Basic vs. Advanced Security Suites
Most security companies offer at least three levels of security programs, including a standalone Antivirus utility, an entry-level security suite, and an advanced suite with additional features and enhancements. Most entry-level suites include antivirus, firewall, antispam, and parental control. The advanced “mega-suite” typically adds a backup component and some form of system tune-up utility, and some also add password management, a vpn, or other security extras.
When a new security line comes out, we start by reviewing the antivirus. In our review of the entry-level suite, we summarize results from the antivirus review and dig deeper into the suite-specific features. For a mega-suite review, we focus on the advanced features, referring to the entry-level suite review for features shared by both. Your choice of a basic or advanced security suite depends entirely on what features matter to you and what you’re willing to pay for them.
The suites we’ve rounded up here aim to protect consumers. You can use any of them in a small business, but you may need to switch to a SaaS endpoint protection system as your company grows. This type of service lets an administrator monitor and manage security for all the company’s computers.
Is Windows Defender Good Enough?
Over the years, the Windows Defender program built into Windows 10 and 11 has evolved into Microsoft Defender Antivirus. In addition to antivirus protection it manages Windows Firewall and other Windows security features. It doesn’t truly qualify as a suite; it’s just an antivirus that manages other Windows components. Independent antivirus test scores for Windows Defender have literally come in below zero in the distant past, but its scores have been steadily improving. You can still get better overall protection from the best third-party free antivirus utilities, but Windows Defender is looking better all the time. Even so, it can’t replace a full-scale security suite.
Fighting Malware, Adware, and Spyware
Malware protection is the heart of a security suite; without an antivirus component, there’s no suite. Naturally, you want a suite whose antivirus is effective. When evaluating an antivirus, we look for high marks from the independent antivirus testing labs. The fact that the labs consider an antivirus important enough to test is a vote of confidence. The very best antivirus utilities get high ratings from many labs.
We also perform our own hands-on testing. For one test we use a relatively static set of malware samples that’s replaced once per year. We note how the antivirus reacts when we try to launch those samples and score it on how well it protects the test system. For another, we try to download very new malicious files from URLs no more than a few days old. Lab test results, our own test results, and other aspects like ease of use go into our antivirus rating.
What Do You Want in a Firewall?
A typical personal firewall offers protection in two main areas. On the one hand, it monitors all network traffic to prevent inappropriate access from outside the network. On the other hand, it keeps a watchful eye on running applications to make sure they don’t misuse your network connection. The built-in Windows Firewall handles monitoring traffic but doesn’t include program control. A few security suites skip the firewall component, figuring Windows Firewall already does the most essential firewall tasks.
The last thing you want is a firewall that bombards you with incomprehensible queries about online activity. Should I let KiberViyna.exe connect with IP address 220.127.116.11 on port 8080? Incoming or outgoing? Allow or Block? Once, or always? Plastic or paper? Modern firewalls cut down on these queries by automatically configuring permissions for known programs. The very best also handle unknown programs by monitoring them closely for signs of improper network activity and other suspicious behaviors.
Spam Filtering Is Mostly Built In
These days, most of us hardly ever see spam messages in our inboxes because our email providers filter them out. If you don’t get this service from your provider, it can be hard to even find your valid mail amid all the offers of male enhancements and magic COVID-19 cures.
If your provider doesn’t squelch spam, it’s smart to choose a suite with spam filtering built in. Look for one that integrates with your email client. Client integration lets it divert spam into its own folder and sometimes lets you train the spam filter by flagging any spam messages that get through or, worse, valid messages that wound up in the spam pile.
Prevent Phishing and Protect Your Privacy
The best antivirus in the world can’t help you if a fraudulent website tricks you into giving away your security credentials. Phishing sites masquerade as bank sites, auction sites, and even online dating sites. When you enter your username and password, your account is instantly compromised. Some clever frauds will even pass along your credentials to the real site to avoid raising suspicions. You can learn to avoid phishing scams, but having some backup from your security suite is important when you’re not as alert. We test phishing protection using real-world fraudulent sites scraped from the internet.
Steering users away from phishing sites helps protect privacy, but that’s not the only way suites can keep your private information out of the wrong hands. Some offer specific protection for user-defined sensitive data, credit cards, bank accounts, and that sort of thing. Any attempt to transmit sensitive data from your computer sets off an alarm. Some contract with third-party companies to offer credit protection. Other spyware protection techniques include foiling keyloggers, preventing misuse of your webcam, and supplying a hardened browser that lets you do online banking in an environment isolated from other processes.
Content Filtering and Parental Control
We don’t penalize a suite for omitting parental control. Not everyone has kids, and not every parent feels comfortable controlling and monitoring their children’s computer use. In fact, we don’t even recommend buying a third-party parental control utility, not when Apple, Google, and Microsoft offer such services at no cost. Even so, if a suite puts forth parental control as one of its components, it had better work properly.
Blocking inappropriate websites and controlling how much time the child spends on the Internet (or on the computer) are the core components of a parental control system. Some suites add advanced features like instant message monitoring, limiting games based on ESRB ratings, and tracking the child’s location. Others can’t even manage the basics successfully.
