What is the best antivirus software?

We look at how you can protect your PC

People regularly ask me, "What do you consider to be the best antivirus software currently available?"

If only they understood the brain melting complexity of such a question. There are a large number of very good antivirus products currently on the market, but the unfortunate (and untrue) perception is that a good antivirus program is an impenetrable shield of steel, providing guaranteed protection against any form of nasty stuff likely to ever be encountered. A common reaction from many of our customers goes something like this — "What do you mean my PC is virus infected? I use Gumblestump Antivirus!"

In a lot of circumstances the most important aspect in keeping your PC Virus and Malware free is the amount of risk it is exposed to. I know of people who have gotten away with not using any kind of security software on their PC and have miraculously remained virus- and malware-free. They use their computers very occasionally, only ever visit low risk Web sites like the ABC or The Bureau of Meteorology, and only ever open emails from people they know. This is certainly not recommended, and I advised them to obtain some antivirus or internet security software ASAP.

There are people who, despite having the latest, greatest, up to date antivirus software, continue to get regularly infected

Conversely, there are people who, despite having the latest, greatest, up to date antivirus software, continue to get regularly infected. Why? It’s the way they use their PC. There are areas of great security risk that average users can expose their PC to. One of the worst is peer to peer file sharing software. Many people around the world install this type of software, which is often available for free, and then proceed to share files amongst other users on the network.

This exposes your PC to great risk, as you don’t know where the files are coming from, or indeed, if they are actually what they claim to be. Many of our customers have been subjected to a common form of attack, when they try to play a media file they have shared, such as a song, or a video clip. Instead of playing the file, windows media player tells them that it needs to download a certain plug-in or codec. The unsuspecting user clicks the "Yes" button, impatiently waiting for their file to play. Malicious code is installed and suddenly the PC is infected.

This is probably the #1 most common form of virus attack we see in the DCA repair centre.

Web surfing habits also play a large part in exposure to risk. A commonly used tactic by virus writers is called the "drive by" infection. Most PC users don’t realise that merely viewing a web page can send malicious code straight to their HDD. This is why PC users who frequent "less orthodox" websites such as "warez" download sites, cracks and serial number sites, and our good old favourite "adult" websites are exposing their PC to much greater risk of infection. It’s a bit like hanging around with a crowd of people who are all really sick with the flu, and thinking you will be OK, because you have had a flu vaccination this year.

So, to reiterate — try to minimise your PC's risk exposure. Make sure that if others, such as your children, friends, Uncle Ken or your next door neighbour uses your PC, you know what they have been doing with it. Hey — what’s this new "FrostLime" icon on my desktop?

Now to answer the question presented in the title asked in the headline of this article. There are many good antivirus and internet security programs available on the market today. They each have strengths and weaknesses. I like to divide their capabilities into three major categories.

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1: Detection Rate

Very important as you can imagine. The antivirus program needs to be able to immediately recognise a known virus threat and block its ability to infect your PC. The top products are currently achieving detection rates of between 95% — 99%

2: Removal Ability

Viruses can and sometimes do slip past the defences of your antivirus software. Modern antivirus software programs however, are constantly updating themselves, and adding more virus definitions into their internal databases. The unknown virus that sneaked onto your PC yesterday may well be caught today, as its specifications were included in the last update. It is now important for the antivirus program to be able to clean the offending virus off your system and leave your system virus free and fully functional again. There is no point being able to detect viruses if you can’t remove them.

3: Footprint

Another important consideration is the performance impact the antivirus software has on your PC. Gumblestump antivirus may have 99% detection rate and 99% removal ability, but if your PC’s performance is reduced to the speed of a Galapagos Tortoise after a mouthful of sleeping pills, then the frustration of using it will certainly overwhelm any feeling of security it provides.

A good antivirus program will try to strike the best balance amongst these critical features.

It is also important to understand that the antivirus software market is a bit like a never ending horse race. Due to the burgeoning rate of infections which spread across the internet and peer to peer networks, antivirus companies are constantly working to detect, catalogue and provide removal functionality for new virus threats as they are detected "in the wild." At any given point in time some companies may have their noses in front of others. Here at DCA Computers we like to keep track of the major antivirus solutions over a reasonably long period of time and make our recommendations based upon the consistency of the product in the long term.

Here are our current recommendations.

1: Kaspersky Internet Security 2011 — Consistent performer for many years. Very Strong detection and removal rates. Footprint is slightly heavier than some competing products, but not unreasonably so, particularly on modern dual or multi core systems

2: F-Secure Internet Security 2011 — Very good detection and removal rates. Extremely light footprint. Recommended particularly for older slower systems

3: Eset Smart Security — Eset products were originally marketed under the name Nod32 and have been a popular choice amongst many technicians I know within the industry. Eset’s products have won many awards spanning the last few years and the current security suite scores consistently highly across the 3 categories.

4: Bitdefender — Another product which scores highly on detection and removal. Slightly heavy footprint.

5: Symantec Norton Internet Security 2011 — The Norton name has been around for just about as long as any of us can remember. Often criticised for its very heavy footprint over the years, and at times studiously avoided, the current incarnation has improved greatly and scores consistently well across our 3 categories

Glenn Howlett is the general manager of DCA Computer Technologies a computer retailer and support provider. Read more articles at the DCA Computers blog, follow DCA Computers on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.