Excellent scores from independent testing labs. Security Watcher behavioral detection component enhances malware protection. Very good score in our phishing protection test. Useful bonus features.
So-so scores in our hands-on testing of malware protection.
- Bottom Line
The independent antivirus testing labs consistently rank Kaspersky Anti-Virus at the top. It remains an Editors' Choice among paid antivirus utilities.
You can get very good antivirus protection for free, but the best commercial antivirus utilities outperform the free ones. Kaspersky Anti-Virus has a new competitor this year, in the form of Kaspersky Free, the company's no-charge offering. However, the commercial edition not only has added features that go beyond what you get for free, but it also includes powerful enhancements to the core antivirus functionality.
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For a single antivirus license, the most common price is just under $40. Bitdefender, Norton, and Webroot are among the products that hit this price point. Kaspersky used to fit this profile too, but that's changed with the current edition. Recognizing that very few people need to protect just one computer, Kaspersky's pricing now starts at $59.99 per year for three licenses—add $20 and you get five licenses. Pricing for McAfee AntiVirus Plus also starts at $59.99, but that subscription lets you install protection on every Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS device you own.
The product's main window hasn't changed appreciably since last year. The mostly white window has a green banner across the top that turns red if the product's security configuration needs attention. Four big buttons let you scan for malware, update the antivirus database, view security reports, and call up the on-screen keyboard. Clicking the fifth button, More Tools, brings up a menu of additional security components that I'll discuss below.
Features Shared With Free Edition
With one small exception, the core antivirus protection in this product is precisely the same as that of Kaspersky Free. For an all-details rundown of those shared features, read my review of the free product. Here, I'll just summarize what I found.
I follow five independent antivirus testing labs from around the world, and all five of them include Kaspersky in their testing. Kaspersky earned the best possible score in almost every test. I have an algorithm that normalizes the various tests on a zero to 10 scale and combines them for an aggregate result. Kaspersky's aggregate score is 9.8 points, an honor it shares with Bitdefender Antivirus Plus.
The only other products tested by all five labs are Avast, AVG, and ESET NOD32 Antivirus. Avast and AVG managed an aggregate score of 9.2 points, while ESET took 8.8 points. Clearly Bitdefender and Kaspersky are at the top as far as lab tests go.
Bitdefender and Kaspersky didn't fare as well in my own tests. Kaspersky Free scored 7.2 points to Bitdefender's 7.1 in my hands-on malware protection test. I repeated that test using the commercial Kaspersky Anti-Virus and found that the addition of System Watcher (which I'll discuss below) brought that score up to 7.6 points.
Tested against the same malware collection, Emsisoft managed an impressive 9.4 of 10 possible points. Webroot SecureAnywhere AntiVirus managed a perfect 10 points, but earned that score against my previous collection of malware samples.
I next challenged Kaspersky by launching a collection of very recent malware-hosting URLs. It responded in many ways, diverting the browser from the URLs, blocking access to links, terminating downloads, and more. However, its overall protection rate of 67 percent is a poor score for this test. Norton holds the current record, with 98 percent protection. At 95 percent, Avira Antivirus Pro holds the next-best score.
Kaspersky's web protection showed its merit in my phishing protection test, though. Symantec Norton AntiVirus Basic is the one to beat in this test, and indeed, I report scores as the difference from the protection rate of Norton and of Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer alone. Very few products beat Norton. Coming in just one percentage point below Norton's score, Kaspersky is close to the top. Note, though, that record-holder Bitdefender actual beat Norton by 12 percentage points.
Other Shared Features
Most of the bonus features that you get with Kaspersky's commercial antivirus are no-shows in the free edition. Or, rather, they show, but attempting to use them gets you a notice advising an upgrade. Even so, both products share a few useful features.
Kaspersky's nod to spyware protection is a handy on-screen keyboard, but before you can use this feature you must activate it and reboot the system. Might as well do that right after installation! Now you can type passwords without touching the physical keyboard, thereby foiling keyloggers, be they implemented in software or hardware. Both editions include this feature.
All products in the Kaspersky line install Kaspersky Secure Connection VPN along with the antivirus or suite. However, even in the top-of-the-line Kaspersky Total Security, what you get is the equivalent of a free installation, with a 200MB per day bandwidth limit.
Like McAfee, Trend Micro Antivirus+ Security , Webroot, and many other antivirus utilities, Kaspersky marks up search results, flagging dangerous links so you can avoid clicking them. Clicking a red warning icon displays the categories that make the link dangerous. However, you can't click through for a full analysis of the page the way you can in Norton's equivalent feature.
