Computer Security Software Buying Guide 2012
Techlicious editors independently review products. To help support our mission, we may earn affiliate commissions from links contained on this page.
Security isn't just an issue for Windows PCs. In the last year, attacks on smartphones, tablets and Macs have made clear that security is important on any Internet-connected device.
The security software companies are all allies (if somewhat uncomfortable ones) in a battle for the soul of your devices and your data. On the other side are cyber criminals, malware creators and scammers who want to make you a pawn in their plot, which usually involves acquiring cash.
You can't sit idly on the sidelines though. You have a duty in this struggle and that is to protect yourself and your data. If your computer is compromised, you become just another avenue for malware to spread or another cog in an ever-spreading scam. Read on to learn the basics of securing your devices or skip directly to our picks.
Security Software Essentials: What You Need
There are three basic components necessary to any comprehensive security setup—anti-virus, firewall, and anti-malware (including spyware).
Anti-virus software is often the center-piece of any security suite. Good anti-virus software will run regular scans to see if any viruses have loaded themselves on your computer, and they'll provide active protection by checking each and every file as you download or open it. All quality packages will also monitor programs for suspicious behavior in order to block potential threats, even those that have yet to been confirmed as viruses.
A firewall is a filter that controls the flow of data to and from your PC and the Internet. It is able to block hackers from breaking into your PC and stop rogue programs from reaching out to their creators and handing over your personal information or downloading more malware.
There are plenty of threats out there that don't fall under the guise of viruses and other infections normally caught by anti-virus software. These invaders, which go by various names including spyware or adware, used to need their own dedicated tool to root them out, but these capabilities are being folded into traditional anti-virus tools. Unlike viruses, spyware and its companions primarily use your browser as the entry point and are often used to steal passwords and credit card information, or serve up endless streams of annoying pop-up ads. While most security suites include malware protection, stand-alone tools, such as Ad-Aware and Malwarebytes Anti-Malware, offer excellent protection as well.
Short answer—yes. While Apple (and its acolytes) like to extol the virtues of living in a virus and spyware free universe thanks to OS X, the truth is Macs aren't invincible. While there are still far fewer threats out there targeting Apple users, they do exist. And as OS X becomes more popular, the amount of malware will grow to prey upon complacent users. No one wants to be a victim of the first major OS X virus outbreak.
Also, many security threats are caused by “phishing” for personal information through email and bogus websites. Security software suites have features that identify potentially dangerous sites before you enter personal information.
One of the things that made using Windows XP so dangerous was that by default all users were administrators, meaning they had unfettered access to the operating system’s most sensitive parts. That meant any malware you stumbled across also had the same permissions. While you could easily change accounts to be "restricted," this mode was practically useless for doing anything besides creating office documents and browsing the Web.
Windows Vista and Windows 7, on the other hand, create all new user accounts as "normal" users instead of administrators. Unlike the restricted accounts on XP, normal users can still install software and make changes to settings. But they must confirm the changes by clicking through a prompt that is isolated from other programs and therefore cannot be manipulated by malware.
OS X and Linux user accounts are, by default, created as non-administrators. The administrator account, known as Root, is actually turned off in OS X. Instead these operating systems rely on temporarily granting administrative privileges on a per-use basis.
Regardless of what operating system you run though, you should never do your day-to-day computing from an administrator account.
There are, of course, free software packages that provide essential security tools such as anti-virus, anti-malware, and firewall, such as AVG and Comodo Firewall. The problem is that no one offers all those tools together in one easy-to-use package without charging you an annual subscription fee. So, while you could cobble together an decent defense for free, it's often quicker and easier to pay for one of the many commercial suites of Internet security software.
In addition to the simplicity of having all the various pieces of security software integrated, for-pay products tend to have advanced features, such as parental controls, password safes, or file encryption, that aren't essential but can enhance the security of your PC.
Using a combination of free apps (or a mix of free and commercial software) does have its perks however. The integrated suites can be vulnerable to viruses and attacks that can shut down all your computer’s defenses in one shot¬—something much more difficult to accomplish with separate security programs.
Unfortunately some free programs will try to install unnecessary browser toolbars (which you can opt out of during installation), and many free versions of apps will repeatedly ask you to upgrade to the paid versions.
Both Windows and OS X have built in parental control features, but they're very basic. The controls built into security suites tend to be much more robust and customizable. You can block certain programs from running during particular times of the day, or to run only for a set amount of time. You can also quickly block or unblock Web sites as the need arises in a much simpler fashion than the built-in features of your OS.
Rogue security applications masquerade as real virus or spyware-protection programs for the sole purpose of separating you from your money. At best, the programs do nothing; you simply lose however much money you paid for what is, essentially, worthless junk. At worst, these programs can track your keystrokes and steal your personal information from your PC.
Perpetrators of rogue security software scams use a wide variety of methods to fool potential victims. One very common method is to pop up a flashing or other seemingly scary message when you visit a website that tells you "Your PC is infected with a virus. Click here to fix".
