The old days of straightforward antivirus software packages are gone -- victim of a changing threat scene in which the dangers are more complex than ever and come from multiple sources.
No longer are viruses and Trojans the only risks. Today you can also be victimized by phishing attacks, spyware, privacy invasions, social media scams and the possibility of losing your mobile device.
To complicate matters even further, most of us commonly use multiple devices, frequently with different operating systems. I'm a perfect case of that: My computing arsenal includes a Windows desktop PC, a MacBook Air, two Windows-based Surface tablets, two iPads, an iPhone and a Google Nexus 7 Android tablet.
What does all that mean for today's security software? It means that yesterday's single security application has expanded to become a full-blown suite protecting against multiple threats on multiple devices. Because of that, it's become more difficult -- and more important -- to choose the right suite. You need to take into account the types of threats you might encounter based on the way you compute, as well as the specific devices you use, so you can match a suite's coverage to your specific needs.
How to choose?
In order to help you decide which security suite is best for your individual needs, we will be regularly reviewing current suites as they are released.
So far, we have reviews of:
In our reviews, we will test all the modules that come with each suite on the devices for which they are designed. We will look at how comprehensive their tools are, their overall design and usefulness, their ease of use and complexity, and the depth of the offerings. However, we are not testing the suites for how accurately they scan and clean malware -- the complexity of malware today demands full-time lab testing for accurate results. (Companies that do that type of testing include Anti-Malware Test Lab, AV-Test and AV-Comparatives).
And make sure to come back regularly, because we will be adding additional reviews as new versions of the suites are released.
A few basics to look for
Before you check out our reviews, you may want to go over these basic rules as to what to look for when shopping for a security suite, depending on what type of device(s) you are using.
Whether it is because Windows systems are more easily targeted, or because they are more often targeted, the Windows-related features of security suites are typically the most comprehensive. Generally, you'll find protection against viruses, Trojans, spyware and other malware. Most suites include real-time scanning as you install or download applications as well as regular, automated scanning of your files, email and the system as a whole.
Firewalls are also generally included, as well as privacy features such as encrypted vaults for storing passwords. Some suites include anti-spam tools and/or parental control features.
A few suites offer tune-up and maintenance tools such as such as a disk optimizer, file cleanup or startup manager.
OS X protection
Gone are the days when the world believed Macs were invulnerable to threats. Now, most security suites include software for protecting Macs as well as Windows systems.
However, anti-malware applications for OS X generally don't include all the bells and whistles you'll find in their Windows counterparts. So you usually won't find the tune-up and performance tools contained in the Windows versions of the suites.
The Android apps that come with security suites focus on anti-theft tools, malware scanning and privacy protection.
For anti-theft, they commonly include a way to locate a lost or stolen device, a way to remotely lock the device and a way to remotely wipe your data. Some also let you make your device sound an alarm or other loud noise so that anyone who has stolen it will discard it.
Malware scanning is performed both in real time when software is downloaded or installed, and also during scheduled scans.
As for privacy protection, some Android security apps check your installed apps to see what kinds of permissions they ask for, and warn you about those that could be privacy invaders. Games, for example, may want to access your contacts, read your phone status and identity or use your phone's location services, even though those aren't required for the game to operate.
In many cases, these security apps are available separately from the suites, sometimes for free.
Protection for iOS devices is less common, at least within security suites. Not all suites have iOS components, and of those that do, some offer anti-theft tools such as those found in the Android security apps but don't include malware scanning or privacy protection.
Why do the iOS anti-malware tools tend to be so weak? There's a possibility that Apple discourages or prevents companies from putting out anti-malware apps. Last March, the Apple-centric site MacRumors reported, "Apple appears to be cracking down on 'anti-virus' apps in the iOS App Store, in an effort to prevent customers from believing iOS devices are capable of contracting viruses and malware."
Some suites include Web safeguards that integrate with browsers as part of their Windows and/or and OS X modules. These can offer protection against phishing attacks; some scan your Facebook accounts for URLs linking to phishing sites, malicious downloads or known social networking scams. Others include browser-based safety ratings to warn users away from potentially dangerous sites.
Many suites include a Web "dashboard" -- a central site that, ideally, lets you monitor and adjust features across all your covered devices.
At a minimum, dashboards serve as a way to install the different modules on your different devices. Some go beyond merely that and also show you the security state of all of the devices on which you've installed the suite, including the last time the devices were scanned and the results of that scan. Others can also be used to locate a stolen phone or remotely wipe it -- or even to remotely scan devices for malware.
Future security needs
For now, security suites don't include coverage of other operating systems such as Linux or Chrome OS. And they have not yet expanded to protect the vague-sounding Internet of Things -- increasingly popular Internet-connected devices such as thermostats, fire and smoke detectors, networked sound systems or even cars.
As more appliances and other everyday devices become Internet-connected, they'll become increasingly vulnerable to security threats. It's logical to expect that security suites may one day encompass them as well.