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Best internet security software 2020: Protect your online devices

Best internet security software 2020: Protect your online devices
(Image credit: Getty)

Getting the best internet security software is essential. Protecting your devices and your personal information is more important than ever these days, as the ways to steal or infiltrate your digital life gets more sophisticated. Think about how much time you spend online, whether it’s browsing Facebook and playing Candy Crush on your smartphone, or taking part in Zoom conference calls for work using your home computer. We do everything online now and we need to take appropriate security measures to make sure that our identities, information and families are safe, which is where the best internet security software comes in.

When looking for the best internet security software, the first thing you need to consider is what are your needs? Are you someone who only casually uses the internet and does a bit of online shopping, or do you extensively bank and trade stocks online? Perhaps you have children who you want to keep safe while they’re online using social media, or maybe you’re worried about staying anonymous from advertisers and other snoopers.

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Once you’ve figured out what you’re after, then you can look into the offerings from the big online security companies like Bitdefender and Norton to find out which of them meets your needs. In our experience, most major internet security software has the same core feature set, with only a few unique features each. You’ll get antivirus software and malware protection, a firewall to keep hackers out, access to a VPN to help you stay anonymous online, and parental controls to keep your kids on the safer parts of the internet.

So the deciding factors are really going to be the price and flexibility of the package that you need, along with any extra bells and whistles that tickle your fancy. If you’re particularly worried about identity theft, Norton 360 with Lifelock would be a great choice, for example. But if you’re looking for value for money, then maybe Bitdefender Total Security would be more up your alley. To help you decide, we've put together this guide to the best internet security software, covering feature sets, pricing, and expert evaluations of the antivirus and malware protection that each of these programs offer. 

1. Norton 360: Best internet security software overall

Norton 360

(Image credit: Norton)

Norton 360

Powerful and versatile, Norton's 360 range gets our top prize

Range of tiers for all needs
Excellent antivirus and malware protection
Easy to use
Multi-device coverage locked in more expensive tiers

Norton is one of the biggest names in town when it comes to antivirus protection and internet security, so it should be no surprise to see it at the top end of our list. Norton 360 offers several tiers of internet security software for users to consider, with each successive tier adding on extra layers of protection. 

For the average user, Norton 360 Standard will more than suffice. It offers access to Norton’s exceptional antivirus program, which covers you against viruses, malware, spyware, and ransomware. There’s also a firewall to keep hackers and other invaders out of your network when you’re online and a VPN to keep your identity and location hidden when you’re browsing and shopping online.

Later tiers bring in additional layers of defense including identity theft protection and financial coverage should you become the victim of identity fraud, while the top package offers coverage for unlimited devices and 401k monitoring to keep your retirement investments safe.

Most importantly, Norton 360’s performance is second to none, with our antivirus experts finding that it blocked 100% of attacks sent against it in recent tests, while also having a negligible effect on your device’s performance.


2. Bitdefender Total Security: Best premium security

Bitdefender

(Image credit: Bitdefender)

Bitdefender 2020

Bitdefender offers total online protection

Excellent malware detection 
Tons of options
Includes a VPN
Some packages offer poor value compared to others

Another big hitter when it comes to the best internet security software, Bitdefender 2020 lives up to the company's sterling reputation by providing an excellent selection of software for you to choose from. 

Bitdefender Internet Security is what we’d call the basic package and it comes with everything you’d expect, but it only covers PCs. If you want to cover all your devices, you’ll want Bitdefender Total Security.

With Bitdefender you’re protected from viruses, malware, ransomware and spyware, and there’s a built-in firewall to keep cyber-intruders out of your system. When tested by the experts at AV Test and AV Comparatives, Bitdefender performed very well, blocking almost all of the viruses and malware tests programs that were set against it.

Alongside this standard protection there’s also a suite of parental controls to keep your kids safe and away from the more unsavory parts of the internet. There’s also a VPN to let you stay anonymous or access georestricted content online, though usage is limited unless you go for the top package, Bitdefender Premium Security.

There are a ton of pricing options available, letting you choose which program you want, how many devices to cover and for how long.


3. Kaspersky Internet Security: Best malware protection

Kaspersky antivirus

(Image credit: Kaspersky)

Kaspersky 2020

Kaspersky doesn't put a foot wrong, surpassing our already high expectations

Flawless antivirus protection
Flexible price options
Good range of extra features
Parental controls locked to premium option

Most of the antivirus and internet security software that we tested had excellent performance when it comes to blocking malware, but Kaspersky stands above the rest in this regard with a perfect score - not a single piece of malicious software made it through Kaspersky’s defenses during the expert testing from AV Test and AV Comparatives.

It really is hard to argue with those kinds of results, especially when you pair it up with Kaspersky’s flexible pricing model and great range of extra features. With annual prices for Kaspersky Internet Security starting as low as $39.99, it offers highly competitive costs without cutting corners on its offerings.

You get antivirus protection and a firewall that you’d expect, alongside VPN access and an ad blocker to keep those pesky pop-ups and auto playing videos at bay. The only real mark against it is that a lot of the parental controls are locked behind the more pricey option, Kaspersky Total Security, but even this is very reasonably priced.


