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Best antivirus for Android: The best free and paid-for apps to keep you safe from viruses and scams

Expert Reviews logo Expert Reviews 23-02-2017 Darien Graham-Smith

Best antivirus for Android: The best free and paid-for apps to keep you safe from viruses and scams© Expert Reviews Best antivirus for Android: The best free and paid-for apps to keep you safe from viruses and scams Your smartphone is a little computer – and just like a regular computer, it’s vulnerable to viruses and other sorts of attack. That’s especially true of Android: Google’s mobile OS is more versatile and customisable than iOS, but that means it affords more opportunities for the bad guys to get inside your system and cause trouble. While it’s impossible to say for certain just how much mobile malware is out there, researchers agree that the overwhelming majority of it targets Android.

Sorry, you can’t stay safe by simply sticking to the straight and narrow. Malicious code can be hidden inside legitimate-looking apps on the Google Play Store – security researchers recently estimated that one particular piece of malware may have snuck onto as many as 12 million handsets in this way. And once such software gets onto your system it can do all sorts of things: we’ve seen malware that can pester you with advertisements, steal information from your email accounts and run up huge bills by silently accessing premium rate text and phone services.

The answer is to install a reputable mobile antivirus app that can identify such behaviour and shut down the malicious process. Typically, these tools also include a range of personal security features, to limit the damage someone can do if they steal your phone or illicitly “borrow” it. And while some features may need to be unlocked with a paid subscription, most apps will provide basic malware protection for free – so there’s no excuse for going unprotected. Here’s a rundown of our favourite Android antivirus apps, with real-world malware detection scores courtesy of av-test.org.

The best antivirus apps for Android

1. McAfee Security & Power Booster: An effective, free antivirus tool with a good set of additional features

Price when reviewed: Free; premium subscription £2.49/mth, £29.99/yr

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited

McAfee Security is a rather weird proposition: the free app gives you a strong feature set, but upgrading to an expensive premium licence adds very little of substance. Subscribers get access to telephone support and a cloud backup function for photos and other media files; that latter feature might sound useful, but it’s limited to a miserly 2GB.

The overall package is impressive. You can PIN-protect as many apps as you want, and set up secure profiles in which certain apps don’t appear. There’s web protection for Chrome, and the usual anti-theft measures that allow you to track your phone over the internet or via SMS. You can also remotely take a photo, and receive an alert if a different SIM is inserted into your phone; you can even set up a PIN that makes it impossible for a thief to uninstall McAfee without resetting the phone.

There’s also simple but smart integration with Android Wear. Not only can you set your smartwatch to warn you when your phone loses contact, you can also set up an alarm on the phone itself – to spook thieves – and automatically lock the handset.

McAfee scored an impressive 99.9% in AV-Test’s latest real-time protection test, and the same for general malware detection. It doesn’t make any sense to pay for McAfee, but if you’re looking for a free antivirus option it’s a great choice.

2. Bitdefender Mobile Security & Antivirus: Excellent security for those willing to pay the modest price

Price when reviewed: 99p/mth, £9.95/yr

 

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited Bitdefender doesn’t offer a free edition of its Mobile Security app. If you’re counting the pennies then that may immediately put it out of the running – but a subscription isn’t expensive, and it does mean you don’t have to put up with adverts or tolerate crippled features.

On installation, you’re invited to scan your device and configure your app-locking settings. There’s nothing very novel about the idea of PIN-protecting selected apps, but Bitdefender offers some thoughtful features: you can choose to automatically disable app-locking when you’re connected to your home Wi-Fi, and optionally capture a photo of anyone who tries to guess your app-lock PIN.

The anti-theft module similarly has a few stand-out features. You can locate and control your phone via SMS, so you can track it down even if it’s disconnected from the internet. You can silently call it and listen in to its surroundings, to help you discover where it might be. And if you’re wearing an Android Wear smartwatch, this will alert you when your phone drops out of range, so you’re less likely to lose it in the first place.

Along with a privacy advisor that highlights apps with wide-ranging permissions, and a web security module, it adds up to a well-rounded package. Best of all, Bitdefender achieved a perfect 100% score in AV-Test’s malware tests, for both real-time scanning and offline detection. That makes it a persuasive contender for anyone who’s willing to pay for mobile protection – and since it installs as a fully functional 14-day trial, you’ve nothing to lose by giving it a whirl.

3. Avast Mobile Security: A free scanner that won’t get in your way

Price when reviewed: Free; premium subscription £1.79/mth, £6.99/yr

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited Avast’s antivirus tool is our favourite free option for Windows – and its Android app is just as impressive. In AV-Test’s latest tests it blocked all known Android malware, and achieved a 99.9% real-time protection rating. That’s better than many paid-for apps.

Avast Mobile Security also scored full marks for usability, with no measurable impact on battery life or performance – although the same can be said of all six of the security apps this month.

