Quick: What's the difference between Internet Security and Total Security? Or the difference between Deluxe and Premium? You know you need protection from computer viruses, phishing sites, ransomware, and other malware, but the security industry has more overlapping products and product names than any other category in computing. It's enough to make you say, "To heck with it, I'll just get Norton Antivirus." Uh, sorry to break it to you, but there's no such product anymore.
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Nevertheless, whether you're a solo entrepreneur or a telecommuter whose home office is an outpost of a large corporation, your internet connection is the front line in a war between the forces of good and evil. If your first software investment is a productivity suite to manage documents and data, your second should be a security solution to protect your documents and data.
You can plot that solution as a point along three axes: its cost, the number of features it offers or threats it protects against, and how many PCs or other devices it takes care of. Alternately, anti-malware offerings—like many home office products—tend to fall on one side or the other of the consumer versus small business divide, with the latter often a wise choice if your office's population exceeds one.
(If you're a part-time telecommuter, of course, your company's IT department has probably already installed its favorite enterprise security solution on your laptop. In that case, you may want to ask your IT team how it handles additional devices such as tablets and phones.)
More Than Free
As for cost, there are a number of free antivirus programs starting with the Windows Defender protection built into Windows 8.1 and 10. Windows Defender is a mediocre performer in lab tests, but free products such as the Editors' Choice winners from Avast, AVG, and Panda are much stronger. Many, however, are free only for non-commercial use. Since you're presumably running a business from your home office, you should spring for paid protection.
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In that realm, Neil J. Rubenking—PCMag's and, I freely admit, my guru in security matters—divides vendors' offerings into standalone antivirus suites that combine antivirus with antispam, firewall, parental control, phishing protection, and other functions; and advanced mega-suites that add options such as system tune-up, backup, and file encryption.
A growing number of suites are also cross-platform, meaning they offer protection for Windows PCs, Macs, and Android or iOS handheld devices. The number of devices each solution secures depends on the suite. Symantec, for instance, got out of the standalone antivirus game some time ago but sells Norton Security Standard ($34.99) for one PC or Mac; Norton Security Deluxe ($39.99) for five devices; and Norton Security Premium ($49.99) for 10 devices with 25GB of cloud backup.
Intel's McAfee LiveSafe (2016) goes a step further, covering every computer, tablet, and smartphone you own, no matter how many. Bitdefender has perhaps the most unorthodox option: In addition to McAfee Antivirus Plus (2016), McAfee Internet Security (2016), and McAfee Total Protection (2016), there's the Bitdefender Box, a compact hardware gadget that plugs into your router to protect everything on your home network, even smart TVs, thermostats, and game consoles.
The above prices, like most in the anti-malware market, are for one-year subscriptions rather than perpetual licenses, and Windows 10 users will want to note that not all products support the Microsoft Edge browser (just Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, and Firefox, plus Safari on the Mac).
Beyond the Basics
For the most part, I'd suggest sticking with a product in the middle of Rubenking's three levels (i.e., a suite rather than a mega-suite) because you want features like antispam and phishing protection in addition to antivirus, but may not need some of the gewgaws of the biggest bundles. (You get 15GB of cloud storage free with a Google Account, for example, and some system tune-up and cover-your-tracks functions from Piriform's free CCleaner).
On the other hand, it's worth studying the feature checklists on vendor websites for particulars that appeal to you. I like having a utility to shred or securely delete files, for instance, overwriting their contents so not even undeleting them reveals my data. Several suites offer a password manager, which is both a convenient way to keep track of all the passwords you use on various sites and a route to more secure, hacker-resistant username and password combinations.
Again, the prices I've quoted are for consumer products. If you operate a small to midsize business (SMB) with several employees, you're a candidate for the beefed-up peace of mind of software-as-a-service or SaaS endpoint protection, which combines an anti-malware solution with central installation, monitoring, and management from a cloud-based console. Bitdefender GravityZone Business Security is an example; it starts at $149.96 for three devices for one year and climbs to $2,744.96 for 50 devices for three years. Webroot SecureAnywhere Business Endpoint Protection is an Editors' Choice for its powerful behavior-based security and low price of $25 per client per year.
It's a filthy, nasty world out there, and your PCs and other devices need the best defense you can get. Fortunately, there's no need to skimp on security when so many anti-malware packages are such good bargains.
What's your antivirus and other system protection of choice? Do you defend your tablet and phone as well as your PC? Let me know in the comments or at email@example.com.