Excellent antivirus lab scores. Ransomware and webcam protection. Robust, non-intrusive firewall. Full-featured parental control. Many bonus features.
Mediocre scores in some of our hands-on tests. Very limited parental control features on iOS devices.
- Bottom Line
Bitdefender Internet Security aces independent antivirus tests and packs an amazing collection of features. With new webcam protection and enhanced parental control, it's better than ever.
When a security company like Bitdefender packs its antivirus utility with so many features that it starts to resemble a suite, you have to wonder what else it'll find to add in its actual security suite. Never fear: In addition to the cornucopia of features offered by Bitdefender's standalone antivirus, Bitdefender Internet Security adds a spam filter, a two-way firewall, a file encryption utility, and more. It's an excellent full security suite, and it remains an Editors' Choice.
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At first glance, the only way to tell this suite from the company's standalone antivirus software is by reading its title bar. Its main window has the same big status indicator, the same Autopilot indicator, and the same buttons to launch scans and dig in to various protection components. The color scheme is likewise the same, with light-colored text on a background decorated in shades of gray.
The difference becomes evident when you click for a deeper view of the program's features. On the Protection Features page, the antivirus advises you to upgrade if you want firewall and spam filtering. File encryption, webcam protection, and parental control display a similar message on the Privacy Features page. These features are fully available in this product, Bitdefender's entry-level security suite.
You will still find a page of tools not offered in this suite: OneClick Optimizer, Startup Optimizer, Anti-Theft, and Disk Cleanup. To get those goodies, you must upgrade to Bitdefender's feature-packed mega-suite, Bitdefender Total Security.
At $59.99 per year for a single license and $79.99 for three licenses, Bitdefender costs about the same as Kaspersky and ESET. Suites can be had for less, but few deliver the wealth of features found in Bitdefender. McAfee Internet Security deserves special mention. For the same price as a Bitdefender three-license subscription, McAfee lets you install protection on every Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS device you own.
Shared Antivirus Features
Naturally, every security feature found in Bitdefender Antivirus Plus also comes with Bitdefender Internet Security. I'll summarize my findings here, but for a full understanding of those shared features, you should read my review of the antivirus.
I follow regular test reports from five antivirus labs around the world. All five include Bitdefender in their testing, and it scores at or near the top in almost all of them. For example, Advanced+ is the best rating available from AV-Comparatives, and Bitdefender received that rating in all four of the tests that I follow. It also took an AAA certification, the best of five possible certification levels, from SE Labs in England.
Also from England, MRG-Effitas tests products against banking malware and against a broad-spectrum malware collection. Rather than reporting grades or percentages, this lab's tests are more like pass/fail, with many products failing. Bitdefender passed both tests.
Test experts at AV-Test Institute evaluate antivirus products and assign up to six points for Protection, Performance, and Usability. A tiny slip in Usability brought Bitdefender's total score to a still-excellent 17.5, rather than the perfect 18 points achieved by Avira, Kaspersky, and Trend Micro.
Bitdefender's aggregate score, based on tests from all of the labs, is 9.8 of 10 possible points. Kaspersky's score came out the same. Avira Total Security Suite managed a perfect 10, based on results from just three labs.
Bitdefender didn't do as well in my hands-on malware protection test, taking 7.1 of 10 possible points. Tested with the same samples, Emsisoft managed 9.4 points. However, when my tests don't jibe with the lab results, I defer to the labs. Bitdefender did successfully protect against 91 percent of the malware-hosting URLs I threw at it.
Cyber crooks who create phishing websites avoid the tedious task of coding up malware, choosing instead to attack the user's gullibility with fraudulent websites that resemble secure login pages. In my antiphishing test, Bitdefender earned a new high score, with a detection rate 12 percent higher than that of long-time phishing protector Norton. Kaspersky and Webroot are the only other recent products that have outscored Norton. Bitdefender Antivirus for Mac also beat Norton, but only by 5 percentage points.
Bitdefender's web protection also extends to marking up dangerous links in search results. As with Norton's similar feature, you can click through to get more detail. Where Symantec Norton Security Deluxe presents specific threats found on the page, Bitdefender identifies it as a malware-hosting page, a phishing fraud, or any of a dozen-odd other types of online fakery.
In addition to the expected quick and full malware scans, Bitdefender offers a Rescue Mode that reboots your PC into an alternate operating system, allowing it to remove even the most resistant malware. It also scans the system for security vulnerabilities, including such things as weak passwords and missing security patches.