4. Avast Premium Security: Best for casual use

Avast antivirus

(Image credit: Avast)

Avast Premium Security

Avast's free offerings are second to none, but it struggles to justify the costs

Great antivirus capabilities
Decent range of extras
Heavy performance impact
Better offerings elsewhere

Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me. We love Avast because it makes us feel like pirates whenever we say it, but beyond that it also offers a compelling choice for those looking for free antivirus software. Sadly the premium internet security software that Avast offers, called Avast Premium Security, doesn’t quite measure up to the rest of the competition.

You get the standard antivirus and firewall protection along with a nifty tool that lets you run suspicious apps and programs in a walled-off sandbox to test it before letting it loose on your computer, but the features set is a little anemic beyond that. VPN access is walled off behind Avast Ultimate, the most expensive option. 

There’s a password manager, webcam protection, and file shredder, but that’s about it. Parental controls are nowhere to be found, locked away in Avast Omni, a home internet security solution that requires the installation of a specific device.


5. McAfee Total Protection: Best for technophobes

McAfee Total Protection

(Image credit: McAfee)

McAfee Total Protection 2020

McAfee's single program solution is great, but it falls short of its rivals

Single program eliminates confusion over product features
Great antivirus performance
Good range of extra features
Outdone by the competition

If you’ve been looking at the other options on this list and your eyes have started to glaze over at all the choices, then McAfee has a non nonsense, one-size-fits-all solution for you. McAfee Total Protection is the only internet security software that it offers and while there are a few pricing options depending on the number of devices you need to cover, the core software is the same.

McAfee performed well in recent tests of its antivirus and malware protection capabilities, blocking over 97% of attacks levied against it. Those are good numbers, but they do lag behind other options on the market.

The other issue is that some of the extra features that McAfee Total Protection offers are locked behind an auto-renewal paywall, so you’ll have to commit to McAfee long term if you want things like VPN access or identity theft protection. Considering none of the competition has this limitation, McAfee is a difficult sell. Not bad, but unless you really don’t want the hassle of choosing between various options, we’d say that there are better picks out there.


Why trust us on internet security software?

More than half of the programs we tested earned a malware protection score of 98 percent or higher. In general, the applications had the most trouble with completely blocking malicious sites. For example, some programs recognized and blocked a webpage with a virus download or phishing scheme on it but still allowed us to access other pages on the site. The best programs blocked the whole site, even the unaffected pages, so there was no chance of accidental infection.

After we have researched each program, we analyse results from several third-party testing labs, including AV-Comparatives and AV-Test, to see how well they perform over time in terms of virus protection and loss of computer resources. This lets us study long term trends in performance, rather then just how it handles a limited number of tests that we could throw at it during out review.

What is the difference between antivirus software and an internet security suite?

The biggest difference between basic antivirus software and an internet security suite is the number of extra protection tools included with the program. For example, Kaspersky Antivirus doesn’t include a personal firewall or parental controls, but the more expensive Kaspersky Internet Security does.

Typically, internet security programs build on the same engine used in the developer’s antivirus software, so the level of protection doesn’t change with the more expensive internet security program. 

(Image credit: Avast)

One other difference between basic antivirus software and internet security suites is the number of user licenses you get. Most antivirus solutions come with a single license to protect one computer. Internet security suites, however, usually come with at least three licenses, and are sometimes compatible with mobile phones and tablets so you can protect multiple web-enabled devices at once.

What should internet security software come with?

Because internet security programs are a step up from basic antivirus software, they should include several additional malware protection and privacy tools – typically a personal firewall, a password manager and a system vulnerability scanner. These tools give you added protection against hackers and identity thieves who try to sneak into your system by swiping passwords, piggybacking on your internet connection or exploiting out-of-date software.

We spoke with Mitch Stephens, a security consultant with Emagined Security. He suggests that keeping your system and program patches up to date is a good way to stay secure from online threats. Programs, such as ESET and Avast, use vulnerability detection scans to make sure the most recent software versions are installed on your computer, and if not, they provide you with a legitimate link to where you can download the latest updates. Without these patches, hackers and ransomware can take advantage of these weak points and use them to attack your computer.

Norton 360 antivirus

(Image credit: Future)

Parental controls are also good to have. These tools allow you to limit the time your child is online as well as block inappropriate content. They are also good for blocking cyberbullies and predators. Kaspersky Internet Security includes internet filter categories that make it easy to quickly block harmful content, including vulgarity, profanity and violence.

The best internet security software comes with multiple licenses or a single license that can be used to protect multiple computers or mobile devices at once. Sometimes, the only difference between a top-rated security program and the best premium security suite is the number of licenses you get.

How much does an internet security program cost?

Internet security software costs about $80-$120 for a year subscription, though this varies wildly depending on who you choose and what tier you go for.. You can usually find deals that make the first year cheaper though. These programs are a step up from basic antivirus software, which costs less but typically doesn’t include advanced tools like a firewall, safe banking features or a password manager. 

Premium-grade software typically goes one step further to include all the security tools a developer has to offer. For example, Kaspersky Internet Security doesn’t include a parental controls, but Kaspersky Total Security does. Because premium security solutions have more tools than internet security software and include additional user licenses, they typically cost more.