The best antivirus software 2021: Free antivirus and paid options tested

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The winners of the 2021 Tom’s Guide Awards have been announced, and Kaspersky Total Security has won Best Antivirus Software. Bitdefender Total Security is the runner-up. Head to the Tom’s Guide Awards 2021 Best Products for Working From Home page to see all the winners and recommended runners-up.

If you’ve got a Windows PC, you’re going to have to use one of the best antivirus programs, whether that program is free or paid. That’s because Windows is by far the most widely attacked software platform, and letting your PC go without antivirus software is just inviting trouble.

Fortunately, Windows 10 and Windows 8.1 have built-in software called Microsoft Defender Antivirus (formerly Windows Defender), and it’s one of the best free antivirus programs. But it doesn’t completely match the protection and features offered by the best paid antivirus software.

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Paid antivirus software adds dedicated defenses against ransomware and webcam hijacking, builds in extra functions like file shredding or encryption, and  sometimes includes features that normally are available as stand-alone services, such as password managers, cloud-backup solutions, VPNs or identity-theft protection.

Paid antivirus programs normally come in tiers that share the same protection against malware, but add on more features and functions as the yearly subscription prices rise.

Kaspersky, for example, offers four different packages: the free Kaspersky Security Cloud, the basic paid entry Kaspersky Anti-Virus, the midrange Kaspersky Internet Security and the premium Kaspersky Total Security. Another top antivirus maker, Norton LifeLock, has eight plans mixing in various levels of protection against malware and identity theft.

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These different tiers of service are aimed at different customers according to their needs and spending power, which we explore further at the end of this page. In the meantime, here’s our list of the best paid antivirus software, but don’t forget to check out our list of the best free antivirus software halfway down this page.

The top 3 best antivirus brands

What is the best antivirus software?

Our first choice for best antivirus software is Kaspersky Total Security. It delivers excellent malware protection, a full complement of extra features and an easy-to-use interface.

Right behind that are Bitdefender Antivirus Plus, an entry-level program that may be the best bargain in antivirus software, and Norton 360 Deluxe, which offers excellent protection with unlimited VPN service and a ton of extra features, including the option to add LifeLock identity protection.

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Any one of these three would serve you well, but the ideal choice would depend on what best fits your circumstances. For more, see our section on how to choose the best antivirus software below, or our stand-alone antivirus buying guide.

For the best free antivirus protection, we liked Kaspersky Security Cloud Free, which sailed past Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition for the top spot. 

Both offered excellent protection against malware without slowing down your system, but Kaspersky’s free program lets you schedule scans, has a quick-scan option, adds a ton of useful extra features and had the smallest impact on system performance we’ve ever seen.

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Our free rankings immediately follow our paid rankings below.

The best antivirus software you can buy today

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(Image credit: Kaspersky)

1. Kaspersky Total Security

The best antivirus protection overall.

Specifications

Anti-theft: Yes

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Backup software: Yes

Firewall: Yes

Game mode: Yes

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Hardened browser: Yes

Parental controls: Yes

Password manager: Yes

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Ransomware rollback: Yes

Webcam protection: Yes

Virtual keyboard: Yes

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VPN: Limited upsell

Wi-Fi scanner: Yes

Reasons to buy

+Excellent malware protection+New stalkerware protection+Password manager, parental controls

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Reasons to avoid

Limited VPN usageMicrophone protection hard to enable

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