Mac users will tell you that third-party antivirus software isn’t necessary on OS X. Simply put, Macs aren’t as vulnerable to malicious attacks because OS X’s core architecture is rock solid. How is it so secure? There are a number of answers to this question, but it’s primarily due to a technique known as sandboxing. Essentially, sandboxing is a form of software virtualization that runs programs and processes in an isolated virtual environment, thus giving them limited access to your system and everything on it. Secondarily is a system called library randomization, which makes it harder for malicious programs to find their targets. There are dozens of other security features that we could go on about, but we’ll leave it at that.
However, just because Macs are well-protected against viruses right out of the box, it doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t have a decent antivirus program on your system. Should you pay for one though? We don’t think it’s necessary. There are dozens of great antivirus programs that are completely free, and if used with good OS X security practices, these should offer more than enough protection for your computer.
Before we move on to the software list, here are a few things you can do to make your Mac more secure without installing anything at all…
Securing your Mac without antivirus software
- Update, update, update – If your computer isn’t set to automatically check for updates, it should be. Apple is quick to pinpoint potential threats and address them as quickly as possible. You should install these updates (especially the security updates) as soon as they pop up. If you ignore them for an extended period of time, you’re leaving your system in a potentially vulnerable state.
- Make sure your firewall is turned on – To check if it is, head over to System Preferences > Security & Privacy and click the Firewall tab.
- Encrypt data for extra protection – OS X automatically secures important system files, but if you’re interested in keeping certain sensitive files safe, turn on FileVault. It’ll encrypt all the stuff in your home folder. To turn it on, go to System Preferences > Security & Privacy and click the FileVault tab.
- Don’t be a reckless clicker on the Internet – We shouldn’t have to tell you, but, if you want to keep your computer virus-free, don’t download things from unfamiliar sources and don’t open email attachments from people you don’t know. It’s not essential, but you can make your browsing habits safer by installing the Web of Trust extension in your browser.
That about sums it up. So, without further ado, here’s our list of the best free antivirus software for Mac OS X. For your convenience, we’ve narrowed it down to five contenders. Here they are in no particular order:
There’s a good chance you’ve heard of Avast!. It’s one of the most popular antivirus programs on the Web, and for good reason. Avast! has gained a widespread user base because it offers certain features that you won’t find in other free programs. Although it doesn’t support scheduled scanning like some of the others on this list, Avast! does offer on-demand and on-access scans, as well as email scanning and a variety of Web security features.
ClamXav is different from the other programs listed here. It’s not exactly a program itself, but rather a graphical user interface for the open source ClamAV antivirus engine that’s otherwise controlled via command-line prompts. Now although it’s a step up from the command-line interface, ClamXav’s design is still pretty stripped down and straightforward. But don’t let absent flashy buttons and sliders fool you – it’s has the same functionality you’ll find in most paid antivirus apps. You can scan individual files or entire folders on-demand, on access, on schedule, and quarantine anything that’s fishy. Users looking for an antivirus program that’s both feature-rich and lightweight should definitely check this one out.
In terms of features, Comodo really isn’t much different from Sophos or Avira. It does all the same stuff: scheduled tasks, quarantining, automatic updates for virus definitions – the whole lot. The only real difference is the look and feel of the program’s interface. Of all the programs in this list, Comodo’s interface will probably be the most approachable and easy to understand for tech-challenged users. It features big, colorful icons that make navigation a breeze, well-labeled tabs for each function, and a slider for changing your level of protection. For these reasons, we recommend Comodo for anyone who might be overwhelmed by excessive buttons and icons.
As we mentioned before, Sophos, Comodo, and Avira are all rather similar when it comes to features. When it comes down to it, they essentially perform all the same functions, and the only significant differences between them come from their respective user interfaces. Sophos makes use of a cocoa interface, so it looks and feels like a native Mac app. Seasoned OS X vets won’t have any trouble getting started with it. The app’s primary functions – things like full-system or drive-specific scans – are easily accessible from the home screen. More advanced actions, like scan scheduling and quarantined file management, are all easy to execute in just a few clicks.
Avira’s interface is the Goldilocks of the bunch. It’s somewhere between Comodo’s uber-simplified layout and Sophos’s logical cocoa-style interface. We found that it strikes a nice balance between ease of use and quick access to advanced features. When it comes time to scan, you can opt for a quick scan that just covers the most important system files, a full system scan that sweeps your whole computer, or a custom scan that only covers the files and folders you choose. Advanced features like scheduling and quarantine are also included.
That sums things up, but if your favorite free antivirus program for Mac didn’t make the list, be sure to tell us about it in the comments! Also check out our guide to the best free antivirus software for PC.