Skip to main content

The best antivirus software 2021: free and paid options compared

The best antivirus software 2021
(Image credit: Future)

Having one of the best antivirus software packages in your device is as important as it has ever been. Yup, it's an incredibly boring and dry thing to think about - particularly as many of us won't have been affected by a virus for years and years, if ever - but that's not meant to say you shouldn't have one of the best antivirus packs anyway. It's definitely still a case of 'rather have it and not need than need it and not have it', for sure. We can guarantee that there are baddies still out there and want to get your personal details, even if it might not be in the traditional sense of a virus anymore.

So, whether you have a premium machine like one of the best gaming PCs or one of the best gaming laptops, or just a cheap one for work, having one of the best antivirus will protect you while you work or play. If you're looking to beef up security on an Apple Mac or MacBook though, you might want to consider checking out our antivirus for Macs guide.

However, in the year 2021, it is a very saturated market. There are free versions that we remember from years ago still around - though now refined - and also some newer or much-revamped paid-for programs that are more comprehensive than ever. As a result, it can be a confusing market to work your way through. But fear not, we’ve looked at a range of options available, from premium to free, from some of the biggest players in online security, to help you make a safe and informed decision on the best antivirus software for you. Whatever you go for, we just recommend you go for one: it's better to have something than nothing. It's also worth noting that the best antivirus is not just for PC systems but can be added to smaller, mobile devices like the best gaming tablets and the best gaming phones as well. Neat.

It's worth remembering that as the programs become more numerous and refined, so do the nasties trying to get into your machine. Plus, those who create malware and viruses are still constantly coming up with new and exciting ways to break down your door. However, to combat this, security companies constantly adapt and update their programs to whack off the miscreants from a safe distance. Often enhanced by feedback tweaks and user experience-led changes, and the versions available are reliable and will have you well covered against threats, all providing great options when looking for the best antivirus software systems.

Best antivirus software 2021 at a glance

We've highlighted a few paid-for options as well as a few free software packages for your consideration. They are:

  • Bitdefender Antivirus Plus
  • Webroot SecureAnywhere Antivirus
  • Norton Antivirus Plus
  • Bitdefender Antivirus Free
  • Kaspersky Free
  • Avast Free Antivirus

The best antivirus - paid-for software

1. Bitdefender Antivirus Plus

A most reliable rigorous protector

Operating system: Windows only | Maximum devices covered: 1 | Stand out features: Ransomware protection and remediation, privacy tools, VPN, Safepay

Great value
Password manager
Accurate, and reliably catches the nasties
Can be a bit resource draining

Bitdefender Antivirus Plus's annual fee may look expensive - particularly when compared to the non-existent fees for free programs - but you get a whole host of benefits and securities for it. And, all it takes is a quick look at any major antivirus rankings to see that Bitdefender's security products are consistently near the top and considered some of the best.

It is accurate in its virus detecting, filters the web to block access to malicious sites, secures your browser that keeps your online banking and shopping transactions safe, and there's a safe and sound password manager that can retain your payment card details securely for web forms. It also wins points for offering an excellent anti-phishing service, which alerts you to malicious sites and blocks dangerous ones when using search engines.

The latest version brings with it some new features: the ability to scan all your linked devices through the Bitdefender Central mobile app and ransomware protection that learns the behavior of dangers to keep you safe. It can be a little resource hungry, requiring a fair bit of 'juice' and also potentially having a fight with some other programs, but overall Bitdefender Antivirus Plus is a great package offering great, subtle performance, excellent detection rates, and some extra features all bundled in that easily justify the price.

If you're looking for more protection from Bitdefender, the Internet Security package builds on AVP and triples the number of devices covered. It also offers parental control, file encryption, and a firewall and anti-spam. Further to this, you can get the Total Security edition which includes all of the above and extends its reach to five PCs, Macs, Android, and iOS devices.

2. Webroot SecureAnywhere Antivirus

Lightweight without compromising on protection

Operating system: Windows and Mac | Maximum devices covered: 1 | Stand out features: Always-on security, identity protection, real-time anti-phishing, firewall monitor

Extremely light and undemanding on system resources
Super fast
No testing data from major labs

It's difficult to find a truly 'lightweight' antivirus program or one that uses hardly any system resources. However, Webroot SecureAnywhere AntiVirus can make that claim. Installation takes mere seconds, the program takes up only a handful of megabytes on your hard drive, the amount of RAM it needs is minute, and there are no enormous signature updates to tie up your bandwidth.

Though this feather-lite touch doesn't mean it skimps on features. On top of its core protections, you get a firewall and network monitor, anti-ransomware, smart behavior monitoring, accurate real-time anti-phishing, as well as some other interesting extras.

Because the major testing labs rarely evaluate their packages, it's not easy to compare Webroot's efficacy with its immediate competitors, however, when they are reviewed, they generally score well, and our own tests show solid and reliable protection.

It really is one to like, and its lightweight nature makes it a very attractive proposition, and Webroot's 70-day 100% money-back guarantee suggests it's confident in the product, too. If you're tired of complicated and bloated systems, Webroot should definitely be on your shortlist.