If you click on the ad, you may be authorizing it to download the malicious software to your computer and, once installed, you will keep getting messages about viruses, spyware, etc. on your PC that can only by fixed by buying the "premium" version of the product. Of course, there are no viruses on your PC except for the rogue security program itself.
For more information, read Protect Yourself from Fake Security Software.
Ultimately all the security software in world can't save you from poor judgment. The Web is littered with threats that rely on carelessness and trickery to sneak past your security suite. Developing good browsing habits are the best way to protect yourself and your data. This means not logging into online banking sites or shopping while using public Wi-Fi networks, being suspicious of things like Facebook apps (especially those that promise free goods for filling out surveys) and only download files from trusted sources. And when you get that e-mail, in all caps, promising the latest celebrity sex tape, don't click the link.
For Your PC
Symantec’s Norton Internet Security 2012 ($29.85 for 3 PCs, Amazon.com) is a suite that not only protects your computer from malware, it wards off spam and includes parental controls that track which websites your kids visit so you know what they’re doing online, and lets you block inappropriate sites. It also monitors their social network activities as well as who they’re interacting with online. The software will increase startup and shutdown time a few seconds but performs on-demand scans very swiftly and doesn’t markedly affect overall PC performance. It’s a great choice for people who want solid protection and a user-friendly interface.
For Your Mac
While Apple users like to think they’re immune to malware, the truth is they’re not. While there are still far fewer threats that target Apple users, they do exist. Also, many security threats are caused by “phishing” for personal information through email and bogus websites. Security software suites have features that identify potentially dangerous sites before you enter personal information.
McAfee Internet Security for Mac 2012 ($80 on McAfee.com) protects users against viruses, trojans, worms, bots and root-kits and also includes a good firewall along with a Firefox plug-in that analyzes search result links on Google and other engines. When you perform a search, McAfee color codes each result as green, yellow or red. It also prevents you from passing along infected files your Windows associates send you and updates itself with the latest version from the cloud every four hours.
And if you have PCs and a Mac, try Trend Micro Titanium Maximum Security 2012 ($21.49 on Amazon.com), which covers 3 PCs and a Mac.
For Laptops That Store Sensitive Information
In the event your laptop was stolen would a thief be able to harm you because of the data it contains? Even if you don’t tote around sensitive financial or business information your personal information can also be used by hackers who can sell it to identity thieves, crime rings, phishing scammers and botnet operators.
TrueCrypt is free open-source disk encryption software for Windows, Mac and Linux that makes it nearly impossible for anyone without your password to get into your computer. Installing it can seem confusing for average computer users but once it’s set up TrueCrypt won’t let your operating system launch unless you input a secure password. For a step-by-step tutorial on how to do install it, look here.
To Find a Stolen Laptop
Not only do you want to make sure a thief can’t harvest your personal or business information, wouldn’t it be great to get your laptop back in the event it’s stolen? Several good services are available for Windows and Mac to do it. For only $20 a year GadgetTrak pinpoints the location of your laptop and then secretly snaps photos of the thief, which you can share with police.
LoJack by Absolute Software, which starts at $30 a year, is another option. After reporting the laptop missing, you can either lock the computer so that it only displays a message of your choice, or you can deploy Absolute’s Theft Recovery Team which will track it down with the help of police.
For Your Android Devices or Windows Phone
AVG Mobilation is free and makes it easy to scan your apps, settings, content and media for malware with just one tap of your smartphone’s screen. Other useful features: If you don’t want someone getting into your text messages, Facebook or other apps, you can lock them down individually with a password. You can also register your phone with an anti-theft service that will locate it as well as wipe and lock it if it gets stolen. If you want the same protection for your Android tablet you can get it for $1.99 at the Android Market.
For Your iOS devices
While it’s true iOS is safer than Android, the Apple ecosystem does have problems too. The biggest thing you need to watch out for are fake apps in the App Store that are really only ads for paid versions, or paid apps that completely rip off legitimate apps but don’t have much functionality. For this reason, never download an iOS app with a one or two-star rating. And while there are apps such as Lookout (free in iTunes) that can locate your lost device, Apple’s Find my iPhone does that all on its own.
To safely browse the Internet on your mobile Apple device, try Trend Micro’s free Smart Surfing app, which uses web reputation technology to warn you if you’re trying to visit a site with malicious code. It lets you adjust the app’s protection strength to allow only sites with a very good reputation, or to only block sites with a very poor reputation.
To Protect Your Passwords
Security experts tell people to never keep a list of passwords or PINs in one place because if your system is compromised hackers can gain access to all your accounts in one fell swoop. SplashID is an app available for iOS, Android, BlackBerry, PC and Mac that uses 256-bit Blowfish encryption to protect a password vault where you can keep all your usernames, passwords, credit card numbers, bank accounts, PINs and frequent flyer numbers. It also will generate and remember random secure passwords. Even if your device is lost or stolen someone else will not be able to get in unless they know your master password or pattern. You also can sync data between your mobile device and your desktop computer. The mobile app is $10 in the Apple App Store, Android Market and BlackBerry App World. The desktop version is $20.