When it's time to renew your security suite subscription, will you reelect the incumbent? Or will you go looking for a product with a new platform and new promises? Granted, choosing a security suite is easier than choosing a candidate. The suites don't have illicit affairs; they don't even have to show their tax returns! But it's still a big field, with some winners and plenty of also-rans. And you can't afford to abstain from installing protection.
The fact that ignoring security is out of the question doesn't mean you have to put on a tinfoil hat and comb the Web collecting security products. The top security vendors have already done the background work for you, creating all-in-one security suites that integrate a variety of features. Just read through PCMag's reviews of security suites and select one that has the features you need. I've rounded up a collection of top-notch suites, varied enough that one should be just right for you.
This article briefly mentions the many tests we use to evaluate security suites and determine which ones are best. If you want more details on just what kind of torture-testing we do, please read the full explanation of how we test security software.
Suites Basic and Advanced
Most security vendors 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, parental control, and some sort of additional privacy protection such as protection against phishing sites, those frauds that try to steal your passwords. The advanced "mega-suite" typically adds a backup component and some form of system tune-up utility, and some also add password managers and other security extras.
When a new product line comes out, I start by reviewing the antivirus. In my review of the entry-level suite, I summarize results from the antivirus review and dig deeper into the suite-specific features. And for a mega-suite review, I focus on the advanced features, referring back 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.
Symantec is an exception to this pattern. Previously the company offered various antivirus and suite products for PC, Mac, and Mobile. All of the standalone Norton products you may remember have been retired, rolled into Symantec Norton Security.
One more thing. The suites we've rounded up here are aimed at protecting consumers, for the most part. You can definitely 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 your company's computers.
Core Antivirus Protection
Antivirus 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, I 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 in itself. The very best antivirus products get high ratings from all the labs.
I also perform my own hands-on testing. For one test I use a relatively static set of malware samples that's replaced once per year. I note how the antivirus reacts when I try to launch those samples and score it on how well it protects the test system. For another, I try to download very new malicious files from URLs no more than a few days old. Lab test results, my own test results, and other aspects like ease of use go into my 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 OhSnap32.exe be allowed to connect with 188.8.131.52 on port 8080? Allow or Block? Modern firewalls cut down the need for these queries by automatically configuring permissions for known programs. The very best ones also handle unknown programs by monitoring them closely for signs of improper network activity and other suspicious behaviors.
Have Some Spam
Perhaps you're one of the lucky folks who never sees any spam messages because they're filtered out by your email provider. Or perhaps you get a kick out of reading outrageous mail from Nigerian princes and Russian brides. More likely, it's hard to even find your valid mail in the midst of all the offers of male enhancements and quick-money schemes.
Of course, the last thing you want is to miss a big contract because the spam filter junked an important message. In evaluating antispam, I give a lot more weight to false positives (throwing away valid mail) than I do to letting spam into the inbox. I also ding spam filters that significantly slow the process of downloading email.
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 game 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.
Steering users away from phishing sites definitely 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 vendors to offer credit protection. And some supply a hardened browser that lets you do online banking in an environment isolated from other processes.
Optional Parental Control
I don't penalize a suite for omitting parental control. Not everyone has kids, and not every parent feels comfortable about controlling and monitoring their computer use. However, if parental control is present, it has to work.
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 social networking activity. Others can't even manage the basics successfully.
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. In fact, few modern suites have an appreciable effect on performance.
For a hands-on measure of just what effect installing a particular suite has, I 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
In a sense, having a backup of all your files is the ultimate security. Even if ransomware destroys your data, you can still restore from backup. Some vendors reserve backup for their mega-suite offering, while others include it in the entry-level suite. Do read my reviews carefully, as backup capabilities vary wildly. At the low end, some vendors give you nothing you couldn't get for free from Mozy, IDrive, or another online backup service. At the high end you might get 25GB of online backup hosted by the vendor, 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.
What's Not Here
We have more four-star suites than can fit in a top-ten chart, so a few had to be cut. Symantec Norton Security Deluxe is identical to Symantec Norton Security Premium, except with half as many licenses and no online backup; that was an easy choice. McAfee Total Protection and McAfee LiveSafe differ only in their selection of high-end bonus features; unusual biometrically secured storage won LiveSafe a spot in the top ten.
Then there's Webroot SecureAnywhere Internet Security Plus (2016), which lacks the backup and tune-up components found in Webroot SecureAnywhere Internet Security Complete (2016). Naturally I gave the nod to the more complete suite.
What's the Best?
The chart at top details 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 2016 and Kaspersky Internet Security (2016) are our Editors' Choice winners. In the mega-suite range, Editors' Choice goes to Bitdefender Total Security 2016, with more features than you can imagine. Symantec Norton Security Premium protects up to 10 devices, and McAfee LiveSafe (2016) doesn't put any limit on the number of devices—these two are our Editors' Choice products for cross-platform multi-device security suite.