Shared Bonus Features
The suite offers some key bonus features as well. Bitdefender's Wi-Fi security advisor pops up a warning when you connect to an unsecured hotspot. Bitdefender Home Scanner isn't actually part of the antivirus, but you can install it for free and run it to check the security of every device connected to your network.
If you read the news, you know there's a growing need for ransomware protection, above and beyond basic malware scanning. Bitdefender's Safe Files feature keeps ransomware at bay by forbidding unauthorized access to your important documents. This feature also appears in Bitdefender Antivirus for Mac.
Other bonus features shared by the antivirus and this security suite include: Wallet, a simple password manager; Safepay, a hardened browser for your sensitive transactions; and File Shredder, for permanently deleting sensitive documents. File Shredder becomes even more useful in this suite, as I'll explain below, the File Encryption section of this review.
The idea that some internet creep could connect to your webcam and spy on you is enough to give anyone the shivers. In a nod to the need for spyware protection, Bitdefender now includes a webcam protection component. Like the similar feature in Kaspersky, it limits webcam access to trusted programs, either programs like Skype that are already on its list or ones that you've approved. When a new program attempts webcam access, you choose whether to allow that access or not.
Bitdefender's Mac antivirus doesn't offer this feature, which makes sense—neither does the Windows antivirus. Webcam protection exists in Kaspersky Internet Security for Mac, but it's a simple on-off switch, without the system of trusted applications found in the Windows product.
Bitdefender's firewall correctly blocked the web-based attack tests I threw at it, and put all of the test system's ports in stealth mode. I should point out that if your computers are behind a home router, the built-in Network Address Translation already gives them a similar degree of protection. In order to even test network attacks, I have to use a test system that's configured to go through the router's DMZ port, with no protection from NAT.
The flip side of firewall protection involves controlling how programs on your system make use of your internet and network connection. In Autopilot mode, Bitdefender's firewall configures access permissions for known programs and monitors unknowns for any signs of network chicanery. Norton works in much the same way, and the levels-of-trust system in Kaspersky Internet Security is also similar.
Early personal firewalls used to rely on the user to make a security decision every time an unknown program attempted internet access. Few users relished the resulting blizzard of popup queries, and even fewer were actually qualified to make an informed choice. Bitdefender does let you enable this level of control, but the name of the feature suggests a certain bias by the designers—Paranoid Mode. The non-paranoid majority can let the firewall simply take care of business.
Bitdefender doesn't attempt to block exploit attacks at the network level, but the same webpage protection that detects and averts malware-hosting URLs and phishing URLs also handles some exploit attacks. To test this feature, I hit the test system with about 30 exploits generated by the CORE Impact penetration tool. It successfully detected and blocked 41 percent of them, and in almost every case identified the attack by its official CVE number. That's a better detection rate than most products. Norton holds the best score among current products, with 63 percent detection. Because the test system is fully patched, even attacks not blocked by the firewall didn't actually penetrate security.
Self-defense isn't precisely a firewall feature—it affects the entire security suite. But historically it showed up first as a feature of personal firewalls, and certainly a security product that can be disabled, crashed, or otherwise defeated by malware is not doing well. I couldn't find any way to disable Bitdefender by tweaking Registry settings; that trick hardly ever works. Trying to kill its two core processes just got me the peremptory message, "Access denied."
When I tried to disable it by attacking its Windows services, results were slightly different from my last attempt. I did successfully stop two helper services, but doing so had no effect on protection. As for the three essential services, I couldn't stop them, and I couldn't change their status so they'd be disabled on reboot. This firewall is as durable as ever.
Simple Spam Protection
If you get your email through a web-based service like Gmail or Yahoo, you don't see a lot of spam, because the provider filters it out. The same is probably true if you have Exchange-based email from your workplace. But if you don't have that upstream filtering, you need a local spam filter to avoid having your inbox overwhelmed by spam and scams. Bitdefender's spam filter does the job, provided that your email account uses the standard POP3 protocol.
The spam filter integrates with Microsoft Outlook and Mozilla Thunderbird. From its toolbar, you can mark spam messages that got past the filter, or valid messages that were filtered in error. You can also click to put a sender on the Friends or Spammers list. Those using a different email client must create an email rule to route marked spam messages into their own folder, and manage the Friends and Spammers lists from within Bitdefender itself.
