We should all know the rules of how to keep Windows secure and protect our privacy: Don't open unexpected emails and messages, don't give out personal information, don't tap questionable links or download app from shady sites, use secure passwords, keep your Windows software up to date.
Best Windows antivirus software
And you can take a few extra steps to ensure you are safe online with a PC: Use a VPN to protect your internet traffic, an end-to-end encrypted messaging app to keep people from spying on your communications, and a to keep track of login credentials.
But if you are looking for a place to start with keeping your Windows device secure, a good first step is to run antivirus software, which monitors your app downloads and keeps an watches for suspicious software behavior.
And here's the first important thing for you to know: Microsoft Defender -- the free antivirus and security software that comes free with Windows 10 and until recently was called Windows Defender -- does a fine job of protecting your PC. (Amazingly, Microsoft provided no built-in protection for Windows back in the days of Windows 98 and XP.) Using Microsoft Defender should be your starting point for security on Windows, and most users will find they don't need to go any further.
However, you can make the case that the Windows security ecosystem is healthier when users don't depend on just one company for protection. If you favor robust platform diversity, you can easily find solid malware protection from third-party security companies that are up to the task of guarding your PC for free. And most let you also protect all your devices with an annual subscription -- though, it's important to note, that's largely unnecessary outside the Windows realm.
To that end, we've put together a list of our favorite Windows antivirus software, encompassing both free and subscription options. These picks are a combination of recommendations from independent third-party labs AV-Test and AV-Comparatives and our hands-on testing.
Note that CNET may get a share of revenue from the sale of the products featured on this page.
Looking for free protection, willing to pay for broad antivirus coverage across all your devices, or needing to remove malware from your PC right now? Here's where to start.
Best free Windows antivirus: Microsoft DefenderMicrosoft
Free version? Yes, built into Windows 10
Paid version: Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection is available to corporate users for a fee
Honestly, if you consistently practice safe computing -- you keep your software up to date, for example, you use strong passwords and you steer clear of unexpected emails and links -- you probably can stay clear of trouble. And with Microsoft's free Microsoft Defender Antivirus software running on Windows 10, you have a safety net if you do let your guard down. (Note that Microsoft recently changed the name of Windows Defender to Microsoft Defender and has expanded the service to other platforms.) This one is literally built into Windows -- just leave it turned on (it is by default) and let it do its thing and this will cover the basics. Microsoft pushes new updates daily.
Best subscription Windows antivirus: Norton 360 DeluxeNorton
Cost: $149 per year for five devices, on sale for $99, 30-day free trial
For a long time, respected security company Norton Security from Symantec has earned high marks from AV-Test for malware detection. A five-device subscription is normally $99.99, but you can sign up for $59 to get coverage across PCs, Macs, Android devices, and iPhones and iPads. (But note, again, that we don't think antivirus protection is terribly useful outside the Windows realm.) In addition to virus protection, you get 100GB of automatic backup to the cloud, safe-browsing tools, a VPN, an easy device management via a web-browser console and LifeLock identity-theft protection.
Best on-demand Windows malware removal: MalwarebytesMalwarebytes
Platforms: Windows 10 plus MacOS, Android
Free version? Yes, after 14-day trial expires
Paid version: $40 per year for one device, $60 per year for three devices
Malwarebytes does protect your PC from malware, scoring well in recent independent testing for guarding against malware infections. But that's not really what Malwarebytes is known for. If you find yourself in trouble, the go-to disinfectant for many is Malwarebytes. You can get protection and disinfection for one device for $40 a year. To cover 10 devices -- any combination of Windows, MacOS and Android -- it's $130. To get the free version, at the end of the free 14-day trial, Malwarebytes reverts to a free version that includes an on-demand cleaner that detects and removes malware when you run a scan.
Also worth considering
In addition to the three antivirus apps we recommend above, a handful of other anti-malware tools are worth considering if you find them at a better price or for whatever reason prefer to use one over our picks above.
Alternative free Windows antivirus: Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition
Free version? Yes
Paid version: $80 per year for three PCs; $120 Family Pack per year for 15 devices
If you'd like to take a step up in securing your PC without taxing your wallet, it's hard to beat Bitdefender's free antivirus software for Windows 10. The Windows security software offers real-time monitoring for viruses, malware and spyware. Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition is easy to set up and stays out of your way until you need it. And the protection it offers is solid. Bitdefender consistently earns top marks for its antivirus protection and usability from the respected AV-Test independent testing lab. The free version covers one Windows PC. For broader protection, Bitdefender Internet Security is $80 MSRP and available at the moment for $40. It lets you protect three PCs, set up parental controls on a kid's computer and run a VPN. To protect every device you own, the Bitdefender Family Pack can secure 15 total device -- Windows, Android, iOS and MacOS -- in your home for $120 MSRP and discounted to $60 right now.
Alternative free Windows malware removal: Avast Free Antivirus
Platforms: Windows, MacOS, Android
Free version? Yes
Paid version: $80 per year for three PCs
The free antivirus tool from Avast earns top marks from AV-Test for malware detection. And it can also remove malware to get your system back under control after an attack. The free tool monitors one PC and can also warn you about unsecured Wi-Fi networks and manage your passwords. If you want to guard more than one device, starting at $80 you can protect three PCs, block spam and phishing emails, and identify shady websites with Avast Internet Security software. Avast also has free antivirus tools for Android and MacOS and a security app of iOS that includes a VPN and can watch for unprotected Wi-Fi networks.
