Top scores from independent labs. Best score in our hands-on antiphishing test. Very good malicious URL blocking. Ransomware protection. Password manager. Hardened browser. Many relevant bonus features.
So-so score in our hands-on malware blocking test.
- Bottom Line
The labs give Bitdefender Antivirus Plus top marks, and it aces some of our own hands-on tests. Beyond that, it adds a wealth of security features that almost qualify it as a security suite. It's a winner.
The line dividing a simple antivirus utility from a full security suite isn't always clear. Take Bitdefender Antivirus Plus, for example. In addition to every feature you'd expect in an antivirus, it includes a password manager, a hardened browser, a secure deletion utility, a scan for system vulnerabilities, protection against ransomware attacks, and more. However, it doesn't offer a firewall, spam filtering, or parental control, among other features you get with Bitdefender's actual suite products. It's an antivirus, with benefits, and it remains an excellent choice if you're seeking malware protection.
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Pricing hasn't changed with the 2018 edition (reviewed here). You still pay $39.99 per year for a single license or $59.99 for three. Many other antivirus utilities share that price point, just below $40, among them Kaspersky, Norton, and Webroot SecureAnywhere AntiVirus. McAfee's base price is $59.99 per year, but that lets you install antivirus protection on all the Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS devices in your household.
Installation and Appearance
As with many modern security utilities, installation of Bitdefender involves going through your online account. Log into Bitdefender Central, enter your product key, and download protection. It's that simple. During the installation process, it runs a quick scan for active malware.
The product's appearance hasn't changed appreciably since the previous edition, still featuring mostly white text against a dark gray background. A left-rail menu offers access to features: Protection, Privacy, Tools, Activity, Notifications, Account, Settings, and Support. The status panel displays a red warning if your configuration settings put the system at risk. Putting the system back in Autopilot mode should solve such problems, and if you leave Autopilot on, you should always see Protected in green as your status.
Autopilot has been a Bitdefender staple for quite a few years now. In this mode, the antivirus takes care of business with an absolute minimum of fuss. It quietly wipes out any malware it finds. It updates itself as needed. If it really wants to communicate with you, it displays a number on the Notifications icon.
From the Protection and Privacy tabs, you can click to view feature details. Here, you'll begin to realize how this feature-rich antivirus differs from Bitdefender's security suite products. On the Protection Features page, you see that firewall and antispam protection require an upgrade. Under Privacy Features, file encryption, webcam protection, and parental advisor all require an upgrade. The Tools page, furthermore, is filled entirely with features that are only present in Bitdefender's top-of-the-line suite.
Fantastic Lab Scores
Each of the independent antivirus testing labs takes its own approach to testing and scoring antivirus products. The more labs that include a product in testing, the more complete a picture I can get by looking at all their results. I follow five labs, and all five of them include Bitdefender. That's an honor not accorded to many. Of the companies I track, the only others covered by all five labs are Avast, AVG, ESET, and Kaspersky Anti-Virus.
SE Labs attempts to emulate real-world situations as closely as possible in testing, by capturing real malicious websites and using a playback system to hit each product with the exact same attack. This lab offers certification at five levels: AAA, AA, A, B, and C. Bitdefender took the top certification, AAA, along with quite a few others.
Out of the many tests regularly performed by AV-Comparatives, I track results of four. This lab certifies a product at the Standard level provided that it achieves a passing grade. Those that do better, or much better, than the minimum can earn certification at the Advanced or Advanced+ level. Out of four tests, Bitdefender earned four Advanced+ ratings.
Most of the tests that I follow return a numeric result or a rating level. Tests by MRG-Effitas don't do that. A product either turns in a near-perfect performance or it fails, and many do fail. Bitdefender passed this lab's banking malware test. In the general malware test it received Level 2 certification, which means that while it did not completely prevent every malware attack, it did remediate all attacks within 24 hours.