If you do use the toolbar to mark a missed spam message, Bitdefender asks for permission to send that message in for analysis in the cloud, thereby improving the filter. I suggest tweaking the settings so it always sends missed spam messages for analysis. It also asks for permission to send valid messages that were mismarked as spam, but that seems like a bad idea. Do you really want Bitdefender sending your personal email for analysis?
ZoneAlarm's spam filter features many pages of configuration choices. Avast Premier and Quick Heal let you determine how aggressively the filter acts. With Bitdefender, there are next to no settings. You might consider setting it to block emails using Cyrillic or Asian character sets, if you don't expect to get legitimate mail using those character sets.
Do you have any documents on your computer that you wouldn't like anyone else to see? Yeah, you probably do. A data-stealing Trojan that somehow got past Bitdefender's defenses could hoover them up and transmit them to its master. If you step away from the computer without locking the desktop, a nosy relative or co-worker could view your secrets with impunity. If you'd rather not take that risk, protect your sensitive data using encryption.
As with ESET Internet Security, AVG, and others, Bitdefender's encryption system works by creating encrypted storage volumes. These volumes, called vaults, look like any other disk drive once opened with a password. You can freely move files into and out of the vault, create new files, edit files, anything you could do in a physical drive. But once you lock the vault, its contents become completely inaccessible.
You can create as many vaults as you think you'll need. For each vault, you define a name, accept or change the location for the file representing the vault, and set the vault's size—100MB is the minimum. You can assign the vault a specific drive letter or just let Bitdefender pick a letter, starting at Z: and working down. Don't forget the password. Without it, your files become so secret that not even you can access them.
As I mentioned earlier, the File Shredder component becomes even more useful in this suite. Hiding your secret files in encrypted storage is pointless if you leave the unsecured originals out in the open. And deleting those files, even if you bypass the Recycle Bin, still allows the possibility of forensic recovery. For maximum security, then, you should copy sensitive files into a vault and then shred the originals.
Kaspersky's similar feature makes shredding the originals part of the process. Note, though, that this feature doesn't appear in Kaspersky's entry-level suite, only in Kaspersky Total Security.
Enhanced Parental Advisor
There's a panel for Parental Advisor in the main window's Privacy Features page, but when you click to configure this feature, it takes you to your Bitdefender Central account online. Online configuration makes sense, because the parental control system works on all the Windows, Android, iOS, and (new this year) macOS devices your child uses. There's no limit on the number of children, or the number of devices per child, though you can't assign a single device to more than one child. Note, too, that iOS support is limited to location-related tracking.
To start, you enter the child's name and birthdate and choose a photo. Next, you identify which devices this child uses. For Windows and macOS devices, you can also choose the user account. Installing on a Mac is a simple matter of installing Bitdefender Antivirus for Mac (either directly or by sending an email with installation details) and associating that Mac with the child's account. On an Android or iOS device, you download the parental component from the appropriate app store, log in with your Bitdefender account, and associate the device with a child profile.
Bitdefender names this feature an advisor rather than calling it parental control. In the same vein, instead of talking about blocking content categories, it refers to "interests monitoring." However, the effect is much the same. If you choose to block any of the 42 interests, Bitdefender blocks sites that match. It pre-configures which to block based on the birthdate you entered for each child, but you can freely change those settings. This feature affects Windows, macOS, and Android devices.
When Bitdefender blocks access to a site in a Windows or Android browser, it displays a page with a very simple message, stating that the page "has been blocked by your parents." On the Apple MacBook Air 13-Inch that I use for testing, I observed that the message comes as a slide-in notification.
In testing with popular browsers, I found that Bitdefender also blocked secure anonymizing proxy websites. That's important, because access to a secure anonymizing proxy would let a clever teen totally evade content filtering. I also found that Bitdefender blocked unwanted sites in an unknown browser, one that I coded myself. However, using the combination of an unknown browser and a secure anonymizing proxy, I managed to slip the bonds of parental control. Admittedly, this is a scenario that few kids could manage.
The Parental Advisor monitors applications that your child uses on each Windows, macOS, or Android device. On the Activity page, you can view which apps the child used, with a link that jumps to the Applications page. Preventing use of an application is a simple matter of clicking it from On to Off on that page. Note, though, that only apps used within the last 48 hours (and apps already blocked) appear in the list. If you encounter a situation where your teen is evading the content filter as just described, all you need do is block use of the unknown browser. Don't worry; your child can't hoodwink this feature by copying or renaming the blocked application.
