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Do you really need an antivirus on Windows or Mac?

antivirus for mac and windows
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Today’s increasingly complex and sophisticated threats to PCs and Macs are no longer the preserve of a few amateur hackers; often professional, sometimes state sponsored, they can lie dormant and undetected for weeks before doing any damage. Still wondering whether you need to invest in antivirus for your lptop or desktop?

OK, so we're not trying to scaremonger you, but the internet still continues to be dogged by malware, ransomeware, Trojan horse programs, malicious bots...the list goes on. PCs and, to a lesser extent, Macs are under attack like never before.

Malware is evolving

Today’s malware is much more transient than it used to be, with attacks coming and going constantly. And these days it’s not just about the unique virus signatures of the malware: antivirus solutions are constantly evolving, modifying their shells so that their signatures are never the same, and are far more efficient and sophisticated than in previous years.

The old threats of infected, ‘click me’ emails still exist, but much more common and much more difficult to avoid are automatic downloads from infected websites.

The longer a virus can remain undetected on a system, the more damage it can do, working quietly in the background and going undetected by anything but the best antivirus software programs for longer periods.

Problems on PCs

In the case of PCs, Microsoft’s own Windows Defender does offer some antivirus protection. Built into Windows 8 onwards, it runs by default when no third party antivirus (AV) software product is installed, but third party protection from a leading AV brand with more effective malicious code detection is recommended.

Indeed, for PCs, some sort of external antivirus software is a must – whether free or paid-for. Twenty years ago there were hundreds of thousands of viruses; today there are millions!

So a decent branded AV program - like our number #1 favorite Bitdefender Antivirus Plus - with regular directory updates is definitely required for PCs. There is constant strain on antivirus developers to update their databases of unique malware signature, and indeed, signature-based antivirus programs still remain the best line of defence. However, the best antivirus suites today utilise multiple tools and resources, and are geared to evolving alongside the ongoing malware threats.

More proactive, system-centric approaches to combating malware are being added to AV software, so in addition to sniffing out malware signatures and using interactive analysis, technology such as machine learning, Cloud scanning, automated remediation – ie, resolving problems without user input – and data collection are being employed to work out what happened before and after an attack.

Is free antivirus up to scratch?

It’s the addition of new methods of attacking malware that point to paid-for AV being the preferred option over freebie versions. Paid-for versions, and the more expensive suites and premium suites, tend to also offer additional features such as identity theft protection, firewalls, parental controls, and system performance tools.

Traditionally, free antivirus programs have tended to provide minimum levels of protection, merely scanning for malware signatures and comparing against updated ‘directories’. Yes, signature-based antivirus programs do remain the best line of defence, and free versions are usually as up-to-date as paid-for iterations.

But additional protection tools such as behavioural malware detection, bad link detectors and firewalls are well worth having, and are usually – although not always – the preserve of paid-for versions.

Another downside of choosing free antivirus software over a paid-for equivalent is a lack of technical support. While most paid-for AV brands offer some kind of phone support for paying customers, free AV users usually have to make do with online info.

Ultimately, the benefits of a paid, subscription antivirus service, when weighed against the potential damage to computers, personal details, finances, etc, are clear for Windows PC users. Free AV at the very least; a paid-for AV service the obviously safer option. 

Mac attacks

Macs are always considered the more secure of the two flavours, with Apple working hard to ensure its OS updates cover-off threats, and the fact that the Mac operating system is Unix-based, with number of built-in security features.

In addition, Apple has its own additional security measures that make attacking Macs more difficult, including Gatekeeper, which blocks software that hasn’t been digitally approved by Apple from running without user agreement.

So when it comes to whether or not Macs require antivirus bolt-ons, this is not a new debate – it’s well trodden ground! While Macs have generally tended to be much more secure than PCs, they are certainly not immune from attacks. And they are, by all accounts, becoming more vulnerable.

There is no reason, technically, why the Mac’s OS cannot be targeted by hackers. Indeed, the main reason malware is more successful at attacking PCs could just be down to a numbers game, as much as Apple’s protection systems: numbers of Mac users are relatively small when compared with that of PCs, so attackers are best placed to succeed if they go for the bigger user market, casting their net more widely.

That said, the share of Macs in the wealthier western countries is now somewhere between 20-30 percent: hardly small beer. Add to that the fact that Macs are pricey, that 20-30 percent are possibly the more wealthy of the wealthy West, and you’ve got a user base well worth targeting. 

Malwarebytes, producers of antivirus software for Macs, reported in March 2018 that Mac malware grew by 270 percent during 2017, and it reported 16m instances in April 2019. 

Ultimately, then, whilst Macs are clearly the safer of the two formats, it appears that additional antivirus for Mac is becoming more essential as criminals shift some of their focus to Apple’s more expensive, less widely used Mac products. 

Don't settle for anything but the best

Honestly, we hope we've convinced you that downloading antivirus is well worth doing. With the sheer amount of personal data we now have on our laptops and smartphones, it just isn't worth the risk of getting hacked or losing all of our prized photos and music catalogues.

Which is why we'll give you another gentle prod in the direction of our guide to the best antivirus software. Having tested all the main players on the market, we can give you an honest, independent assessment of the very best out there.