When the testers at AV-Test Institute put an antivirus product up on the testing rack, they rate it in three areas: Protection, Performance, and Usability. That last category refers to keeping false positives (good programs or websites identified as bad) to a minimum. Six points are possible in each category, for a total of 18. Bitdefender nearly hit that top score, but 5.5 points for Usability brought it down to 17.5. Avira and Kaspersky took the full 18 points in the latest test.
Virus Bulletin regularly releases results from its RAP (Reactive And Proactive) test. Bitdefender didn't do as well in this one, though its score is well above the current average. When aggregating lab test results for a combined score, I give a bit less weight to the RAP test.
To get that combined score, I use a formula that maps each lab's results on a scale from 0 to 10 and then combines them. Bitdefender's aggregate score is 9.8; no other product tested by all the labs scored higher, though Kaspersky also scored 9.8. Avira Antivirus Pro actually holds the top score, a perfect 10, but that's based on results from only three of the five labs.
Hands-On Malware Protection Testing
With such glowing reports from the labs, my own hands-on tests aren't as critical. I still run them, though, to get a feel for how each product operates.
My malware protection test starts when I open the folder that contains my current set of samples. Bitdefender immediately started looking over the samples, checking for any it recognized on sight, but its behavior wasn't at all obvious. Running in Autopilot mode, it just silently eliminated known threats. The only sign of its activity was the steadily dwindling number of files reported by Windows Explorer.
When the numbers stopped ticking down, I checked how many samples remained. Bitdefender eliminated 54 percent of them on sight. Presented with these same samples, Emsisoft Anti-Malware wiped out 79 percent immediately, and Vipre managed 75 percent.
To continue the test, I launched each of the remaining samples. The Safe Files feature (more about that below) blocked file changes by several, but didn't actively identify them as malware, so I didn't count that as a successful detection. A few others slipped past Bitdefender entirely, and some that it did detect still managed to place malware-related executable files on the test system. Its overall detection rate of 75 percent and score of 7.1 points are both rather low. I did note that all of the missed samples fell in lower-risk categories.
Tested against the same malware collection, Emsisoft managed 100 percent detection and an overall score of 9.4 points. Webroot and Comodo Antivirus also managed 100 percent detection, though I tested those two using my previous malware collection. Both also managed a perfect 10 points.
I manually analyze all the samples in my collection so I can determine just how thoroughly each antivirus blocks installation. That analysis is quite a lengthy process, and as a result I use the same sample set for many months. My malicious URL protection test, on the other hand, always uses the very newest malware, and in this test Bitdefender did much better.
I start with a feed of recent malware URL discoveries from MRG-Effitas. Launching each in turn, I take note of how the antivirus handles it. I give equal credit for blocking all access to the URL and for eliminating the malware payload during download. And I keep going until I have data for 100 valid malware-hosting URLs.
Bitdefender blocked 80 percent of the samples at the URL level, in many cases identifying the malware danger on the site by name. It wiped out another 11 percent during download, for a total protection rate of 91 percent, which is quite good. Note, though, that Symantec Norton AntiVirus Basic achieved 98 percent protection, and Avira managed 95 percent.
Amazing Phishing Protection
Bitdefender's protection against malicious and fraudulent URLs happens at the network level, with no need for a browser plugin. In my earlier testing, I observed it blocking internet connections by malware samples even when it didn't wipe out the samples themselves. And while this feature did a good job preventing access to malware-hosting URLs, it was even better against phishing sites, fraudulent sites that try to steal your login credentials.
For this test, I scour the internet seeking the very newest frauds, looking particularly for those too new to have been analyzed and blacklisted. Phishing sites are ephemeral; as soon as one gets shut down, the fraudsters put up another. The best antiphishing utilities analyze pages in real time rather than simply relying on blacklists.
Phishing tricks and trends change constantly, so rather than reporting a hard detection rate in this test, I compare the product detection rate with that of long-time phishing champ Norton, and with the phishing protection built into Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer. Few products beat Norton, and many can't even outperform the protection built into the browsers.
Previously, Bitdefender held the best score in this test, beating Norton's detection rate by 5 percent. This time around, it left Norton in the dust, with a detection rate fully 12 percent higher. This is, in part, due to an overall decline that I've observed recently in Norton's fraud detection. But it's still impressive. And of course, Bitdefender handily beat all three browsers.