3. Norton Antivirus Plus

A recognised name that does everything well

Operating system: Windows only | Maximum devices covered: 1 | Stand out features: Advanced privacy security, financial security, global civilian intelligence network

Low demand on system resources
Fends off even the latest malware
Browser extensions can be unreliable

Norton is an established name in antivirus software and so many will gravitate toward it and its reputation. This version, Norton AntiVirus Plus, is true to the quality in Norton's reputation: it is a top-quality malware hunter which will protect your PC all on its own, automatically. One of the main reasons we rank it so highly is that it's also one of the very best value paid-for security packages around at the moment.

The package is great for those who like to be hands-on and those who prefer to can set all its features and settings 'just so'. Other features on offer are a handy URL blocker that keeps malicious websites at bay, and if that misses something, an excellent file reputation service heuristically recognizes suspect downloads immediately. Beyond this, if any devious malware can still find its way through, the intelligent behavior monitor uses its up-to-date virus definitions to quarantine threats at the first sign of trouble. 

The problems that do rear their head are in the browser extensions. While the bundled-in Norton Identity Safe is a perfectly serviceable password manager when it's running properly, it can just stop for no apparent reason when using Chrome. The flip side to that is that you don't have to use Identity Safe. And elsewhere Norton AntiVirus Plus's main functions and securities deliver: it's easy to use, comes highly rated by the labs, has the configuration options experts need, and is deliberately designed to have the least possible impact on your system's performance.

The best antivirus - free software

There's no denying that the paid-for premium antivirus packages will have a particular allure for those who want the smoothest run, or the most security. They'll offer you some particular features such as parental controls, advanced firewalls and spam filters. They also give you the extra benefit of omitting the pop-ups trying to persuade into upgrading to a full or paid-for version. And, perhaps contrary to popular opinion, they don't actually cost too much, as shown above.

Having said that, you can get great protection free, with just about every single major company out there offering a free antivirus. This continues to help them as it gives them access to more data and so constantly update and improve their libraries and security packages. As a result, it's in their interest to keep a good level of product with the free entries into the library and not to reduce the amount of protection.

If you're determined to go down the free route, we've got a couple that you should investigate to ensure you pick the best free antivirus software for you.

Bitdefender Antivirus Free

Definitely the best free package going

Operating system: Windows, Mac, Android | Features: Phishing protection, Behavioural analysis, Automatic scanning

Terrific virus identification
Fast, efficient scanning
Scan scheduling not possible

This package provides a clean and well-constructed scanning system teamed with an unrivaled library of virus definitions and means that Bitdefender is top of the pile once again. Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition is a nice, light version of the premium package.

Bitdefender's free version does insist on running in the background on autopilot and while this takes the hassle out of the users' hands it also opens up the possibility of it going a bit rogue. Some free software packages have caused a bit of havoc before, identifying themselves as threats and then locking up Windows systems. (This is still rare, though, so it's not a constant danger.)

It's worth pointing out that Bitdefender Antivirus Plus, our top paid-for pick, is only the equivalent of about $2 per month away from the free edition. When broken down to this costing, it shows that it really is a small amount to pay for a whole host of extras, such as an integrated password manager, free online 24/7 support and permanent file shredder. 

Kaspersky Free

A great free version from a great name

Operating system: Windows | Features: Real-time scanning, Anti-phishing, Email scanning, Spyware protection

Very user-friendly and easy to navigate
Accurate and reliable
No great technical support
Limited to basic features only

Perhaps a little predictably - but in a good way - Kaspersky Free is a scaled-down version of the full package. The free iteration removes the additional features such as privacy protection and safe payment sandboxes to concentrate on a no-frills, very capable, free protection for your PC. The result is antivirus software that is easy to navigate and interact with but one that does an effective job of keeping your machine safe.

Using the nuts and bolts real-world scanning engine of the paid-for suite, Kaspersky Free is fiendishly hard for viruses and Trojan horses to break down. And we love that it doesn't constantly pester you with nudges to upgrade to the full version.

But, do bear in mind that the paid-for version isn't that expensive and provides a more comprehensive level of cover for your PC (or PCs). The price is $29.99 to protect three computers and can swing a mighty bat against ransomware, spyware and Trojans.

(Image credit: Avast/Future)

Avast Free Antivirus

A much-improved familiar name

Operating system: Windows, Mac, Android | Features: Virus detection, Gaming mode, Password manager, Malware scanner

Generally very good virus protection
Doesn't inhibit PC performance
Frequent links to paid-for parts
Fiddly privacy settings

One of the top features of the latest edition of Avast Free Antivirus, is that it adds an automatic gaming mode that mutes popups and reduces system load when you're running a CPU-demanding game. Elsewhere, the user-interface has had a redesign and has come out all clean, fresh and well laid out. There's a password manager, too, which is solid yet unspectacular but remains a good addition to your online and digital security. On the less good side of things, it's quite trigger-happy with popups and it isn't great for software launch times.

Some other benefits and features more generally come from a 'meta' event. Back in 2016, Avast acquired AVG - a very familiar-sounding free antivirus provider to many, I'm sure. Though the two products will remain separate to users, Avast - and AVG for what it's worth - now has a lot more data to work with. It's effective userbase now stands at a heady 400 million users.

I'm one of the Hardware Editors for GamesRadar+, and I take care of a whole host of gaming tech reviews, buying guides, and news and deals content that pops up across GamesRadar+. I'm also a qualified landscape and garden designer so do that in my spare time, and lean on it to write about games' landscapes and environments too.