I am often asked while I repair computers “what is the best anti-virus software?” My response is pretty simple, that I haven’t found any software to be perfect in my experience. Many consumers are particularly worried about the doom and gloom stories that appear often in the press about the latest threat and how it will leave you with a broken computer. Often there are reviews and comparisons on the web or in computing magazines that run a series of tests which can give some useful information. Although I don’t value this information highly. Most antivirus software on the market are commercial products, even if there are “free” versions, they are normally supported by a “paid” version. These companies are in the business of selling their product. Magazines are in the business of selling their products, and websites are in the business of driving customers to their website. These commercial realities do cloud the information provided to consumers.
Weaknesses with tests
The problem I see with virus software reviews is that how do you run tests for viruses that don’t actually exist as yet? The tests that are performed must be run on currently known threats. So what we achieve is a result based on whether the virus software can detect on viruses that emerged in the past. Unfortunately most cases these threats are less likely to leave your computer in a state needing repair. There are no practical ways to run tests on viruses that don’t actually exist, and that may emerge in the next few years without a time machine. This is why I don’t put much value in the testing process generally as it favours the software that detects earlier threats. Viruses lifespan in the real world has reduced significantly as the use of portable media is declining, we are no longer in an age where we have a cabinet of floppy disks with viruses waiting to reintroduce themselves into our computers. With cloud storage and internet transmission of files the immediate threat of a new virus has increased, but the older viruses are less likely to exist for a long time.
Frequently I see stories how a new virus that has infected millions of computers is going to launch itself creating massive disruptions across the world on a particular date. In reality I cannot recall ever seeing one of these viruses creating any noticeable problem let alone seeing a spike in the amount of computers needing repair. I have been in the industry for 20 years, so I have come to see these media stories as “stories” than anything like facts. Putting a more skeptical argument for these media stories, the only people who I can think that get any benefit from the stories are the companies selling anti-virus solutions. The behaviour of virus threats has changed considerably, and the most often problems I meet are non destructive “viruses” that inject advertising into web browsers, or change systems settings and then promote a paid “solution” to your problem. No one has come to me for a computer repair job and shown me a computer that no longer boots due to virus activity for over 10 years.
The real threats
The real threat I see most often is actually not a virus, but something called malware. This software often spreads like a virus but doesn’t contain a destructive function. Commonly malware changes the behaviour of your system, either loading new programs that create “pop up” messages, or even more often redirects your internet traffic to include advertising. By changing the traffic of your internet connection the malware writers can earn money through advertising revenues. Why produce a destructive virus when you can actually make money? Unfortunately most of the anti-virus software doesn’t have a good track record of detecting and removing malware. Don’t worry, there is a very effective solution that every IT professional I know uses frequently.
One of the most commonly sold pieces of anti-virus software (and others) creates such a hit to your system performance that it may be preferable to have a real virus. Sure it might be effective in detecting a virus, but when it takes noticeably longer to load every program, and the system takes extra minutes to load is it worthwhile? In my view the answer is no. As I have previously noted the infection rate of computers in my experience is dropping, and the likelihood of destructive functions is decreasing. The ability of anti-virus software to detect new viruses is questionable as well. I have performed a few computer repair jobs where a system is running slowly, and the reason is actually the anti-virus software. So why burden a computer under these conditions?
So here it is, this is what I use for my own computers. I use Microsoft Security Essentials (at the low, low price of free) and a piece of software called Malwarebytes AntiMalware. The two together have provided enough security across the 5 computers in my house for a several years. Microsoft Security Essentials runs full-time on the computers, and I run Malwarebytes every month or so. The reason why I chose Microsoft’s product is that it is resource friendly, as in that it doesn’t seem to hurt the computers performance much and that I believe that Microsoft has a commercial reason to do everything that can possibly do to keep computers virus free. Microsoft is competing against other operating systems that do not seem to have as many viruses as the Windows-based systems. For Microsoft to stay competitive against these products (Linux and Apple) their business interest is to make sure their users don’t get infected. So essentially I am putting my faith in market forces to give me a good level of protection while balancing against unnecessary performance losses. Malwarebytes is incredibly good at detecting malware, something that Microsoft Security Essentials does not detect regularly.