Not All Antivirus Software is Created Equally
I'll admit it: there are many different solutions that are out there that all claim to be the best at protecting your desktop computer or laptop from malware. The larger antivirus companies tend to paint a soothing picture to calmly lull you into believing that by simply installing their product, your worries about being on the receiving end of a destructive virus or malware are no more.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I would like to set the record straight from the start: there is no antivirus solution out there that can protect your computer completely from any and all viruses/malware that exists. The folks who write these malicious programs are making changes every day in an effort to thwart antivirus engines. They are finding new ways to get around antivirus protection, and they are persistent in their goal of exploiting your computer's weaknesses.
With that said, there are some antivirus products that do a better job than others. The highly-marketed solutions out there (McAfee, Symantec, etc.) pack quite a lot into their antivirus solutions - including protection on the web, e-mail scanning, anti-spam, etc. They have to do this. They charge $50.00 or more for an annual subscription, so they need to include some perceived value into their product. Otherwise, most people wouldn't bother paying $50.00 and upwards per year to renew their subscriptions. Don't get me wrong; a lot of work goes on in the background to stay at the forefront of defending your system from malicious programs. The main thing that I disagree with is the false sense of security offered by these programs and their claims to "fully protect" your system by padding the software with separate perceived levels of defense.
There are no-frills solutions out there that do a great job, and they don't get quite the same attention as their commercially marketed counterparts. They should. They're free. Whether you are looking into avast!, Microsoft Security Essentials, or AVG - you'll find standard antivirus protection for your system at no cost. I've seen malware infections on systems "protected" by McAfee or Symantec close to the same number of times that I've seen malware infections on systems running a free antivirus product.
So, What's Better?
If you have been paying an annual subscription for your antivirus solution, in my opinion, you are wasting your money. Antivirus giant Symantec has declared that traditional antivirus is "dead" and "doomed to failure."
"Antivirus products are doomed to failure. If customers are shifting from protect to detect and respond, the growth is going to come from detect and respond."
- Brian Dye, Senior VP for Information Security, Symantec Corporation
What Mr. Dye is referring to is the increased focus in the hacker community on cyberattacks - denial-of-service assaults, network intrusion, etc. - rather than mass e-mailing a crafted executable file randomly to millions. Antivirus products are catching less than half of all cyberattacks. What this means is that computer users need something else outside of the warm and fuzzy antivirus software protection that is installed on their computers.
So, Now What?
As a computer security professional, I highly recommend a computer check-up once every six months to my residential and business clients. I don't tell people to not use antivirus protection, but I do make sure to let them know that antivirus protection is not the end-all-be-all solution to prevent infections or other issues stemming from malware or other attacks on their systems.
People need a competent computer professional to look at their systems outside of the scope of what traditional antivirus software can provide. They need a set of trained eyes to look into the "guts" of the operating system to see what's lurking, what's installed that shouldn't be, and what needs to be cleaned off of the computer for good.
I highly recommend that you find your own local reputable technical services company in your particular area who will perform a six-month or annual evaluation of your system. Just like finding a good mechanic because you own and operate a motor vehicle, make finding a good technical services company something that you do as long as you own and operate any type of technology. Ask your local technical services company to perform system maintenance and optimization services on your system at least annually (every six months is preferred) along with installing a free antivirus solution to keep you reasonably protected in-between service appointments. You'll be glad that you did.