NOTE: This article originally was published only a few weeks ago on May 15, 2012. However, another free Macintosh anti-virus program has now been released and has been added to this article. I am republishing the original article in its entirety and then am inserting additional information about the third program.
Once upon time, such as last year, any time you discussed the subject of computer viruses, the Mac owners would always say, "Macs don't get viruses!" They were mostly correct. To be sure, there were a few esoteric Mac viruses floating around online, but they were so rare that Mac owners never worried about them and apparently never became infected. A lot has changed in the past twelve months.
Mac viruses now are growing. Viruses are still unusual in the Macintosh world and not often encountered by Mac owners. However, the numbers have grown enough to the point that a Mac owner should think about adding anti-virus and anti-malware software to his or her system. While still rare, a few Mac owners I know have encountered malware. Luckily, several companies have produced anti-virus and anti-malware products for the Mac.
NOTE: "Malware" is an abbreviation for "malevolent software." It is an all-encompassing term for programs that install surreptitiously in a computer and are designed to either steal data or to do other damage to the system. The term "malware" includes computer viruses, worms, trojan horses, spyware, adware, rootkits, and other malicious programs. More information can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malware.
Most of the available anti-malware products for Macintosh cost $40 to $50 for an annual subscription. That is, you pay that amount when you purchase the product and again every year on the anniversary date of that purchase. Luckily, three very good anti-malware products are available free of charge for the Mac owner.
The free products perhaps do not have as elegant a user interface as the more expensive programs and may be limited in functionality. However, all of them do a good job at blocking and removing most of the malware products found in the wild.
Sophos Antivirus for Mac Home Edition
Sophos' antivirus software is probably the most simple of all the Macintosh anti-virus programs available today. I have it installed on my Mac desktop and laptop computers, and it seems to perform well. All anti-malware products, both Windows and Macintosh, will slow the operation of a computer somewhat. However, I have not seen any appreciable reduction in speed with Sophos Antivirus. I am sure there must be some slowdown, but it would require extensive testing and sophisticated measurement to determine how much. My "eyeball observations" have not detected a slowdown. I also have never seen any "spinning beachballs" when using Sophos Antivirus.
Sophos Antivirus for Mac used to have one of the ugliest user interfaces I have ever seen in a Mac program. However, the new version 8 that was recently released has an all-new user interface that is still simplistic but at least passable.
Sophos Antivirus for Mac is designed to do just one thing: scan for viruses and malware. It also automatically downloads new virus definitions without any human interaction. You can customize your scans and manage the files that have been set aside in quarantine, but if you want scanning of network drives or other sophisticated capabilities, this is not the product for you.
Sophos Antivirus for Mac is completely free. There's no yearly fee or registration required—so there's not much to complain about when it comes to the product’s functionality (or lack thereof). It does the basics and does them well. Period.
NOTE: There is a corporate edition that costs money, which is not covered in this article. Everything I have written is about the free Sophos Antivirus for Mac Home Edition.
You can learn more at http://www.sophos.com/en-us/products/free-tools/sophos-antivirus-for-mac-home-edition.aspx. From the same place you can also download the program as well as several "how to" manuals.
avast! Free Antivirus for Mac
avast! (always spelled with a lower-case “a” and an exclamation mark) is well-known in the Windows world as an excellent, free anti-malware program. The company that produces avast! for Windows is now doing the same for the Macs.
avast! is probably the easiest of all the Macintosh anti-malware programs to install. In fact, there is no installer. Simply download it, click on the newly-downloaded .DMG file, and then drag-and-drop it to your computer's Applications folder.
Unlike Sophos Antivirus for Mac, avast! can scan your full system, local volumes, network volumes, just your home directory, or a custom mix of folders. It scans all email messages received and monitors web sites you visit, looking for problems. It also automatically downloads new virus definitions in a manner that is similar to most other anti-malware programs. It automatically displays pop-ups to warn you about something or when there are important messages to be displayed. The pop-ups are a bit annoying but can be turned off, if you wish.
Even though avast! is free, you still must register your version within 30 days of installation.
avast! Free Antivirus for Mac is free, simple to install, and simple to uninstall. You can learn more or download and install the program at http://www.avast.com/free-antivirus-mac.
Avira Free Mac Security
The newest anti-virus program is available for both Windows and Macintosh. Even the free version is sophisticated with many options. It will scan as much or as little as you like—the full system, vulnerable areas, or pre-selected files and folders. Avira Mac antivirus works silently in the background without slowing down your machine. The program is also very simple to use. However, if you do want to dig into advanced functionality, such as heuristics and event logs, the technical details and expert settings are always a click away. Besides the scheduled scans, every file accessed by the user and the system is silently inspected each time it is opened so that no infected file sneaks in between system scans.
Avira Free Mac Security requires:
- Mac OS 10.6 (Snow Leopard) or Mac OS 10.7 (Lion)
- 2 gigabytes of RAM memory
- At least 200 megabytes of available disk space
- A 64-bit Intel Core 2 Duo processor
- It also requires an internet connection for the frequent updates
You can learn more about Avira Free Mac Security at http://www.avira.com/en/avira-free-mac-security.
I don't have proper testing facilities to measure the effectiveness of any of these programs against real-world viruses, trojan horses, and other malware. However, the reputation of all of these free products is top-notch. They reportedly work well. Purchasing a more expensive anti-malware program for your Macintosh does not necessarily result in better protection. The expensive programs, however, do often feature changeable security settings, variable notification settings, and even the ability to change the "look and feel" of the program with variable colors and backgrounds. Some of these features may be nie to have but none are essential. In short, the free anti-virus programs are as good at detecting and removing problems as the higher-priced products.
Also, please keep in mind that no anti-malware product is perfect. That applies to all Windows and Macintosh anti-virus and anti-malware products alike. At best, all of them only detect 90% to 95% of the problems. None of them are very good at detecting new problems; they usually only find problems that have already been identified. If a new virus appears, none of the programs can detect it reliably until after the new problem is identified and the anti-malware program is updated to find it.
In addition, all of the anti-virus programs will occasionally identify so-called problems that are not really problems at all. All the programs will occasionally claim to have identified a virus or other problem when, in fact, no problem exists. These are called "false positives." So, if your program says there is a virus, keep in mind that it really means there MIGHT be a virus. It is never absolute proof.
Even with these minor drawbacks, all Windows and Macintosh owners now should be using anti-virus programs and always make sure the programs are updated daily. Most anti-malware programs do update themselves automatically.
Take your choice: Sophos Antivirus for Mac Home Edition or avast! Free Antivirus for Mac or Avira Free Mac Security. Any of them will allow you to sleep better at night, knowing that your Mac is protected from most malware problems.
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