Free programs will take you only so far in protecting against viruses, malware, ransomware, especially now that phones and tablets are as commonly targeted as PCs. Many suites promise to protect you, but only a few offer comprehensive security with minimal hassle.
Our security showdown evaluates the 2014 versions of 10 major suites. Most of these programs include social-network protection--scanning spammy-looking links before you click them--and Trend Micro even provides a tool for limiting access to your Facebook, Google+, and Twitter accounts. The new mobile security components in some suites can help you scan downloaded apps for security holes; locate your lost smartphone; and remotely lock, wipe, or ring it.
Another new trend in data protection is secure cloud storage. Though cloud-storage services are convenient and free (to a point), they may put your data at risk in various ways. Some security companies offer their own, vaultlike cloud storage and backup services for sensitive files, alongside their suites.
The data presented in our roundup comes from performance testing by AV-Test, an independent security research institute based in Magdeburg, Germany. AV-Test assesses the protection capabilities and speed of each suite.
In its real-world, or zero-day, malware attack test, AV-Test pings the suite with samples of malware that the suite hasn't previously encountered. This test measures how successful the suite is likely to be in blocking unknown malware in the future. In its malware zoo test, AV-Test pings the suite with thousands of known malware samples discovered in the previous month--samples that the suite should already have encountered. This test gauges how well the suite blocks known malware (or close variants of such malware), and it also indicates how up-to-date the company is in tracking and responding to new threats. AV-Test's false-positives test checks how frequently a security suite flags safe, legitimate programs as dangerous. This test also offers insight into how well the suite's algorithm works: Is it great at blocking malware, or is it just great at blocking everything?
AV-Test also runs a series of performance tests on such tasks as starting up and shutting down the computer, opening files and programs, installing software, and opening webpages, to determine how a security suite might affect your system's performance. Each suite receives a number between 0 and 15 that quantifies its overall adverse impact on performance: A mark of 0 indicates minimal impact, while a score of 15 reflects a major performance hit.
PCWorld performed additional tests to cross-check AV's results. We installed and used each of the security suites to rate their interface and their overall user-friendliness. Though many computer users have switched to the touch-friendly Windows 8 operating system, for instance, not all the programs have undergone a redesign to accommodate that OS's features.
Most of the suites we tested did a very good job in the key areas of protection, speed, and ease of use. In our ratings, minor differences--a touchscreen-optimized menu here, an unusually high number of false positives there--tipped the scales. Kaspersky Internet Security 2014 came out as our top choice, thanks to its exceptional results in every testing category.
Here are the suites we tested. You can click on each link to read individual reviews, or simply read this list for quick star ratings and summaries.
Kaspersky Internet Security 2014--4.5 stars Its exceptional all-around protection, extremely user-friendly interface, and small footprint make Kaspersky perfect for novices and advanced users alike.
Symantec Norton Internet Security 2014--(4.5 stars) Norton is a solid choice, thanks to its excellent detection rate and polished, touchscreen-friendly interface.
McAfee Internet Security 2014 --(4 stars) McAfee's touch-optimized interface is ideal for Windows 8 users, but the suite is a bit weak on zero-day defense.
F-Secure Internet Security 2014 (4 stars) F-Secure delivered fantastic malware detection rates, but its interface needs some improvement.
Trend Micro Titanium Maximum Security 2014--(4 stars) Trend Micro's suite offers robust protection and a lot of extra features for the money.
Eset Smart Security 7--(3.5 stars) Eset Smart Security 7 offers great protection if you can tolerate the drag it puts on your system.
AVG Internet Security 2014--(3.5 stars) AVG's suite offers good protection, but its many advanced options render it most suitable for power users.
Webroot SecureAnywhere Internet Security Complete--(3 stars) Webroot's suite has a nice interface, but the program needs to get better at detecting zero-day attacks and distinguishing between threats and nonthreats.
Avast Internet Security 2014--(3 stars) Avast's suite has some premium features and is generally easy to use, but it fell short in the crucial area of protection.
Vipre Internet Security 2014--(3 stars) Vipre's suite competently guards against known threats, but its zero-day detection was below average in our roundup and its interface lacks polish.
Still not convinced you need a good security suite? Tony Bradley pegs the biggest threats we face in 2014.
Best Overall: Kaspersky Internet Security 2014
This year's roundup was highly competitive, but Kaspersky's 2014 suite still stood out with exceptional protection and an intuitive, Windows 8-friendly interface. We also loved its ability to run with minimal impact on system performance and no interruption of our workflow due to false positives.