If you click Settings and then click Protection, whether in the free or paid antivirus, you see a list of four antivirus components for file, web, email, and IM protection. Here you can toggle these features on and off, or dig in to detailed settings. The paid edition adds a fifth, System Watcher, and it's a doozy. While it's not the focused ransomware protection found in some products, it proved effective against ransomware in testing.
It's always possible that a brand-new zero-day attack might get past other layers of protection. But sooner or later, that new attacker has to do something nasty to earn its malware merit badge. When it does, System Watcher steps in. If it recognizes activity that's clearly related to malware or exploits, it prevents the activity and terminates the perpetrating process. In addition, it does its best to roll back any malicious actions that may have occurred before it recognized the process as malicious, even restoring unencrypted copies of files trashed by ransomware.
To see System Watcher in action, I first turned off the other four layers of protection. Then I tried launching a half-dozen samples from widespread ransomware families. In every case, System Watcher detected the malicious activity and eliminated the attack. I didn't get to see it rolling back encryption, because it wiped out all the samples before they managed to damage any files. It didn't specifically identify these threats as ransomware, but it certainly defended against them.
Clicking the More Tools button on the main window brings up a menu of additional security tools. I encountered one of them, Microsoft Windows Troubleshooting, during my evaluation of the free Kaspersky antivirus. After wiping out one malware sample, it advised using this tool to fix any malware-initiated changes to Windows settings…but went on to point out that taking this action would require a premium upgrade. This scan also finds settings that aren't the best for security, even if malware didn't cause them.
Sometimes a really entrenched malware infestation can prevent your antivirus from functioning, or even prevent you from booting Windows. Rescue from a situation like that typically requires booting into an alternate operating system with antivirus built in. That's exactly what the Kaspersky Rescue Disk is. If you bought the product in a box, the installation CD serves as your rescue disk. If not, you can download it as an ISO file to create your own.
I found the process of creating a rescue disk confusing. When I clicked the Rescue Disk menu item, it opened a web page with general help about troubleshooting OS problems after infection. I found a link mentioning the rescue disk feature, which in turn linked to a tech support page that had the necessary instructions. Bitdefender's solution is much, much simpler—you just reboot into Rescue Mode, no disk required. Of course, that solution only works if you can run Bitdefender and select its Rescue Mode.
Selecting Privacy Cleaner launches a scan for traces of computer activity that might be of interest to a snoop. You can review Kaspersky's findings and exempt any items that you don't want removed. It also lists items you might or might not want cleaned away; it's up to you to check these off if you want them gone. In the unlikely event that the cleanup causes some bad side effects, you can roll back its actions.
I thought the Browser Configuration scan might be a similar cleanup tool for traces of web browsing, but that's not what it does. This tool specifically examines Internet explorer settings and reports configuration problems, identifying some as recommended and some as optional.
Perhaps the most useful of these bonus tools is the Vulnerability Scan. This component checks for missing security patches in the operating system and in popular applications. On my test system, this scan took quite a bit longer than the privacy or browser configuration scan. It reported a handful of operating system settings that could be configured for better security. It also found that Firefox and Java needed updating, but didn't offer to help update them. The software updater that comes with Avira Total Security Suite handles update tasks automatically, as does Avast Premier. Note, though, that these two are the top dogs in their respective product lines—lesser products don't include automation.
Here's one more thing that's specific to the paid antivirus; real, true tech support. With the free product, you have access to FAQs, documentation, and forums, but that's all. Paying customers can email tech support any time. Agents are available for telephone or live chat support from 5am to 11pm Eastern. If you have a serious problem, having direct access to tech support can be a lifesaver.
A Strong Choice
All of the most significant independent testing labs award Kaspersky Anti-Virus their very highest accolades. While it didn't fare as well in some of my hands-on tests, there's just no arguing with that kind of praise from the labs. And while you can get most of this product's features in the free edition, the powerful System Watcher, with its behavior-based detection, is only available to paying customers.
Kaspersky remains an Editors' Choice for antivirus protection, but in a field of almost three dozen commercial antivirus utilities, there's room at the top. Like Kaspersky, Bitdefender Antivirus Plus gets top scores from the independent labs. Despite the name, Symantec Norton AntiVirus Basic goes beyond the basics, with intrusion prevention, spam filtering, password management and more. Webroot SecureAnywhere AntiVirus is tiny and light on system resources, and its journal-and-rollback system lets it reverse the effects of tough malware, even ransomware. And McAfee AntiVirus Plus protects all of your devices. One of these top products should fit your needs precisely.
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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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