Do You Really Need Antivirus Software on Your Windows or Mac Computer?

Do you still need third-party antivirus software on modern systems? There are tradeoffs, so make sure you know what you’re getting into before clicking that download button.

How Dangerous Are Viruses and Malware?

When you have to decide if you’re going to install extra security to protect yourself from viruses and malware, it’s essential to know what risks you’re facing. If you get infected by one of the various kinds of malware, you could be in serious trouble.

The main risks are losing your data, having your data stolen, having your identity stolen, and perhaps worst of all, having money stolen from your accounts.

Viruses and other malware have plenty of tricks to get your data or money. At present, ransomware is probably the most dangerous and destructive. This malware encrypts your data in the background and then demands a ransom to release it.

Adware bombards you with advertising pop-ups in an attempt to make money. Spyware watches you, looking for personal information or passwords for identity theft. Trojans attach themselves to otherwise innocent-looking programs. PUPs or Potentially Unwanted Programs are bundled into other software installers. This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are numerous vulnerabilities that malware can exploit, but that doesn’t mean you need security software to protect yourself from it!

Common Sense Is a Great Antivirus

The simple fact is that if you use your computer responsibly, it’s doubtful that you’ll ever encounter a virus or another type of malware. Stick to using software from reputable sources, examine email attachments and email senders for authenticity, and refrain from using flash drives or hard drives that have been plugged into computers you don’t know.

You can also manually check attachments and other files for the presence of malware by using a site like VirusTotal, which gives you the benefit of showing the results from multiple antivirus engines.

You can also use a virtual machine program such as VirtualBox to test out software and ensure it’s safe before using it on your computer’s entire operating system.

Also, be sure to have cloud backups of your most essential data so that if a virus does destroy your data, you still have a copy in a location it can’t be touched. Cloud storage services usually have a rolling window where you can restore any corrupted files that have been uploaded from your computer back to their original state.

Microsoft Defender Is (Mostly) Good Enough

If you’re using Microsoft Windows, then Microsoft Defender is already up and running from when you first boot up Windows. There’s a sense among users that using the “store brand” antivirus that comes with your operating system means you aren’t that well protected. The truth is that Windows Defender consistently ranks among the top commercial antivirus packages to detect and destroy malware. It’s no stretch to call it a good antivirus program, and dismissing it is perhaps a little misguided.

Defender uses the best practices of modern antivirus software. It receives virus definition updates as soon as they are available, offers real-time protection, and uses heuristic virus detection. Heuristic detection allows an antivirus package to guess whether something is a virus by its behavior, which means it can stop viruses even without a virus definition.

Like any software, Defender isn’t perfect. For example, it has a disproportionate dependence on being online. So if you spend significant amounts of time offline and engage in risky behavior while doing so, another software package might be better for you. However, in terms of actual performance, it’s right up there with paid packages while costing the user nothing. It’s not the best antivirus software, but when you factor in its price, Defender is hard to beat!

Windows Includes a Firewall

An essential part of computer security is controlling what information flows from your computer to the internet and back. You can be infected by certain malware (such as worms) through your internet or network connection without any help from you, the user.

If you’re already infected with malware, you also don’t want it calling back home and uploading the information it’s stolen from you. Paid antivirus software might advertise that they include a firewall, but you should know that Windows already has a software firewall built-in along with an antivirus. Not only that, but there’s a good chance that your network router has a firewall of its own. So don’t be swayed by the offer of a firewall as a feature.

Windows Firewall is quite basic, even if it does get the job done. The firewalls you get with paid software might offer valuable features to you. If you only need the core features of a firewall, you’re already covered.

Web Browsers Offer Free Password Managers

Antivirus software developers include internet security features to get more users to switch to their products. This may consist of a password manager, and it might seem like a good idea to get a free password manager with your security suite since that seems like a better deal than paying a monthly fee for a service like LastPass.

There are rather excellent password managers built into popular internet browsers like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox. They’ll generate and store strong passwords for you completely free of charge. You’ll even get a warning when one of your passwords is featured in a hacker breach.

macOS Doesn’t Have a Serious Virus Problem (For Now)

Historically, Apple Mac computers like MacBooks and iMacs haven’t needed antivirus software thanks to “security through obscurity.” That’s just a fancy way of saying that such a small percentage of computers out in the world are Macs that virus creators don’t think it’s worth the effort to create anything for them.