The free app isn’t loaded with features, but you can enable a daily security scan, and PIN-protect your settings and Google Play, along with one app of your choice. You can also carry out a privacy audit to identify apps using potentially exploitable permissions – and, if you’ve rooted your phone, you can take advantage of Avast’s custom firewall. This lets you block internet access for apps, or set them to use Wi-Fi only, so they don’t eat your mobile data allowance.

As on Windows, the free Android app pushes you towards other Avast products, including the paid-for junk file cleaner and the company’s SecureLine VPN service. The interface is also dotted with third-party adverts; a low-cost subscription gets rid of these, and removes the single-app PIN-protection limitation, so you can secure as many apps as you wish. It doesn’t activate those extra Avast features, so what you’re left with is something a little less feature-filled than McAfee – but overall Avast provides excellent protection for little or no money.

4. AVG AntiVirus Free: Decent protection, if you can live with a few adverts

Price when reviewed: Free; premium subscription £1.79/mth, £6.99/yr

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited Like Avast, AVG supports its free Android antivirus app with third-party adverts. Upgrading to the paid-for “Pro” edition is cheap, however, and not only banishes the ads but adds app-locking and device-locking features. You also get a neat “Camera Trap” function, which detects when someone’s trying to unlock your phone and emails you a photo of the culprit.

Even if you stick with the free product, AVG AntiVirus is far from a bare offering. As well as on-installation app scanning, there’s optional web protection to warn you if you’re visiting suspicious websites, and the option to carry out scheduled scans on a daily or weekly basis.

A simple Wi-Fi analyser is also included, which checks that intruders can’t access your network, and AVG’s free anti-theft service lets you locate your phone, sound an alarm – or, if you fear it’s lost, remotely lock it or wipe the data. Google’s free Android Device Manager offers the same capabilities, but AVG provides a friendlier front-end. If you have several devices to protect, you can use the AVG Zen portal to manage multiple installations and check settings remotely.

While AVG offers a good range of features, it annoyed us by showing adverts on the Android lockscreen. This is easy to disable, but it’s an obnoxious thing to do in the first place. It also couldn’t match the best security apps in AV-Test’s most recent malware tests: its real-time protection score of 96.2% wasn’t a disaster, but it makes AVG a tough sell when others get closer to perfect protection.

5. Kaspersky Internet Security for Android: A name you can trust, but you’ll need to pay to get the best from it

Price when reviewed: Free; premium subscription £9.99/yr

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited You can download and use Kaspersky’s free security app for as long as you want, with no adverts and little in the way of pushy upsell. On the face of it, that’s an excellent deal because Kaspersky delivers great protection, scoring a near-flawless 99.9% in AV-Test’s most recent tests.

What you get, though, is a minimal experience. Malware scans must be initiated manually – even newly installed apps aren’t scanned automatically – and the only other major free feature is an anti-theft module, which includes the ability to take remote photos and to automatically be notified of the phone’s new number if the SIM is changed.

Cough up £10 for a year’s subscription – or activate the 30-day trial option that’s hidden away in the Settings menu –and the app becomes much more useful. Real-time malware detection kicks in, and you’re protected not only against dodgy websites, but also from text messages containing scams or phishing links.

There are also options to block calls and SMS messages from specific numbers, and to conceal certain contacts within your address book, so that anyone prying into your phone won’t find their details. These features aren’t guaranteed to work on platforms more recent than Android 4.4 KitKat, however; if they’re important, you might want to test them out on your own phone before paying for a licence.

While Kaspersky’s protection ratings aren’t to be sniffed at, its free app is too stripped down to recommend. The full package is much stronger – but it's worth bearing in mind that it doesn’t offer much more than free alternatives such as McAfee.

6. Norton Security and Antivirus: A premium service for those with multiple devices to protect

Price when reviewed: Free; premium subscription £29.99/yr

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited Alongside the usual malware scanning tools, Norton Security’s signature feature is its App Advisor. This tool – only available to paid-up subscribers – scans the apps on your smartphone and flags any that exhibit unwanted behaviour. That might mean leaking personal data, tracking your location, displaying ads, automatically updating themselves, or gobbling up battery power and mobile data. It’s a fine-toothed approach that goes beyond merely categorising apps as safe or unsafe.

That’s not to say that Norton won’t do that as well. Indeed, in AV-Test’s latest round of testing, Norton was one of the few packages to achieve an impeccable 100% protection score. It also integrates with Google Play, inserting risk reports into app descriptions to warn you away from dodgy wares.

While free users don’t get the full App Advisor experience, you do get daily, weekly or monthly malware scans, plus all the expected anti-theft features. Similarly, while interactive web protection is for paying customers only, everyone can take advantage of Norton’s Safe Search tool, which directs you to trustworthy websites. And while Norton Security doesn’t include app-locking, it will direct you to Google Play to download Norton’s free, standalone app-locking tool.  

In all, it’s hard to fault Norton Security’s credentials. The problem is the price: it costs £30 a year. That covers unlimited mobile devices, so it might make sense for a family, but most of us will currently be better off opting for Norton's multi-platform Security Deluxe package – with the current 50% off deal, £30 a year buys you protection for up to five MacOS, Windows, Android or iOS devices. 

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