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Best antivirus for Mac: Protect yourself from malicious software

Macs may be attacked less often than other platforms, but they're not invincible.

mac antivirus hub Rob Schultz / IDG

Macs may be a far less tempting target for malware and viruses, but they’re not immune from attack. Even if you don’t care about adware or being used as a means to infect users on other platforms, it’s still possible to fall victim to ransomware, password theft, or stolen iPhone backups.

Accordingly, good antivirus software will protect your Mac on all of these fronts. It’ll catch malware that’s still spreading or in circulation; block ransomware; protect older systems with out-of-date software from security vulnerabilities; prevent your Mac from acting as a carrier for malware aimed at other operating systems; and keep infected files off of any virtual machines you’re running.

Many antivirus suites provide a decent level of protection, but a few rise above all others by providing the very best in performance. Our top contenders dominate by posting perfect (or virtually near perfect) scores from security research labs, passing our own malware detection tests with flying colors, offering well-designed interfaces, and even throwing in extra features like a firewall or password manager.

This article was updated 6-26-18 to include an new review for McAfee Total Protection.

Looking for Windows antivirus recommendations? You can read about the best antivirus suites for PC on our sister site, PCWorld.

Latest antivirus for Mac news (7/30/18 update)

  • Enterprise security firm Cylance is launching its first consumer-grade package: Cylance Smart Antivirus. The new software claims to use advanced, predictive AI to kill threats, all with a consumer-friendly interface and minimal penalties to device performance. 
  • Kaspersky has identified a new macOS backdoor exploit, dubbing it Calisto. It was created two years ago—and is likely a prototype of the Proton exploit uncovered in 2017—but remained undetected. To protect against Calisto, update to the most current macOS version, use antivirus protection, only install software from the App Store, and never disable SIP (System Integrity Protection).
  • Hackers pretending to be system admins are using MacOS malware to dupe cryptocurrency investors on Slack and Discord. The exploit persuades victims to download malware called “OSX.Dummy,” which uses malicious script to take control of the user’s device.

Best overall antivirus software

Sophos Home Premium has it all: Effective malware protection, ransomware monitoring, protection against potentially-unwanted-apps, and additional features that often require separately licensed software. Its cloud-based configuration and generous licensing (up to 10 Macs and PCs) also make it easy to shield friends and family from threats, no matter where they live. (Full details available in our review.)

Best free antivirus software

Though Sophos does offer a good free version of its software, Avast Free Mac Security edges it out as the best free antivirus software for macOS. In security lab tests, Avast detected 99.9 percent of macOS malware, and 100 percent of Windows malware. However, if you want more advanced protection (like ransomware detection), you'll need to upgrade to paid software.

What to look for in antivirus software

By our reckoning, antivirus software should be able to neutralize a threat before it can begin wreaking havoc. That means preventing the download, installation, or execution of malicious software.

Since you can encounter threats by visiting compromised or malicious websites, receiving virus-laden attachments, or accessing USB drives with malware, good AV software should scan on a continuous basis unless you configure it otherwise. And ideally, files identified as malicious should be quarantined into a special storage area managed by the AV software, with the option to automatically delete files known to be malware or repair normal documents that also carry devious payloads.

Great AV suites also will monitor the filesystem for certain kinds of changes. Ransomware—which is malware that will rapidly encrypt user files like documents and mailboxes and then delete the originals—has become a huge moneymaker on other platforms. As a prime opportunity for attackers, it’s the greatest danger Mac users likely face as a category.

macav sophos main cloud screen Macworld

Detecting this pattern and halting it before any files are unavailable should be possible without an anti-malware system knowing the specific innards of a ransomware virus. Sophos, our top pick, includes this feature in the Home Premium version of its 2018 update. Other vendors, like Avast and Trend Micro Antivirus, offer an alternative feature that allows you to whitelist programs allowed to manipulate files in specific directories. So if this particular type of attack becomes rapidly popular, you’ll be protected. 

Good antivirus software should also use minimal computational resources. That’s especially the case these days—AV monitoring hasn’t become much more complicated than when it first became available, and faster, multi-core CPUs can easily handle the demands of running AV software in the background without disturbing your active work. 

Beyond these primary features, an easy-to-navigate interface and extra features are worth factoring into your decision. Some AV software are full-fledged suites that offer additional options like backup service for essential files, a password manager, parental controls, anti-tracking and privacy modes or options, a more advanced firewall, and the blocking of Potentially Unwanted Applications (PUAs).

How we test

Each software package is evaluated creating a clean installation of High Sierra, cloning it for each AV product, and then booting separately into each one to install a different package. This was to ensure that previous app installations didn’t interfere with new ones—sometimes AV software treats other AV software as an infection.

In addition to visiting malicious websites, downloading known malicious software, and even running said malware, we also referenced the most recent reports from two labs that regularly cover macOS malware: AV Comparatives (July 2017) and AV-TEST (May 2017). These laboratories test AV software against sets of known malware as well as products that are grouped as potentially unwanted applications (like adware).

The latter doesn’t damage or expose your computer or its files but may consume power and CPU cycles. Because the testing effectively looks at a combination of virus databases and behavior, they remain good gauges even after many months. When an antivirus software package lacks a rating from a known security research lab, we do more extensive testing with real malware.

Finally, while we gave props for a lot of different features and behaviors, we marked products down if they lacked any or all of the following:

  • A nearly perfect score on macOS malware detection
  • Ransomware monitoring
  • Native browser plug-in or system-level Web proxy
  • A high score on Windows malware detection

Privacy concerns

Using an anti-virus product, especially any that includes tools to also improve your online privacy, may lull you into believing you’re safe from personal and private information leaking out. That’s not quite the case. While there’s no reason to panic, you should consider a few reasonable issues.

First, an antivirus product may upload the complete text of files flagged to the cloud, where it can be analyzed by separate tools hosted there. This practice is normal and sensible: Some malware can detect when a running process may examine it, and will then engage in subterfuge. Antivirus software makers also can access their massive databases to examine files with characteristics that trigger their algorithms—certain elements that match known malware. As a result, security researchers discover new viruses, worms, Trojans horses, and the like.

Intego privacy Macworld

However, helping the greater good means you’ll have to be comfortable with trusting a third-party with your file contents. Where appropriate, we noted privacy policy issues in individual reviews.

Second, this software may also rely partly or entirely on cloud-based checks of URLs, malware, and the like. Accordingly, an AV package might upload every URL you visit, metadata about files, signatures of files, information about your computer’s hardware, a list of running or installed applications, and more. Companies vary on their disclosure of such policies, and may not let you opt out of this kind of sharing. We note issues in each review as available.

Third, anti-virus software makers also get a sense of what behavior is happening on your computer that’s being monitored or blocked, and may use that information for their own purposes. In some cases, you can opt out of this information gathering.

All of our antivirus for Mac reviews

If you have specific requirements or just wish to see other options, below is a list of all the antivirus software we’ve reviewed. We’ll keep evaluating new and refreshed software on a regular basis, so be sure to come back to see what else we’ve put through the ringer.

At a Glance
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