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Is Antivirus Software Really Necessary in 2023?

Ben Martens Ben Martens

Short on time? Here’s the best antivirus for overall internet security in 2023:

  • 🥇Norton: Provides 100% malware detection for Windows, macOS, and Android, plus a really good security app for iOS. Comes with extras like web protection, dark web monitoring, a password manager, and a VPN.
Windows, Android, iOS, and Mac operating systems all have decent security protections, so is an antivirus still necessary in 2023?
  • The answer is a resounding YES!

Built-in security protections are pretty good, but they can’t protect you from the wide range of cyber attacks facing users in 2023. The best antivirus programs on the market offer 100% protection from advanced cyber threats — including malware (trojans, ransomware, rootkits, etc), network hacks, phishing attacks, identity theft, data breaches, and web trackers.

But not all antivirus software is created equal. Some are poorly created, often leaving massive holes in a person’s cyber defense. Others are secretly harvesting data (like this one). But a good antivirus program will protect your devices far more effectively than the basic protections built into your device ever could.

Some people claim that you can stay safe from malware just by taking precautions when you use the internet. While there are a lot of important precautions you should take, the reality is that you need quality antivirus software to stay 100% safe online.  

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How do antivirus programs detect malware?

Antivirus scanners use a variety of methods to identify malware before it can make any changes onto your computer.

Malware tries to hide itself in seemingly innocent files, like movies, program files, and images. It can be impossible to tell from looking at a file that it contains hidden malware — which is why a high-quality antivirus is so important.

The best antivirus programs provide both on-demand scanning (looks at all the files on your disk to sniff out hidden malware files) and real-time protection (analyzes files when you download them or open them to ensure you’re not adding malware to your system) to keep your devices 100% malware-free.

There a few methods used by antivirus scanners to detect malware:

  • Signature-based scanning. This is the most common method used by built-in virus scanners like Windows Defender and Apple File Quarantine. Signature-based scanners depend on malware databases, which contain code from hundreds of thousands of types of known malware — when you download a file, the code in that file is compared to the malware database. If the signature of the downloaded file matches a file in the database, it’s blocked from running on your system.
  • Heuristics. Malware files can be encrypted or slightly altered to deceive signature-based scanning tools. Like signature-based scanners, heuristics-based scanners analyze code — but they are able to identify signatures that are similar to known malware types, which allows them to detect malware that signature-based scanners miss.
  • Machine learning/AI. Rather than analyzing a file’s code, machine learning tools detect malware files based on their behavior — if a file acts similarly to the millions of malware files the AI-based scanner is trained on, it will block those files. This means that machine learning-based scanners can catch zero-day files that signature and heuristics-based scanners can’t detect.
  • Sandboxing. A sandbox is an artificial virtual environment — any files running in a sandbox can’t affect system files outside the sandbox. Any changes that a piece of malware tries to make disappear the moment the sandbox is closed down. iOS apps are all sandboxed, which limits the flexibility of the OS, but it also makes iPhones very difficult to hack.

Why do antivirus programs come with so many extra features?

Keeping your online activity, passwords, cloud storage, and financial information secure is just as important as avoiding malware infections. Just because your computer is safe from malware doesn’t mean that you’re safe online. That’s why antivirus programs offer additional internet security features such as:

  • Firewalls — to monitor network traffic and prevent invasive processes from entering into a network.
  • Web protection — to analyze websites for unsafe behavior and block known phishing sites.
  • Password managers — to generate, store, and auto-fill secure passwords.
  • Virtual private networks (VPNs) — to hide IP addresses for private browsing and downloading.
  • Parental controls — to block inappropriate content, limit device and app usage, and track location on children’s devices.
  • System cleanup tools — to eliminate junk files, bloatware, and PUPs (potentially unwanted programs).  
  • Encrypted storage — to keep data 100% secure using military-grade data encryption.
  • Identity protection — to provide real-time alerts if your information or identity is at risk of being stolen.
  • Breach monitoring — to scan databases and dark web forums and notify you if your data is leaked in a data breach.

Why are third-party antiviruses better than my operating system’s built-in defenses?

Every operating system has built-in malware protections — and they’re all pretty decent. Unfortunately, all major operating systems have big vulnerabilities, which is why I recommend everybody — even Mac users — should use antivirus software.

  • Windows. Windows is the most frequently hacked operating system in the world. While Windows has put a lot more effort into Windows Defender in recent days, it still doesn’t score the same 100% malware detection ratings that standalone antivirus competitors regularly achieve (plus, Windows doesn’t have built-in web protections, data breach monitoring, password management, or VPN protection). If you’re looking for a PC antivirus that can handle the latest internet security threats, check out this list of the best antiviruses for Windows.
  • macOS. Many Mac users are under the impression that their computers are completely virus-proof. macOS’s File Quarantine feature is a good virus scanner, with new viruses added to its database daily — but it’s not good against zero-day threats, and it often fails to recognize adware and spyware. For example, millions of Mac users were infected with the Shlayer spyware, which harvested browsing data and inserted affiliate products into users’ suggested searches. If you want to keep your Mac spyware-free and protected against zero-day threats, there are a few really good Mac antiviruses out there.
  • Android. Android is the most widely used mobile operating system in the world, and Android devices are a huge target for hackers. Google Play Protect is the built-in scanner in every Android device — it does a pretty good job, but it doesn’t offer good protection against ransomware, spyware, or phishing. For example, millions of Androids were infected with the Locker ransomware, causing each user to lose thousands of dollars just to get their data back. The best antivirus programs for Android offer ransomware protection, safe browsing features, and powerful anti-theft protections.
  • iOS. Because of the strict developer protocols around the App Store as well as iOS’s native sandboxing, it’s basically impossible to get a virus on an iOS device. However, iOS users are susceptible to phishing sites and malicious Wi-Fi networks, as well as unethical apps that track user data. Cybersecurity apps for iOS can protect device usage, and the best ones also come with powerful anti-theft features. Check out our list of the best antiviruses for iOS here.

