Antivirus: Because you don’t want viruses

There are a myriad of different choices when it comes to Antivirus programmes: from free to expensive, from bare bones to full suites and everything in between. On this page you’ll be taken through the essential features to look for when choosing an AV programme, what they do, how they work and some other special features to look out for.

First things first a quick PSA: an AV programme is not a panacea! Yes they will help defend you, yes they will clean your PC of nasties, but unless you use the internet and your PC with a healthy dose of common sense, then you will potentially still get viruses: No solution is 100% secure.

You certainly should use an AV but use one in combination with good general security practices. It sounds boring but what’s more boring is not being able to use your PC because it’s chokablock with viruses.

Scanning… Please Wait

Scanning for malware is the core of any AV programme. It’s also most likely the first thing that your AV of choice will do once it’s installed.

Scanning generally works by going through the files on your PC and looking for virus signatures. A virus signature is essentially a fingerprint for a virus: it is a unique string of bits which identifies the virus.

Once you’ve got your AV installed you’ll notice lots of little updates saying something along the line of “virus signature database updates” or “virus database updated”. This means that new viruses have been discovered and you are now able to detect their signature.

You’ll get these little updates quite frequently as new viruses are being discovered all the time!

Spotting virus signatures is not the only effective method of scanning: some AV programmes feature advanced Heuristics.

Heuristic scans look at the “behaviour” of programmes to determine whether they could be a virus.

Often a series of viruses will be based from the same core code but tweaked slightly in order to have a different effect on a system or to better evade AV programmes: this is called a “family”.

A Heuristic scan looks for similarities in code and behaviour between known malware and potential malware. This means that your AV doesn’t necessarily need to know the virus signature.

Therefore if a new strain of a previous virus suddenly hits the internet you are still protected even if you haven’t yet received a virus database update.

These are the kinds of scan you are most likely to encounter:

  • Speed is all well and good but it’s nothing without good detection rates. Quite often free AV options will boast about having the fastest scanning times, but their detection rates suffer.
  • Detection Rates are key. Obviously the higher the better!
  • False positives are bad. A false positive is when your AV claims a programme is malware and stops it working or quarantines it, even though it’s perfectly harmless and legitimate.
  • Cloud powered scanning speeds up the scanning process without sacrificing detection rates or system resources.
  • Pre-boot scanning comes with some AV’s. This scan before windows has had a chance to fully boot and searches for stealthy, hidden malware.
  • The ability to scan devices. This feature can scan devices that are plugged into the system via USB, such as phones, HDD’s or memory sticks, to ensure they haven’t picked up a virus from elsewhere.

Bonus Features

Every AV on the market has its own added extras and little gimmicks: some are excellent bonuses, others aren’t.

The good and the bad of bonus features:

  • Free or premium support. Most AV vendors will offer a support hotline of some kind, some are free some are costly, some will be manned by helpful techies, others will read from scripts and ask you to “turn it off and on again”.
  • Remote virus removal. Some support centres might even offer to remotely access your PC and remove infections on your behalf. It’s an added bonus that is worth researching.
  • Parental controls help parents control what their kids can view online: this could be based on age, pre-defined categories or setup by the parents.
  • Firewall. More advanced AV suites could include a personal Firewall. This is particularly handy if you use public Wi-Fi a lot.
  • Social Media scanning looks at your Facebook and Twitters profiles and points out any dodgy links or scams.
  • Device Control allows you to scan USB devices plugged into the machine or disallow them from connecting at all.
  • System performance looks at your currently running programmes and processes and gives you advice on optimising your system to squeeze every last drop of power from it. Often this is a paid extra in “free” AV’s.

The vast majority of the above key and bonus features can be found in ESET’s Smart Security or NOD32 Antivirus. Download a free trial here and find out just how easy it is to stay secure.

There you have it! Antivirus, it’s not so scary. Do a bit of research and find the suite that best suits your needs and computing habits. Always remember that no AV is 100% secure, you have to make up the difference with common sense and good user practice.