Search Results Markup
You don't even have to visit a site to get protection from Bitdefender's TrafficLight analysis. TrafficLight marks search results as safe or dangerous using the expected green and red icons. But it doesn't stop there.
If you encounter a red warning icon, you can click it for full details. The resulting page breaks down just why the site was flagged, identifying more than a dozen varieties of dangerous and fraudulent sites. Phishing and malware are at the top of the list, naturally. Among the other fraud types flagged by TrafficLight are piracy sites, employment scams, and click-fraud sites.
Many Scan Choices
Bitdefender offers a quick scan for malware right on its main page. On the Protection Features page, you can choose a full system scan instead. A quick scan of my standard clean test system finished in less than a minute, but a full scan took an hour and a quarter, well over the current average of 45 minutes. A repeat full scan finished in 38 minutes, suggesting that Bitdefender uses the first scan to optimize subsequent scans. Note, though, that a repeat scan with BullGuard Antivirus finished in five minutes, and a second scan with ESET NOD32 Antivirus took just 30 seconds.
If you run into malware that resists the normal scans, but that doesn't disable your system entirely, Bitdefender's Rescue Mode can save your bacon. You don't have to download an ISO image, burn a rescue disk, or perform any other feats of geekery. Just select Rescue Mode and let Bitdefender reboot into an alternate operating system, one in which Windows-based malware is helpless to resist the antivirus scanner.
By clicking Manage Scans, you can create your own custom scans or, more likely, set a scanning schedule. You can schedule a scan to run at system startup, or at a user-defined interval of days, weeks, or months.
Bitdefender also scans your system for vulnerabilities. This includes missing security patches for important apps and system components, like the similar feature in McAfee AntiVirus Plus and Avast. However, like Kaspersky, Bitdefender goes beyond that, checking the system for security configuration problems. On my test system, it reported an out-of-date Firefox installation and several weak passwords.
Wi-Fi Advisor and Home Scanner
Bitdefender includes a Wi-Fi Security advisor that checks your local wireless network for any security problems. Since my virtual machine test systems don't have Wi-Fi, I couldn't see this feature in action. According to the documentation, it simply pops up a warning when you connect to an insecure Wi-Fi hotspot.
More interestingly, when you install the antivirus it also installs Bitdefender Home Scanner. Please read my review for full details of the Home Scanner. Briefly, it lists every device on your network, including computers, mobile devices, and Internet of Things devices. It flags any that are potentially vulnerable to attack. And it offers advice on dealing with those vulnerabilities.
Built-In Ransomware Protection
Getting hit with ransomware can ruin your whole day—or your whole company. There are many approaches to ransomware protection, from ransomware-specific behavior tracking to simply preventing unauthorized modification of important files. Bitdefender's Safe Files feature takes the latter approach, and it proved effective in testing.
By default, this feature protects files in the Documents, Pictures, Videos, and Desktop folders, but you can add any other folders that contain important documents. Safe Files permits access by known, trusted programs, but if an unknown process tries to modify or create files in a protected location, Bitdefender blocks it and pops up a notification. If the unknown file is a little-known text editor that you installed yourself, you can tell Safe Files to add it to the trusted list. But if you did nothing to trigger such a notification, you should definitely let Bitdefender block access.
To test this feature, I started by using an extremely simple file-encrypting program that I coded myself. As promised, Bitdefender blocked its access. It also blocked my hand-coded tiny text editor. With those tests out of the way, I broke out the big guns—real-world ransomware samples. For testing purposes, I disabled real-time protection and also turned off the behavior-based Threat Defense system.
After isolating the test system to prevent any possible escape of ransomware, I launched a half-dozen real-world samples. In every case, Bitdefender detected and blocked the attack. A couple of them displayed their ransom demands, claiming to have encrypted my files, but they lied.
I also tried running KnowBe4's RanSim ransomware simulator. Safe Files blocked its access repeatedly, but this activity interfered with the simulation sufficiently to crash the program's working processes. In a real ransomware situation, I wouldn't complain about antivirus protection that crashed attacking processes. Overall, Safe Files proved quite effective.