Best antiviruses for internet security in 2023

No matter what device you’re using, there are significant risks to going online without proper internet security protection. Your device, your financial information, and your online identity can all be compromised by hackers. I’m in the US and I pay insurance for my car, my health, and my home. I use my computer and my smartphone every single day, so it just makes sense for me to keep them insured against the many dangers that exist online.

Here are the 3 best internet security programs for 2023 ranked in terms of overall security, extra features, ease of use, customer support, and value.

Quick summary of the top 3 antivirus programs in 2023:

  • 🥇 1. Norton — Best overall antivirus for 2023.
  • 🥈 2. Bitdefender — Best lightweight antivirus with lots of additional features.
  • 🥉 3. Intego — Best antivirus for Macs in 2023.

🥇1. Norton 360 — Best Antivirus for Windows, Android & iOS

🥇1. Norton 360 — Best Antivirus for Windows, Android & iOS

Norton 360 provides the most well-rounded internet security protection of any antivirus program in 2023. It offers significant improvement on the built-in protections offered by Windows, Android, macOS, and even iOS.

Norton employs signature-based scanning, advanced-heuristics, and machine learning to detect malware on your devices. It scored a 100% protection rating during all of my stress tests (which expose devices to hundreds of malware files, including ransomware, trojans, rootkits, spyware, cryptojackers, and more). By comparison, built-in scanners from Windows, Android, and macOS just don’t provide the same results as Norton’s anti-malware scanner.

However, Norton’s antivirus protection is just one part of its multi-layered approach to internet security. It also offers a full suite of internet security features to protect your devices and your data online, including:

  • Secure firewall.
  • Anti-phishing web shield.
  • Password manager.
  • Webcam protection.
  • VPN (with unlimited data).
  • Dark web monitoring.
  • Identity theft protections (US only).
  • Parental controls.
  • And a lot more…

Many of Norton’s features are among the best on the market (especially its web protections, identity theft protections, and parental controls). And even its password manager and VPN, which aren’t quite as good as the best standalone password managers or best standalone VPNs, still provide great security, ease-of-use, and overall value. Norton just bundles a ton of great features for a low price.

I really like Norton’s affordable Norton 360 Standard plan — it provides VPN access, 10 GB secure cloud storage, and dark web monitoring for 3 devices for just $39.99 / year.

However, most users will want to upgrade to Norton 360 Deluxe — it covers 5 devices, provides up to 50 GB of encrypted storage, and Norton’s excellent parental controls for $49.99 / year. And finally, US users should definitely check out Norton 360 with LifeLock, which adds the best identity theft protections on the market for just $99.99 / year.

Norton provides a 60-day money-back guarantee with all of its plans.

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Read the full Norton review here >

🥈2. Bitdefender Total Security — Lightweight Malware Protection + Tons of Features

🥈2. Bitdefender Total Security — Lightweight Malware Protection + Tons of Features
Bitdefender provides powerful antivirus protection and a ton of features — and it’s extremely lightweight. It uses the same trifecta of signature-based scanning, heuristics, and machine learning as Norton does — but almost all of its processing power is offloaded to the cloud. Windows Defender is also partially cloud-based, but it doesn’t boast the same malware detection rates or internet security tools that Bitdefender offers.

During my testing, Bitdefender detected 100% of the malware test files on my system, and because it’s cloud-based, it barely slowed down my system, even during intensive, full-disk scans.

Bitdefender also provides a ton of valuable internet security features, like:

  • Web protections.
  • System optimizer
  • VPN.
  • Parental controls.
  • Password manager.
  • Webcam protection.
  • Data breach monitoring.
  • And a lot more…

All of Bitdefender’s additional features are excellent — its anti-phishing tool blocks phishing sites and exploit attacks more effectively than Chrome or Safari’s built-in protections, and Safepay, its secure, encrypted browser, blocks web trackers to make online finances safer.

Bitdefender’s VPN is really good, too. It provides secure, fast connections to servers in dozens of countries around the globe, unblocks many streaming sites, and allows torrenting. However, you have to upgrade Bitdefender’s VPN or buy the most expensive Bitdefender plan to get unlimited data.

