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SECURITY

10 Contenders For The 'Ultimate Protector' Crown (Part 1)

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In a twist on our annual AV roundup, we let you, the readers, pick the 10 contenders for the 'ultimate protector' crown

Every year, antivirus vendors paint the same gloom-and-doom portrait, their canvases filled with startling statistics outlining the rapid spread of malware.

As a consumer, the natural reaction is to look at these reports with a fistful of salt and a sack of skepticism after all, AV vendors have a vested interest in promoting a need for security software, but are we really as vulnerable as they say? It all depends on your computing habits, but make no mistake, the web is a dangerous place to roam.

Every year, antivirus vendors paint the same gloom-and-doom portrait, their canvases filled with startling statistics outlining the rapid spread of malware.

Every year, antivirus vendors paint the same gloom-and-doom portrait, their canvases filled with startling statistics outlining the rapid spread of malware.

We’ve seen firsthand what a malware-infected PC looks like; it isn’t pretty. Today’s malware strains not only slow down your PC and bombard you with pop-ups, they can also capture your keystrokes and send your bank login information to a cybercriminal thousands of miles away. An innocent mouse click on the wrong URL is all it takes to set the wheels in motion, and the next thing you know, someone else is using your identity to open up a credit card account. Not cool.

Careful computing is your best line of defense, but sometimes it’s not enough. Security software adds another layer of protection, which is why we run an antivirus roundup each year. This time around, however, we asked you to vote on which 10 programs should make the cut, and you’ll find the results on the following pages. If the one you voted for isn’t represented here, let us know and we’ll consider running a stand-alone review in a future issue.

EVALUATING AV

What matters in an antivirus program and why

System Performance And Scan Speed

We’re passionate about our PCs, and we don’t spend endless hours researching parts and tweaking settings only to watch a security program rob us of the performance we so carefully crafted. To keep these programs honest, we compare how long it takes to boot into Windows versus a clean install. We also examine the impact on PCMark 7 and Vantage scores, and how long it takes to transfer 6GB of data. Finally, we measure the time it takes to run a first and subsequent system scan.

Freeware AntiVirus Software

Freeware AntiVirus Software

Annoyance

We know what we want when it comes to security software, but do the developers know? We deduct points for programs that try to upsell us additional security or that are hyperactive with unnecessary security alerts. At no time should we have reason to be annoyed or frustrated with an AV program. Period.

Features And Implementation

Most of the programs voted into this roundup are Internet security suites that promise to go above and beyond simple virus protection. In theory, these suites should include everything we need to stay safe on the web, and everything else is icing on the cake. At the same time, we don’t want to be bogged down with arbitrary add-ons that exist solely to beef up an AV's resume. We're looking for useful additions, and also how well they're integrated into the core package. Extra points are awarded to AV programs that inform you when you need to update an app, plugin, or browser.

Pricing

Let's get one thing straight: You don’t need to pay for protection. If that's the case, why bother reviewing non-free security suites? Put simply, we believe there’s value in security programs that bundle multiple layers of protection and features into a tidy package. However, the ones that charge an annual fee have to convince us that they’re worth paying for, unlike the free AV programs, which get an automatic pass in this category.

Virus Detection

If you think this category should hold the most weight, we’re right there with you. Pricing and features don’t mean diddly-squat if an AV program turns a blind eye to malware. This is also the trickiest category to judge. Our approach is multipronged and starts with synthetic spyware and virus tests found on www.spycar.org and www.eircar.org. Next, we consult with independent testing labs Virus Bulletin (www.virusbtn.com), AV-Comparatives (www.av-comparatives.org), and AV-Test (www.av-test.org). Finally, we subject each program to our own collection of malware and dirty links.

SECOND AND THIRD OPINIONS

No single product is all-knowing when it comes to malware, which is always evolving, so it’s a good idea to solicit a second or even third opinion on occasion. We recommend running an on-demand scanner around once a month, and also any time you have reason to believe something may have slipped past your AV software. Does your system suddenly feel sluggish? Are your web searches getting hijacked? These are both indicators that a foul file has infiltrated your PC.

One of our favorite on-demand scanners is Malwarebytes (free, www.malwarebytes.org). Not only is Malwarebytes adept at uncovering pesky programs that manage to hide from your AV scanner, but it also has a way of running even when malicious programs specifically try to prevent it from firing up. Just head to Start > All Programs > Malwarebytes  Anti-Malware > Tools and click the Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Chameleon icon.

the Malwarebytes Anti-Malware

The Malwarebytes Anti-Malware program

Another program we recommend adding to your toolbox is Comodo Cleaning Essentials (free, www.comodo.com), which allows you to terminate, delete, or suspend any untrusted item with a single mouse click. It doesn’t require installation, making it a handy program to tote around on a USB stick.

If an infection is preventing your AV scanner from running, don’t panic. Yet another option is web scanning. There are lots to choose from, including Panda ActiveScan (free, http://bit.ly/2T0ite). Alternately, if all you need is a background check on a single file, upload it to VirusTotal (free, www.virustotal.com), which will check it against dozens of AV scan engines.

AV DOES NOT MEAN IMMUNITY

Just because you have antivirus software installed doesn't mean you can roll around the web with impunity. New and emerging threats, also called ''zero-day" attacks, are those that are so recent that software developers haven’t had a chance to plug up the vulnerability they’re trying to exploit. The same holds true for your AV software until there's a definition update, zero-day threats have a free pass to run amok. That's why behavior-based scanning is so popular, but even the best-rated apps sometimes fall short in this area. It’s all the more reason to be vigilant, but how?

Well, your best line of defense is to practice smart computing habits and avoid putting yourself in high-risk situations. Pirating software is one the quickest ways to contract a digital disease, but it’s far from the only one.

Venturing over to seedier sides of the web - the URLs that only get typed into incognito browser sessions is another hotspot for malware (excuse the pun).

None of this means you need to be a nervous Nelly when surfing the web. There are things you can do to tip the scales in your favor, like making sure your operating system and browsers are all up to date and fully patched. The same holds true for plugins, especially Flash and JavaScript.

As an added layer of protection, consider surfing with Sandboxie (free, www.sandboxie.com), which wraps a virtual layer around your browser so that any changes programs make while surfing the web are isolated from the OS.

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