VPNs Protect Your Communications
Local antivirus and security suites protect your data and documents, but their protection doesn’t extend to your internet communications. A Virtual private network, or VPN, secures your internet traffic and can hide your IP address or location from snoops. Most VPN companies have just one product, but some security suite companies have ventured into the VPN realm.
Often, though, you don’t get full VPN protection as part of your suite. Some install a free edition or a free trial. Others offer a link that sends you online to subscribe. Avast One, Norton 360, McAfee+, and Panda Dome Premium are exceptions, offering VPN protection without such limits.
Will a Security Suite Slow Down My PC?
One big reason to use a security suite rather than a collection of individual utilities is that the integrated suite can do its tasks using fewer processes and a smaller chunk of your system’s resources. Few modern suites have an appreciable effect on performance.
For a hands-on measure of the effect of running a suite, we time three common system actions with and without the installed suite, averaging many runs of each test. One test measures system boot time, another moves and copies a large collection of files between drives, and a third zips and unzips that same file collection repeatedly. Suites with the lightest touch have no measurable effect on the required time.
Do I Need Backup and Tune-Up Utilities?
In a sense, having a backup of all your files is the ultimate security. Even if a sample of asteroid dust goes astray and destroys your computer, you can still restore it from a backup. Some companies reserve backup for their mega-suite offering, while others include it in the entry-level suite. Read our reviews carefully, as backup capabilities vary wildly. At the low end, some companies give you nothing you couldn’t get for free from IDrive or another online backup service. At the high end, you might get 25GB, 50GB, or even more online storage hosted by the company, along with the separate ability to make local backups.
Tuning up your system performance has no direct connection with security unless it counteracts the security suite’s performance drag. However, tune-up components often include privacy-related features such as clearing traces of browsing history, wiping out temporary files, and deleting lists of recently used documents.
What Can I Do About Identity Theft?
No software solution can guarantee malefactors won’t capture and misuse your personal information. What they can do is alert you when they find evidence your data has been compromised so you can head off full-scale identity theft. This kind of dark web monitoring is becoming more common.
If the worst happens and your identity is thoroughly stolen, you can get help. McAfee+ includes identity theft remediation at its two higher pricing tiers, and Norton offers suites that include LifeLock identity protection. The top-level suites Bitdefender Ultimate and Avast One Platinum enhance already impressive security with identity theft remediation and a no-limits VPN. All four will assign a caseworker to help you recover and spend what it takes to remediate the problem, typically up to a million dollars.
Do Suites Provide Mac, Android, and iOS Security?
Windows still dominates the desktop, but many households include Macs as well. Cross-platform multi-device suites give you one source of protection for all your devices. Typically, you don’t get as many features on macOS. In fact, most companies just offer a Mac antivirus, not a full suite. Be sure to take advantage of the option to protect your Macs. They’re not immune to malware.
Android devices are ubiquitous, and the Android platform isn’t locked down the way iOS is. Even if you stay away from third-party app stores and refrain from jailbreaking your device, you can still get hit with Trojans, ransomware, and other kinds of Android malware. Smart users protect their devices with an Android antivirus. Most Android antivirus utilities include antitheft features such as locating, locking, or wiping a lost or stolen device. Some include bonus features like blocking unwanted calls or warning when you connect to an insecure Wi-Fi network.
As for iPhones and other iOS devices, Apple’s built-in security makes life tough for malware coders and antivirus writers. Many cross-platform suites simply skip iOS; those that don’t typically offer a seriously stripped-down experience. Given the platform’s intrinsic security, it rarely makes sense to expend one of your licenses installing protection on an iPhone.
What Else Isn’t Here?
We’ve evaluated nearly 40 security suites, including entry-level suites, feature-packed mega-suites, and suites that extend protection across multiple different platforms. The suites listed in this article have all received at least 3.5 stars, and their antivirus components have been vetted by from two to four independent labs.
Multiple suites from the same company appear in the chart only if both hold the Editors’ Choice honor. For example, Bitdefender Internet Security is an Editors’ Choice winner for entry-level suites, and Bitdefender Total Security earned the same honor as a security mega-suite. Norton also claimed two entries, an Editors’ Choice for cross-platform suite and another for security suite with identity theft remediation.
What’s the Best Internet Security Suite?
This article identifies ten security suites we recommend, including multi-device suites, mega-suites, and entry-level suites. If you’re looking for a suite that covers the basics without getting in the way, Bitdefender Internet Security is our Editors’ Choice winner. In the mega-suite range, the Editors’ Choice award goes to Bitdefender Total Security, with more features than you can imagine.
Norton 360 Deluxe is our Editors’ Choice for cross-platform multi-device security suites. If you’re looking to combine powerful device-level protection with identity theft remediation, our Editors’ Choice picks are Norton 360 With LifeLock and Bitdefender Ultimate Security. With a powerful, integrated suite protecting your devices, you can stay safe and calm without worrying about balancing security against performance.
Editors’ Note: Based on the increasing censure and criticism of Kaspersky by US government agencies, foreign agencies, and informed third parties, we can no longer recommend Kaspersky’s products. We continue to evaluate these products on their merits and report on them for those who wish to decide for themselves.