Bitdefender provides all of these features for a surprisingly good dealBitdefender Antivirus Plus is its most basic plan, providing web protections, real-time malware detection, limited VPN access, and more for one Windows PC for only $23.99 / year. But most users will want to upgrade to Bitdefender Total Security, which provides all of Bitdefender’s features for up to 5 Windows, macOS, Android, or iOS devices for only $35.99 / year. However, if you want unlimited VPN usage on 10 devices you should check out Bitdefender Premium Security, which is only $59.99 / year. There’s also a 30-day money-back guarantee on all of Bitdefender’s plans.

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Read the full Bitdefender review here >

🥉3. Intego — Best Antivirus for Mac

🥉3. Intego — Best Antivirus for Mac
Intego is my favorite macOS antivirus for 2023, providing significant improvements over Apple’s built-in Mac protections. While Norton and Bitdefender both make high-quality apps for macOS, they’re lacking some of the additional features that make their apps especially good for Windows and Android devices.

But Intego is designed from the ground-up to provide top-notch internet security for Macs. Its antivirus scanner provides both on-demand scanning and real-time protection, and it detected 100% of the malware in my testing (including both Mac-specific malware files and Windows malware that can jump from your Mac to Windows PCs via Wi-Fi, thumb drives, and emails).

I’m also a really big fan of Intego’s additional security tools, including:

  • Mac optimization and cleaning tools.
  • Advanced Mac backup options.
  • Network security options.
  • Parental controls.

Intego’s network security tools include an advanced firewall and Wi-Fi network monitor — unlike macOS’s built-in firewall, Intego will automatically alter your network settings when you use a public Wi-Fi network. I’m also a big fan of Intego’s system optimization tools, which can get rid of junk files, duplicates, cached browser files, and much more — I tested Intego on a 5 year-old MacBook and my startup speed, load times, and storage space were significantly improved by its system tune-up suite.

Intego isn’t as affordable as some competitors, but it’s worth a few more bucks to get superior macOS protection. At $19.99 / year, the Mac Internet Security X9 package is pretty cheap, but it just offers Intego’s malware protection and firewall. Users that want a more complete internet security suite should check out the Mac Premium Bundle X9, which offers all of Intego’s features for just $34.99 / year. There’s a 30-day money-back guarantee on all of Intego’s plans.

Get Intego Now

Read the full Intego review here >

Why does Reddit say I don’t need antivirus software?

A quick Google search will turn up a host of computer “experts” that claim you don’t need to run antivirus software anymore — as long as you follow a laundry list of “common sense” rules for internet safety. They’re not wrong! After all, if you know how an engine works and you have tools, you don’t need to see a mechanic anymore. But most of us aren’t mechanics or computer experts, so we need help taking care of our complicated machines.

Your internet security can be breached at any time, for a huge variety of reasons. Hacked family members can send you malware files, phishing sites can convincingly imitate legitimate sites in order to steal your data, and and your data can be leaked in a large-scale data breach through no fault of your own. Malware files affect millions of Windows, macOS, and Android users every day.

Even computer experts rely on security tools like firewalls, password managers, VPNs, data breach monitoring tools, and more. The best antivirus programs provide improvement over Microsoft, Apple, and Google’s built-in protections, add additional security features, and provide trained customer support staff in the event of an emergency. Norton even offers a live dark web monitoring team (and up to $1M in identity theft insurance for US users).

Does Windows 10 or 11 need antivirus protection?

Windows Security (formerly known as Windows Defender) is an excellent built-in security tool built into Windows 10 and 11. It used to be famously very bad, but Microsoft has put a lot of work into improving its built-in Windows antivirus protection. But it’s still not as good as the best antivirus programs.

Windows Security regularly receives worse scores than competitors like Norton, Bitdefender, and TotalAV in malware stress tests from SafetyDetectives (as well as third-party testing teams). These standalone competitors provide advanced malware detection tools as well as helpful additional features.

Windows computers don’t have built-in VPN tools, password managers, advanced firewall tools, or many of the helpful additional features that the best standalone internet security programs provide.

Which antivirus should I use?

There are good antivirus programs for every system — but overall, I think Norton is the best antivirus in 2023. It provides excellent malware detection rates for every operating system, has excellent additional security features, a really helpful customer support team, and its plans cover a wide range of devices.

If you’re looking to learn a bit more about antivirus software and what sets different malware scanners apart, you can also jump up to the start of this article.

Do Android phones or iPhones need antivirus?

Android and iOS both have decent built-in protections, but they also have similar issues. The Google Play Store and Apple App store both have hundreds of thousands of apps, and some of them are malware apps designed to steal user data and gain access to your device.

As I discuss above, both Android and iPhone users have been hacked in recent years — Android is the most popular operating system in the world after all.

While it’s a lot easier to put malware on Android devices, iOS users still face risks from online threats like phishing attacks and data breaches. Norton and TotalAV both make excellent apps for Android and iOS.

Protect your computer, your data, and your identity with one of the top antiviruses of 2023:

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About the Author
Ben Martens
Ben Martens
Senior Editor

About the Author

Ben Martens is a cybersecurity journalist with a background in internet ethics, malware testing, and public policy. He resides in Oregon, and when he's not advocating for the rights of internet users, he's walking with his dog and inventing stories with his daughter.