee
Honestly, if you consistently practice safe computing -- you keep your software up to date, for example, you use strong passwords (with the help of password manager) and you steer clear of unexpected emails and links -- you probably can stay clear of trouble such as zero-day attacks and ransomware attacks. And with Microsoft's free Microsoft Defender Antivirus software running on Windows 10, you have a safety net if you do let your guard down. (Note that Microsoft recently changed the name of Windows Defender to Microsoft Defender and has expanded the service to other platforms.) This antivirus program is literally built into Windows -- just leave it turned on (it is by default) and let it do its thing and this will cover the basics. Microsoft pushes new updates daily.
Platforms: Windows 10 plus MacOS, Android, iOS
Cost: $100 per year for five devices, on sale for $60
For a long time, respected security company Norton Security from Symantec has earned high marks from AV-Test for virus and malware detection. A five-device subscription via Norton Security is normally $99.99, but you can sign up for $59.99 to get coverage across PCs, Macs, Android devices, and iPhones and iPads. (But note, again, that we don't think antivirus protection is terribly useful outside the Windows realm.) In addition to malware and virus protection, you get 100GB of automatic backup to the cloud, safe-browsing tools, a VPN, an easy device management via a web-browser console and LifeLock identity-theft protection.
Platforms: Windows 10 plus MacOS, Android
Free version? Yes, after 14-day trial expires
Paid version: $40 per year for one device, $60 per year for three devices
Malwarebytes does protect your PC from a virus or malware, scoring well in recent independent testing for guarding against malware infections. But that's not really what Malwarebytes is known for. If you find yourself in trouble, the go-to disinfectant for many is Malwarebytes. You can get protection and disinfection for one device for $40 a year. To cover 10 devices -- any combination of Windows, MacOS and Android -- it's $130. To get the free antivirus version, download this trial version, which "downgrades" to a no-fee on-demand cleaner with fewer features that detects and removes viruses and malware when you run an on-demand scan.
Also worth considering
In addition to the three antivirus apps we recommend above, a handful of other anti-malware tools are worth considering among the best antivirus protection if you find them at a better price or for whatever reason prefer to use one over our picks above.
Free version? Yes
Paid version: $80 per year for three PCs; $120 Family Pack per year for 15 devices
If you'd like to take a step up in securing your PC without taxing your wallet, it's hard to beat Bitdefender's free anti-virus software for Windows 10. The Windows security software offers real-time monitoring for viruses, malware and spyware and ransomware protection. Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition is easy to set up and stays out of your way until you need it. And the protection it offers is solid. Bitdefender consistently earns top marks for its antivirus protection and usability from the respected AV-Test independent testing lab. The free antivirus version covers one Windows PC. For broader protection, Bitdefender Internet Security is $80 MSRP and available at the moment for $45. It lets you protect three computers, set up parental controls on a kid's computer and run a VPN. To protect every device you own, the Bitdefender Family Pack can secure 15 total device -- Windows, Android, iOS and MacOS -- in your home for $120 MSRP and discounted to $60 right now.
What about Kaspersky?
Based in Moscow, Kaspersky Lab has for years produced some of the best antivirus software for business and home customers. But in 2017 the US government prohibited Kaspersky software on federal government computers because of alleged ties between Kaspersky and the Russian government.
Notably, the ban does not apply to its consumer products. But, like China-based Huawei, the question remains: If the federal government doesn't think the products are safe enough for its own devices, should consumers avoid it as well?
In a statement sent to CNET, the company said, "Kaspersky Lab has no ties to any government, and the company has never, nor will ever, engage in cyber offensive activities. Kaspersky Lab maintains that no public evidence of any wrongdoing has been presented by the U.S. Government, and that the U.S. government's actions against Kaspersky Lab were unconstitutional."
In Kaspersky's favor, it continues to earn top scores and awards for virus and malware detection and endpoint protection from independent testing labs. And it's reasonably priced, with basic antivirus protection for three devices running $30 a year, or blanket protection for 10 devices -- with Kaspersky Total Security -- for $75 a year. In comparison, the Webroot SecureAnywhere AntiVirus program costs $37.50 per year for three devices -- and a single device on SecureAnywhere AntiVirus costs $30 a year.
In the end, even though no one has ever publicly produced a "smoking gun" linking the company to Russian intrigue, we think any of the options listed above are a safer bet. And, if you are a US government employee or work with the federal government, you'll want to steer clear of Kaspersky.
Antivirus basics: What to look for
Picking the best antivirus for Windows means finding one that keeps your PC safe, doesn't take up a lot of system resources, is easy to use and stays out of the way till you need it. Here's what to look for.
Effectiveness. Antivirus scans for a known virus and malware, of course, and can offer real-time protection. And it watches for shady websites and suspicious links to keep you out of trouble. It can also offer ransomware protection and monitor unexpected behavior that may be a sign of new and not-yet-identified viruses and malware. You want antivirus that can successfully identify these unknown threats without flagging too many false positives.
Light on system resources. You don't want antivirus that taxes your PC's resources. If after you install antivirus, websites open slowly, apps download or open sluggishly, or file copies take longer than expected, you may want to try another service. The good news is, all our picks offer a free trial to let you try out the antivirus program, so if your system feels sluggish after you install antivirus solutions, you may want to keep looking.
Cost and discounts. Don't just pay the sticker price for antivirus. Before you buy, check for discounts on a company's website. Another way to save: The prices we list above are for 10 devices -- if the company offered that package -- but you can trim your cost with antivirus packages if you need to cover just three or five devices. You may also find discounts on an app's Amazon page.
Privacy. To be effective, antivirus software needs to monitor what's going on with your PC and check in with company servers about unusual behavior. The companies say they anonymize this technical data as much as possible to protect your privacy. But if you want to know more, the security companies on our list post privacy policies on their websites, so read their privacy statement to learn what the companies do with the information you share.
Protection for other platforms. Microsoft is by far the biggest target for viruses and malware. But Android is second, with the largest threat coming from sideloaded apps -- those you install outside Google's Play Store. Google said in the last quarter of 2018, 0.99 percent of apps installed outside the Play Store were a potentially harmful app, or PHA. For those installed from the Play Store, the number drops to 0.042 percent. To stay safe, we do not recommend sideloading apps, but sometimes, like with Fortnite, you might want to. In that case, running virus and malware protection from a trusted security company is not a bad idea.
The threat to MacOS and especially iOS are low, in part because of the tight control Apple has over its app stores. While the Mac does rarely come under attack via sideloaded apps, if you download apps only from the Mac and iOS app stores, and keep your guard up when clicking links and download files, you should be OK without an antivirus app on Apple devices.
Originally published April 23. Updated to clarify Norton pricing details and LifeLock service options.
We should all know the rules of how to protect our privacy and keep Windows secure : Don’t tap questionable links or download apps from shady sites, don’t open unexpected messages and emails, don’t give out personal information, use secure passwords , and keep your Windows software up to date.
You can also take a few extra steps to make sure you’re safe online with a PC: Use a password manager to keep track of login credentials, a VPN to protect your internet traffic, and an end-to-end encrypted messaging app to keep people from spying on […]