Historically speaking, Macs were thought of as the “safe” operating system. From the onset, they were usually owned more so by businesses than casual home users. They also have tighter default security protocols when it comes to downloading and installing software, requiring you to enter a password before continuing and optionally locking down downloads to only trusted sources, thus making it more difficult for sneaky malicious programs to find a foothold.
Macs haven’t changed. Macs now are as vulnerable as they were back in the day. What has changed are viruses and malware and how they are distributed. Old-school viruses depended on a more physical distribution medium, like a floppy drive. But now we have the internet.
Browsers have fairly open access to your computer’s operating system through various permissions, so if viruses and other malware couldn’t get past your Mac’s admin password security checkpoint before, it is much easier for them to do so now by getting you to download something from your browser. If you look at the documented history of Mac malware, you’ll see examples of things like malicious links, codecs that “allow” you to watch a video, viruses attached to screensaver download files, viruses disguised as other programs, and so on. In 2006, Apple was quick to respond to the first known virus for Mac OS X, with this commercial:
Newer threats still find access through browsers, including cryptocurrency mining, keystroke logging, data-collecting software, zero-day vulnerabilities, and so much more. And, while safe practices like keeping your operating system updated and being mindful about what and how you download files, employing antivirus software is just another way to keep your Mac protected and give you peace of mind.
What to Look for in macOS Protection Software
This type of software can be daunting to think about if you’re unfamiliar with it. The companies who develop them understand this, and generally try to make them easy to use. To put your mind at ease, here are some of the most important features these programs can offer, as well as a little bit of information as to why they are so critical.
- Scanning Abilities: Like security guards, good antivirus software should perform regular scans of what it’s protecting. These applications should be able to scan a variety of things, like your entire computer or even something more granular, like a specific file or folder. Some apps can also scan incoming emails for dangerous threats.
- Malicious Threat Blocking: Good protection software should be able to defend your computer against a variety of attacks, whether it’s spyware, adware, ransomware, or phishing. It should also be capable of handling anything that could slip through the cracks and quarantine it immediately before it can do any damage.
- Low System Impact: Protection software should be something that runs quietly in the background and doesn’t impact your computer’s performance, kind of like a bodyguard. As such, it shouldn’t hog your computer’s resources or cause any noticeable slowdown. Some programs allow you to set scans to run during hours you wouldn’t otherwise use the computer (like while you’re sleeping) to help mitigate this.
- Ease of Use: Because this isn’t the type of software people use every day, it should be intuitive and straightforward; there’s no need to spend hours scouring a knowledgebase trying to figure it out. The best antivirus software should have clearly labeled sections and a few customization options. Many programs also offer helpful extras, like a password manager, VPN service, identity protection, or a personal firewall that you can add-on at an extra cost.
- Fair Pricing: Just because these programs work hard to protect your computer doesn’t mean you have to succumb to outrageous pricing demands, especially if they don’t offer exactly what you need. Watch out for costly subscriptions, hidden fees, and features that lapse after a set period of time, like 30 days. Many programs offer a free trial, which you should consider taking advantage of so that you can get a feel for its actual value before opening up your wallet.
Best Overall: Bitdefender Total Security 2020
Bitdefender Total Security 2020 ($44.99 for the first year subscription, $89.99/yr after that) is the most powerful, comprehensive macOS protection software on the market. It’s got your back whether you simply want to set up regular deep scans of your computer or the occasional scan of a singular folder or application. Bitdefender can run scans automatically and recommend courses of action for you to take, and it allows you to customize scans and options however you want.
The program has a beautiful UI, where things are clearly labeled and smartly organized. Its clean modern look makes it easy to use, and even easier to see the current status of your computer’s health. Equally beautiful is how the program is designed to run quietly in the background without measurably disrupting your computer’s performance. There are also basic parental controls, with which you can limit the types of harmful content your children have access to online.
Bitdefender is a powerful option against a myriad of threats, including ransomware, malware, adware, spyware, and phishing. It protects against malicious content for both Windows- and macOS-sourced threats, and has a special feature that adds security for Time Machine, if you use that to back up your files. You can also protect extra important files in Bitdefender’s dedicated Safe Files watch list, which prevents anyone you don’t authorize from changing them.
You can also use the included VPN service, which encrypts up to 200 MB of your web traffic per day. Bitdefender offers protection against all of the most common types of threats, is easy to use, and has nice extras, making it a solid choice for all Mac users.
Best Budget Option: AVG Antivirus for Mac
If you want to ensure that your Mac is protected, but you also have a budget to stick to, AVG Antivirus for Mac (Free) is the obvious choice for Macs running macOS Yosemite or later. Aa lot of free options are available, but few are as trusted as AVG. And while it only offers basic protection, the quality of the protection it provides is comparable to premium paid options.
AVG Antivirus for Mac offers essential macOS-specific spyware and malware protection, as well as PC- and Android-sourced spyware and viruses. It also offers straightforward protection when you go online, preventing you from interacting with malicious websites, downloads, and emails.
One of AVG’s best features is that it is always updating its database of potentially harmful threats and malware detection methods. Whenever it finds a new threat, it updates your software so that your Mac is safe against the latest malicious ideas at any given moment.
The software is always running in the background, so you won’t have to worry about turning it on or manually updating it. If you want more protection or functionality, AVG also offers paid add-on services, like a secure VPN, computer tune-up software, or premium tech support.
Best for Parental Controls: Sophos Antivirus Mac Home Premium
Sophos Antivirus Mac Home Premium ($42/year subscription) is powerful, unfussy protection software that’s great for concerned parents. If you know your kid needs to access the internet for school or to talk to friends, it’s nice to have a way to control what they are able to access. Sophos keeps a log of every attempt to access a prohibited page. It can also be set up to just provide a warning that the page visit will be logged should they decide to click through and visit the site anyway.
The application provides protection against harmful threats, like ransomware, malware, viruses, worms, bots, and other unwanted invasions. Every suspicious file found in a scan is run against all blacklisted threats in the SophosLabs database. They use machine learning and artificial intelligence to learn from older threats to more easily identify new malicious creations and to keep your computer safe from them. And, unlike most other software options, Sophos offers remote management, so you can check up on every device you’re protecting with the program from any internet connection—a feature that’s nice if you travel a lot.
In addition to peace of mind, Sophos offers robust features and a few extras that are just plain nice to have, like device webcam and microphone access protection, premium customer support, and a license that covers up to 10 devices, including Windows devices. Sophos also offers a free trial of the Premium version in case you want to see what the program can do before you pay for it. With such well-rounded features (and a few handy extras), Sophos is a great option for parents and everyone else alike.