Wallet for Password Protection
Password management is a feature more commonly found in security suites than in standalone antivirus products (though Avast Free Antivirus includes password management even in the free edition). Bitdefender's Wallet feature stores passwords, personal information, and credit card details for use on websites, and also saves passwords for applications and Wi-Fi networks.
Wallet has changed very little since Bitdefender's previous edition, other than a user interface facelift. It still requires a strong master password, separate from your Bitdefender Central password. It still allows creation of multiple wallets, perhaps separate ones for home and work passwords. And it still automatically captures login credentials as you type them and replays them as needed.
When you're signing up for a new account, you can use Wallet's password generator, which defaults to creating 15-character passwords made of letters and numbers. That's a good default length, but I advise enabling the use of special characters, for even stronger passwords.
The Wallet feature completely handles the basics of password management, but doesn't go much beyond that. If you want high-end features like automatic password changing, two-factor authentication, secure sharing of credentials, or handling of password inheritance, you should consider a standalone password manager utility.
Safepay for Financial Transactions
Online security is important even when you're just watching cat videos or fainting goats, but it's absolutely critical any time you log in to a financial website. Bitdefender's Safepay automatically kicks in when it detects that you're about to connect with a banking site or other sensitive site, offering a secure connection. You can tell it to always use Safepay on the site in question, or always use it for every banking site.
Safepay is a desktop all its own, with a hardened browser built in. Processes running in the Safepay desktop have no connection with the regular desktop. The Safepay browser supports Wallet, naturally, and you can install Flash if required, but no other extensions are supported.
The Safepay browser's process isolation should protect against any software keylogger or other keystroke-stealing spyware. Going beyond that, a virtual keyboard serves to defeat even hardware keyloggers. It also prevents programs from snapping screenshots to capture sensitive information.
File Shredder for Secure Deletion
You probably know that deleting a file in Windows simply sends it to the Recycle Bin. Even if you empty or bypass the Bin, a deleted file's data remains on disk until overwritten by new information. Forensic recovery software can often get back files that you thought were safely destroyed. For true, permanent file erasure, you need a file shredder.
Bitdefender's file shredder overwrites file data three times before deletion, which is enough to defeat any forensic recovery software, and probably enough to resist expensive hardware-based recovery. You can right-click a file or folder and choose Bitdefender File Shredder. You can open the File Shredder and browse to select files for permanent deletion. New in this edition, and most welcome, you can simply drag and drop files onto the File Shredder window.
This feature is often paired with file encryption. For ultimate security, you first encrypt sensitive files and then shred the unsecured originals. Bitdefender does offer encryption, but not at the antivirus level.
For starters, Bitdefender Antivirus Plus offers excellent malware protection, as evidenced by its excellent scores from many independent testing labs. My own tests show it to be very effective against web-based threats, including malware-hosting sites and phishing pages. On top of that, it piles on enough features that it could almost qualify as a suite. It's an excellent choice, and an Editors' Choice.
In the wide, wide field of antivirus utilities, I've named several other Editors' Choice products. The labs love Kaspersky Anti-Virus just as much as they do Bitdefender. McAfee AntiVirus Plus doesn't score as high, but it offers unlimited protection for your Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS devices. While not quite as feature-rich as Bitdefender, Symantec Norton AntiVirus Basic goes significantly beyond basic antivirus protection. And tiny Webroot SecureAnywhere AntiVirus uses a journal-and-rollback system that should undo the effects of any malware that gets past its initial detection, even ransomware.
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Neil Rubenking served as vice president and president of the San Francisco PC User Group for three years when the IBM PC was brand new. He was present at the formation of the Association of Shareware Professionals, and served on its board of directors. In 1986, PC Magazine brought Neil on board to handle the torrent of Turbo Pascal tips submitted by readers. By 1990, he had become PC Magazine's technical editor, and a coast-to-coast telecommuter. His "User to User" column supplied readers with tips… More »
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