Through the times viruses and now malware has evolved in the way it distributes itself – taking full advantage of the Internet and turning itself into a much larger threat than ever before. Just as viruses have made themselves available and propagating over the web, downloadable anti-virus software are now easily accessible, and a lot of them are free.
So the question beckons, in a time when viruses and malware multiple and reinvent at an alarming pace, how has anti-virus software remain relevant? What features should people be looking for in order find good value in antivirus software?
Essential Features to Look for in an Anti-Virus
In no particular order, these are the features that you should be looking out for when shopping around for an anti-virus, regardless if you are getting it for free or are considering shelling out some cash:
Automatic Full System Scanning
Well it goes without saying, any paid or free anti-virus should at bare minimum be able to scan your computer for malware or viruses, and preferably it should be able to do this automatically.
How it does so automatically really depends on your preference. There’s scheduled scanning which allots specific times of the day when it scans for any threats and the frequency. Some even allow the user to manually configure this to their preference while others offer to do this when it detects that the computer is idle and has resources to spare for a full scan.
Relevant to the previous point but deserves an entry on its own, real time protection capabilities allow anti-viruses to immediately react to a potential threat as soon as it enters your system or makes its presence known.
On-Access scanning checks files whenever you use them. This is important since viruses latch on to clean files when they have the opportunity to do so and a previously safe file might already be a virus that can spread if left unchecked.
Heuristic detection on the other hand scans your computer for newly identified threats. The way it does so again depends on the vendor. Without delving to deep on it, heuristic scanning can usually detect threats through:
File Emulation – let the potential threat run in a controlled environment and identify whether it causes damage or exhibits behavior typical of a virus.
File Analysis – checking file contents and intent to see if it has malicious code that instructs it to delete certain file of which it is considered a threat.
Signature Detection – analyze whether the file is a variation of a known virus. This makes heavy use of a growing virus definitions library to catch a potential threat.
Automatic Program & Virus Updates
A definite mainstay in today’s anti-virus software, or any other software for that matter, automatic updates are especially important to security software. Aside from addressing any bugs or vulnerabilities, traditional anti-virus software rely on downloading new virus signatures discovered in order to actively protect against the latest threats.
Another aspect worth looking into is on whether the option to turn this on or off is available. While there is very little reason to turn off automatic updates, cautious users prefer to manually update to avoid the risk of an antivirus accidentally deleting critical files due to a faulty update.
While the prevalence of instant messenger mobile applications has certainly dampened the use of email, it is still the go to service for creating and managing accounts and online transactions which essentially makes it a prime target for email-based attacks and spoofing.
Some modern anti-viruses include this feature but usually only on paid versions. This is due to the variations to account for to enable this feature such as whether it only works on certain email clients (i.e. Outlook) or is an add-on to popular web based email clients (i.e. Gmail).
Web / Browser Protection
The Internet browser is a very dangerous thing. It opens up a world of infinite possibilities and a vast array of information while also serving as a gaping hole whereby threats can enter. One great feature to have when using a particular make of anti-virus is browser protection.
How this works varies and while some anti-virus solutions are able to protect regardless of which browser is used, a common approach is to have a particular browser plugin made by the same vendor to be installed. Others also develop their own spin of popular browsers to create a complete and secure browsing experience.
These should add protection features like online account protection & URL checkers that stop you from visiting known dangerous web pages.
While these are certainly the baseline set of features you should look for to really get a sense of value on the anti-virus solution that you are using, it is important to note that most traditional anti-viruses rely heavily on detection to keep your computer safe. It is generally a good idea to incorporate multiple layers of protection to account for threats that are nigh impossible to detect, at least immediately.
Non-traditional approaches to security like Application Whitelisting are a perfect addition to bolstering your computer defenses. Regardless of which Anti-virus solution and set of features you decide on taking it is worth considering installing additional applications to cover the pitfalls of traditional detection-based solutions especially since there are options that not only work with any anti-virus but are also essentially free as well.