Built-in virus protection is better than ever, with Windows Defender scoring top marks in recent tests by independent information security institute AV-TEST. That places it right up there with premium offerings from industry leaders like Bullguard and Bitdefender.
Given these impressive results, it might seem like paying for additional virus protection is just a waste of money. Indeed, premium antivirus software has to work a lot harder for your cash, so let’s see if it’s worth the cost.
It’s Not Just About Computer Viruses
While the media tends to refer to all forms of malware as computer viruses, true viruses are actually rather rare. Antivirus software, including built-in solutions like Windows Defender, will protect you from most types of malicious software, including spyware, ransomware, adware, and keyloggers. The AV-TEST labs register over 350,000 malicious and potentially unwanted applications (PUAs) every day.
That said, malware is far from the only threat you need to worry about when protecting your digital life. After all, developing malware requires highly specialized skills, just like developing legitimate software. Most people don’t have these sorts of skills, and modern security controls are usually able to block malware threats anyway. Because of this, attackers tend to go after the easy target – the end-user.
Social engineering scams are extremely widespread, and almost all cyberattacks include a phishing element. These attacks often work, simply because it’s much easier to exploit human ignorance or unpreparedness than hack through today’s information security systems.
Another common risk, especially in the era of remote work, is wireless network eavesdropping. Even an attacker with virtually no technical skills can easily intercept data being sent across an unsecured wireless network, which is why you should always keep your network secured behind a unique passcode.
The last few years have also seen an alarming rise of malware-as-a-service, where malware developers enroll the help of others to spread malware to more victims in return for a cut of the ill-gotten gains. This is especially common in the world of ransomware, in which ransomware-as-a-service relationships mirror many of the practices common in legitimate business.
To stay safe in today’s constantly evolving digital threat environment, you need multiple layers of protection, which is often something that only a premium-grade solution can offer.
How Much Does Premium Antivirus Software Cost?
Like a lot of software these days, premium antivirus products are usually available on a yearly subscription basis, rather than a one-time payment. While this may work out more expensive over the longer term, it does mean you always have the latest software, as well as dependable access to technical and customer support.
These premium antivirus suites typically code between £30 and £60 per year for the first year, although discounts for longer-term commitments are quite common. Many also offer a 30-day money-back guarantee, effectively allowing you to try out the product for free for a month.
While you can’t really put a price on protection, it’s important to remember that premium-grade antivirus software can and should offer more features. We’ll take a closer look at what you can expect below.
The Basics of Virus Protection
Whether you’re paying for it or not, every computer needs antivirus software, and there are a few universal features that it absolutely must have. Here are the basic features to look out for:
- Heuristic scanning: Behaviour-based detection helps antivirus software detect threats that have not yet been added to the major virus definition databases. This includes the zero-day threats that exploit operating systems and programs before their developers have a chance to patch them. Although heuristic scanning can result in false positives, it is essential for proactive protection.
- Multiple scanning options: Antivirus software generally works in the background and is designed to operate unobtrusively by only alerting you when it finds a potential threat. However, there are other cases where you may want to run a scan on demand, such as when you’ve installed new antivirus software for the first time, or you suspect there may be something wrong with your computer.
- Virus quarantine and removal: When the antivirus software detects a threat, it should deal with it automatically and send you alert. For most threats, this means quarantining the malicious or infected file to give you a chance to review it for false positives. If there doesn’t appear to be any threat, and you’re absolutely sure that the file came from a trusted source, you should be able to put it back into service.
You should find all the aforementioned features built into your operating system, as well as in any reputable free third-party antivirus software. That said, these basic features provide only a limited level of protection against a specific range of threats. Since it’s always better to take a multi-layered approach to digital security, you should carefully evaluate the extra features you might get by paying for premium antivirus software.
- Anti-phishing software: The most common threats are those that attempt to dupe users into clicking on malicious links or disclosing private information. Phishing emails and websites typically masquerade as belonging to legitimate companies, but anti-phishing software should be able to detect the more common threats. That said, you cannot rely on them entirely due to the highly unpredictable nature of social engineering scams.
- Secure web browsing: Mainstream browsers, such as Chrome, Firefox, and Edge, are highly secure, but they lack advanced privacy controls. Many antimalware suites offer secure browsing that encrypts all web activity so that third parties, such as your internet service provider, can’t track your online activities.
- Virtual private networking: A VPN protects your privacy and anonymity by rerouting all internet traffic through an encrypted remote server. This also allows you to access geo-blocked content and work around internet censorship. However, while some antivirus software also includes a VPN, standalone VPN services are almost invariably better.
- Password management: The average internet user has over a hundred accounts, and it isn’t easy to remember such a wide range of login credentials. Because of this, most people reuse passwords across multiple accounts, despite this being bad for security. A password manager can hold all your login credentials in an encrypted vault, letting you log in to multiple accounts with a single master password.
- System optimization: Some antivirus software, such as Bullguard, also provides system optimization features. For example, they might remove junk files or optimize memory settings during hardware-intensive activities like gaming. However, be wary of system optimization software, especially so-called registry cleaners, which are often found to be snake oil.
- Identity theft protection: Identity theft is one of the most common online threats, and it typically involves a social engineering element. Identity theft protection might include data loss prevention (DLP) to alert you if you’re sending sensitive data over an insecure connection. Other services may scan the dark web to find out if your information has previously been compromised.
- Data encryption: Encryption is one of the most powerful forms of protection since it is practically impossible to crack. Some security suites provide full end-to-end encryption for all outgoing internet traffic, while others go even further to offer encrypted cloud storage for keeping your files safe online.
- Network protection: Windows has a perfectly adequate firewall built-in, and it’s enabled by default. That said, some premium-grade antivirus software can offer greater control over which apps are allowed to send and receive data over the internet. The very best solutions also monitor unknown programs for signs of unusual activity and suspicious behaviors.
- Parental controls: For computers used by the whole family, parental controls can help protect children online from inappropriate content or from spending too much time on certain apps, such as games. Windows includes built-in parental controls of its own, but a third-party solution may provide greater flexibility.
- Premium support: If you encounter any issues with built-in antivirus software, you’re not likely to find any prompt technical support beyond community forums or other self-service options. Better tech support, including live chat and phone calls, is usually one of the main selling points of premium internet security suites.
Is Paid Antivirus Really Worth the Money?
Ultimately, staying safe online is largely a matter of maintaining good habits, such as avoiding weak passwords and thinking before clicking on links in unsolicited emails. That said, antivirus software is an essential tool for any computer to have, if only because it protects you from the vast majority of threats out there in a way that’s automated, efficient, and unobtrusive.
On balance, paying for antivirus software makes sense on several levels. The extra features can offer important additional layers of protection, especially if you use your computer for work and routinely handle highly sensitive information. Moreover, premium solutions tend to be faster and more customisable, and they’re far less likely to keep popping up with nagging messages that only a paid version is supposed to solve.