Mac users who only download trusted Mac software or software from the official Mac App store probably have nothing to worry about, but Mac viruses and other Mac malware are out there. MacWorld maintains a Mac malware list if you’re curious about the exact threats you’re facing.

Apple’s recent shift to their CPUs, starting with the Apple M1, has significantly increased the platform’s security. Still, there’s already at least one malware package that attacks M1 systems in the form of Silver Sparrow. Ultimately, most users don’t need antivirus on Mac, but that strongly depends on your usage patterns. If you want some peace of mind, check out The Best Antivirus Options for Mac.

Antivirus Software Can Kill Performance

Microsoft Defender has the advantage of being designed as an integrated part of Windows 10 and 11. Unfortunately, that’s not true for other antivirus options. Anyone who has used the major antivirus brands has experienced performance problems at some point.

These programs not only consume CPU and RAM resources, but their scanning can also interfere with the operation of legitimate applications, slowing them down or causing crashes.

This varies from application to application and from antivirus to antivirus. It’s worth reading up on the performance impact of any paid antivirus software you’re considering to see what users say about its effect on performance. Professional reviewers may also run benchmarks to determine how much performance impact a particular antivirus has on a computer.

If you rely on specific programs or are a gamer, you should check whether a given antivirus is known for conflicting or interfering with your favorite games or mission-critical applications.

Paid Antivirus Software Can Be Costly

It’s becoming rare for antivirus software to be sold as a once-off application. Instead, you’re likely to pay a monthly fee. Even if you pay once for the software, you may have to pay an annual fee or keep receiving virus definition updates.

Depending on your risk profile, whether you have access to built-in antivirus like Defender, and how much you need the extra features some paid options provide, the running costs may be unreasonable.

Free Antivirus Isn’t Free

Speaking of costs, there are many free antivirus programs out there. They don’t cost you any currency, but obviously, they need to make money somehow. If you’re not paying directly, that means selling your information, bundling unwanted programs into their installer, or showing you advertisements.

If a free version also has an upgraded paid version, then the free version may have too many features removed to offer good virus protection.

Third-party Antivirus Software Can Be Bloated

Installing antivirus suites can add a ton of bloat to your computer. There may be many different components to the suite, each vying for your attention. There may also be automatically installed plugins that add themselves to your browser or to office software to fight macro viruses. A good antivirus protection suite will let you choose which components to install and which to defer, but even that can be a confusing chore!

VPNs Might Be More Important in Some Cases

One feature that most antivirus programs don’t offer is a VPN or Virtual Private Network. VPNs create private “tunnels” over the internet, hiding your internet activity from anyone on the same network. That includes other users on your LAN (Local Area Network) and your ISP (Internet Service Provider).

VPNs are crucial if you ever use your computer on a public Wi-Fi network. Whether that’s at work, at a coffee shop, or in a hotel, other users can steal all sorts of information from your network data, and that’s something an antivirus program won’t protect you from.

Third-party Antivirus Software Worth Considering

If you decide that you want to install third-party antivirus protection on your computer, then it’s a good idea to stick with mainstream brands and have a known history. Especially since there are so many fake antivirus programs, you may see these phony antivirus programs advertised on dodgy websites or social media. They’ll tell you that your computer system is infected, charge you money to “fix” it, and if you’re lucky, you’ll only lose a bit of money. Mainstream cybersecurity software brands and software include:

  • Norton
  • Mcafee
  • AVG
  • Malwarebytes
  • Kaspersky
  • BitDefender
  • Avira

Suppose you want to evaluate the relative merits of the different antivirus options or confirm that an antivirus program is legit. In that case, a great resource is AV-Test, which specializes in reviewing and testing this software. You can also check out our Best Virus & Malware Scanner for some great suggestions.

What About Antivirus for Your Smartphone?

You probably use your smartphone or tablet more than your desktop computer these days, so you’ve likely wondered if you need antivirus for that. If you’re an Android smartphone user and use software from sources other than the Google Play store, you may want to look into a reputable Android Antivirus app.

Check out How to Remove Malware From an Android Phone and Best Android Antivirus and Security Apps. For iOS users, antivirus programs aren’t an option, but if you haven’t jailbroken your iPhone or iPad, it’s a non-issue.

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