Managing when the kids go online can be as important as managing what they do on the web. In the previous edition, Bitdefender allowed parents to define a device-free bedtime time span, separately for weekdays and weekends. This edition adds a full-week scheduler for device access, with the option to set a device-use cap for weekdays and weekends. I found that during a scheduled no-device time, I could log in to Windows with a child's account, but couldn't run any programs. On Android, Bitdefender just prevents online access, since the child might need to phone home. The daily cap works across devices, so a child who runs out of time on an Android tablet can't just log in on a Windows box to get back online. The time scheduling feature doesn't apply to iOS devices or Macs.
Social media tracking specifically keeps an eye on your child's Facebook account. You can log in to the child's account and install it, if you know the password. Otherwise, you can send an email asking the child to install it. Clearly, you need cooperation to use this feature, though you do get a warning if the child uninstalls it. From Bitdefender Central you can view info, likes, and photos, or open the child's account directly.
If you've associated a mobile device with a child profile, you can define geographic areas as safe or restricted, and get a notification when your child enters or leaves one of these areas. The child can also tap a button in the app to report safe arrival—this check-in feature is new with the current edition. Parents can also check the location of a child's Android device independently of defined locations. I installed the parental app on a Nexus 9, defined safe and restricted zones, and toodled around town to see this feature in action. It worked just fine.
One final feature works very specifically with Android phones. Parents can monitor the child's phone-call or text contacts, and can block any contacts they deem undesirable. There's also an option to refuse connection to calls that have caller ID suppressed. The Android device I used for testing is a tablet, not a phone, so I couldn't actively put this feature to the test. However, I did observe that Bitdefender imports the child's contact list so parents can view the list and preemptively block undesirables.
You may have noticed that I didn't mention iOS much in the feature descriptions above. Indeed, the iOS app does very little. It reports when your child passes the border of a defined area, and it receives the child's safe arrival notification. That's about all. To be fair, parental control is tough to implement on iOS, but other vendors, including Kaspersky, have managed to do quite a bit more.
If you need parental control as part of your security suite, and your kids don't use iOS devices, Bitdefender most definitely delivers. This edition is even better than the last, with useful additions like full-week scheduling of device use, support for macOS, and the mobile feature that lets your child check in on arriving safely. Norton and Kaspersky are among the few that do even more than Bitdefender, and Check Point ZoneAlarm Extreme Security licenses the well-known Net Nanny. All too many suites include parental control that's limited, porous, or both.
Small Performance Hit
The days of resource-gobbling security suites that dragged down computer performance are over. I hardly ever see any serious slowdowns in my simple performance tests. Bitdefender's effects were measurable in some of the tests, but not hugely so.
Getting security up and running when the system boots can take time. My boot time test measures how long it takes from the start of the boot process (as reported by Windows) until the system is ready to use. My metric for readiness is 10 seconds in a row with no more than five percent CPU usage. I run the test dozens of times on a clean, physical computer, then install the security suite and again run multiple tests. Comparing the before and after averages, I come up with a performance-hit value.
The boot process took 44 percent longer with Bitdefender installed. That might sound like a lot, but the actual time difference was just a bit over 30 seconds. Given that many of us never reboot except when forced to, that's not so bad.
A drag on ordinary file manipulation activities could be more significant than a boot-time slowdown, so I test those as well. One test times a script that moves and copies an eclectic collection of files between drives. The other times a script that zips and unzips that same collection. Bitdefender had no measurable effect on the zip/unzip test, and the file move and copy test ran just one percent slower with Bitdefender active.
Bitdefender's average for the three tests came in at 15 percent, which is not bad. However, many suites have done even better. Coming in with the very lightest touch, Webroot SecureAnywhere Internet Security Plus and adaware antivirus total didn't produce a measurable slowdown in any of my tests.
Among the Very Best
At the core of Bitdefender Internet Security, you find an award-winning antivirus and a strong, silent firewall, but these two are supported by an amazing cast of characters. In addition to the simple spam filter, enhanced parental control, and top-notch phishing protection, you get webcam safety, ransomware protection, file encryption, and much more.
Bitdefender Internet Security is a PCMag Editors' Choice for entry-level security suites. It shares that honor with Kaspersky Internet Security. With either of these suites, you can count on excellent, comprehensive security.
Note: These sub-ratings contribute to a product's overall star rating, as do other factors, including ease of use in real-world testing, bonus features, and overall integration of features.
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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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