Alternative subscription Windows antivirus: McAfee Total Protection
Platforms: Windows 10 plus MacOS, Android, iOS
Cost: $110 per year for 10 devices, on sale for $45
It feels like the company has been around forever, first on its own in the '80s, then as part of Intel starting in 2010, and then again on its own when Intel spun it off in 2017. And it's been around forever because quarter after quarter it creates solid security software that protects your PC. (In recent evaluations by AV-Test it had perfect scores on detecting 0-day attacks and blocking current widespread malware.) McAfee Total Protection guards against viruses and ransomware, wards off shady websites, includes a password manager and lets you manage all your protected devices through web console. A 10-device subscription is normally $110 MSRP, but currently is $45 for any combination of Windows, MacOS, Android and iOS devices.
Alternative subscription Windows antivirus: Trend Micro Maximum Security
Platforms: Windows 10 plus MacOS, Android, iOS
Cost: $90 per year for 10 devices, on sale for $50
Maybe not as well known to consumers because of its focus on enterprise security, Trend Micro quietly brings its business expertise to the home with its Maximum Security tools. The software earns high marks from AV-Test -- scoring 100 percent of detecting 0-day attacks and widespread malware -- and does a good job of not taxing system resources. A 10-device subscription for desktop and mobile devices is $90 MSRP but discounted currently at $50.
Alternative subscription Windows antivirus: ESET NOD32 Antivirus
Cost: $59 per year for three PCs
If you are looking for something easy to set up and use, ESET may meet your needs. It earns top scores for usability and offers solid virus protection. And its Android antivirus gets top marks in third-party tests.
What about Kaspersky?
Because the company has been in the news the past few years, let's talk about Kaspersky Lab -- specifically about that blocks US government agencies from using Kaspersky products.
Based in Moscow, Kaspersky Lab has for years produced effective antivirus software for business and home customers. But in 2017 the US government prohibited Kaspersky software on federal government computers because of alleged ties between Kaspersky and the Russian government.
Notably, the ban does not apply to its consumer products. But, like , the question remains: If the federal government doesn't think the products are safe enough for its own devices, should consumers avoid it as well?
In a statement sent to CNET, the company said "Kaspersky Lab has no ties to any government, and the company has never, nor will ever, engage in cyber offensive activities. Kaspersky Lab maintains that no public evidence of any wrongdoing has been presented by the U.S. Government, and that the U.S. government's actions against Kaspersky Lab were unconstitutional."
In Kaspersky's favor, it continues to earn top scores and awards for malware detection from independent testing labs. And it's reasonably priced, with basic antivirus protection for three devices running $30 a year, or blanket protection for 10 devices -- with Kaspersky Total Security -- for $75 a year.
In the end, even though no one has ever publicly produced a "smoking gun" linking the company to Russian intrigue, we think any of the options listed above are a safer bet. And, if you are a US government employee or work with the federal government, you'll want to steer clear of Kaspersky.
Antivirus basics: What to look for
Picking the best Windows antivirus for you means finding one that keeps your PC safe, doesn't take up a lot of system resources, is easy to use and stays out of the way till you need it. Here's what to look for.
Effectiveness. Antivirus scans for known viruses, of course, and can offer real-time protection. And it watches for shady websites and suspicious links to keep you out of trouble. It can also monitor unexpected behavior that may be a sign of new and not-yet-identified malware. You want antivirus that can successfully identify these unknown threats without flagging too many false positives.
Light on system resources. You don't want antivirus that taxes your PC's resources. If after you install antivirus, websites open slowly, apps download or open sluggishly, or file copies take longer than expected, you may want to try another service. The good news is, all our picks offer a free trial to let you try out the antivirus, so if your system feels sluggish after you install antivirus, you may want to keep looking.
Cost and discounts. Don't just pay the sticker price for antivirus. Before you buy, check for discounts on a company's website. Another way to save: The prices we list above are for 10 devices -- if the company offered that package -- but you can trim your cost if you need to cover just three or five devices. You may also find discounts on an app's Amazon page.
Privacy. To be effective, antivirus software needs to monitor what's going on with your PC and check in with company servers about unusual behavior. The companies say they anonymize this technical data as much as possible to protect your privacy. But if you want to know more, the security companies on our list post privacy policies on their websites, so read their privacy statement to learn what the companies do with the information you share.
Protection for other platforms. Microsoft is by far the biggest target for malware. But Android is second, with the largest threat coming from sideloaded apps -- those you install outside Google's Play Store. Google said in the last quarter of 2018, 0.99 percent of apps installed outside the Play Store were a potentially harmful app, or PHA. For those installed from the Play Store, the number drops to 0.042 percent. To stay safe, we do not recommend sideloading apps, but sometimes, like with , you might want to. In that case, running malware protection from a trusted security company is not a bad idea.
The threat to MacOS and especially iOS are low, in part because of the tight control Apple has over its app stores. While the Mac does rarely come under attack via sideloaded apps, if you download apps only from the Mac and iOS app stores, and keep your guard up when clicking links and download files, you should be OK without an antivirus app on Apple devices.
Originally published April 23.