The subject of security for the Android platform is far from straightforward. There’s some debate about whether you really need antivirus apps on your smartphone. Much depends on whether you sideload apps, but there’s no denying that malware has grown into a much greater concern since we first wrote this article back in 2012. Luckily security apps have improved dramatically to keep pace with the new threats, so you have plenty of great protection to choose from.
The majority of Android security apps are actually packages that include a host of other tools from contact filtering to remote lock or wipe. We decided to take a look at the top five Android security apps and find out what they do. We are taking a look at these from a consumer point of view, so be warned that some of the “free” apps are only free for personal, non-commercial use.
Updated on 5-08-2014 by Simon Hill: Added updated results, changed intro, updated app descriptions and final sections, and added ESET Mobile Security & Antivirus, Avira Antivirus Security, and AVL.
360 Mobile Security (Free) (Google Play, Amazon)
A major player in China, developer Qihu burst onto the scene and claimed the top spot in AV-Test’s September 2013 report with a virtually flawless detection rate of 99.9 percent, the highest of any of the security apps tested. In the latest March 2014 report it achieved a detection rate of 100 percent. The focus with 360 Mobile Security is firmly on detecting and nullifying threats to your system. It has a very streamlined, elegant design. It’s extremely lightweight, and it’s completely free.
A standard real-time scan will safeguard your device from malware, spyware, and the threat of infection. It’s also capable of detecting and fixing system vulnerabilities and cleaning up idle background apps to help your phone run more efficiently. There’s a privacy advisor and a tool to clear your usage history.
This app eschews a laundry list of extras in favor of a light touch. The only additional features you’ll find are call blocking options, some shortcut toggles, and safe browsing protection. There’s no anti-theft component or backup option.
For a good blend of usability and strong protection, you should think about 360 Mobile Security. If you’re more concerned about smooth performance than extra features, it is bound to appeal.
Avast! Mobile Security (Google Play)
As a genuinely free app for the Android platform, Avast! Mobile Security is offering an impressive range of tools. It has antivirus protection, it scans your apps to provide details on what they are doing, and it has a Web shield that scans URLs for malware.
There are various additional tools in the package and the best of the bunch is the anti-theft component. The app is actually based on an old app called Theft Aware which Avast acquired. The anti-theft feature is hidden and allows you to remote control your smartphone using SMS. So if you lose your phone, you can remotely lock it, locate it, or wipe it. You can make it play a siren sound, lock down the SIM card, and prevent USB debugging as well. It’s a comprehensive solution for theft protection.
If you have a rooted device then there’s also a firewall that allows you to control network traffic. You can block access to Wi-Fi or the network for specific apps which is handy for security and potentially saving on battery juice as well.
According to the latest AV-Test report of 31 popular Android security apps, Avast is a solid option with an overall detection rate of 99.9 percent. Although it is not top of the charts in terms of malware detection, the extra functionality (including the anti-theft tools and a firewall for rooted devices) still make it worth considering. It has a light footprint with no discernible drain on battery life and no impact on general performance. It also returned no false positives.
The fact this app is completely free, has a wide range of features, and offers protection for rooted devices, makes it a strong contender. If you’re looking for a security solution for your Android smartphone, and your primary concern is malware and safe browsing, then this could be the right app for you.
Avast Marketing Director, Milos Korenko, has assured us that “There might be a paid version in the future but that won’t have an impact on the free version. It will continue to be available and loaded with features.”
ESET Mobile Security & Antivirus (Google Play, Amazon)
This is a new entry for our top five and it deserves its place with a 100 percen detection rate in the latest AV-Test report and an easy-to-use interface. The basic app is completely free and it provides real-time scanning of apps to detect malware and potentially dodgy apps trying to send texts or make premium rate calls.
The free version also includes a suite of anti-theft tools. You can remotely locate and lock your smartphone or tablet, and you can prevent anyone from uninstalling apps by using password protection.
If you want remote wipe or SIM guard capabilities then you have to spring for the premium version at $20 per year, but it also delivers anti-phishing protection, an app audit feature, device monitoring for unwarranted use of data, and advanced call blocking.
Avira Antivirus Security (Google Play)
With a 100 percent detection rate and no false positives, you can trust the free version of Avira to keep your Android smartphone or tablet safe. It has a light footprint in terms of performance and a sleek, minimalist design that fits in well with the Android platform.
Avira allows you to scan apps for potential trouble and it scans new apps or updates automatically. There’s also the usual batch of anti-theft tools, to help you find your device remotely, lock it, wipe it, or trigger an alarm.
There’s an additional tool that claims to be able to tell you whether your email account has been hacked and tell you what action to take if it has. A decent range of blacklisting options rounds off this app, so you can block problem callers or nuisance spam.
There is a premium version that adds anti-phishing, more regular updates, and better support, but the free version covers enough bases for most people.
AVL (Google Play)
Some of you are probably just looking for malware protection that’s as barebones as possible. If you don’t want anti-theft tools, or identity protection, or any of the other possibly superfluous features that come in many security apps then AVL will suit you.
This app scored a 100 percent detection rate with no false positives and AV-Test found performance was good with no undue impact on speed or battery life. AVL can scan a variety of file formats beyond APKs and it’s designed to be fast and efficient.
The fact that 18 of the 31 apps tested by AV-Test in March 2014 scored 100 percent detection rates shows how much security software on the platform is improving. If you don’t fancy any of our picks then McAfee Antivirus & Security, TrustGo Antivirus & Mobile Security, and Trend Micro Mobile Security & Antivirus all offer free versions that are worth a look. They all scored a 100 percent detection rate as well and could easily have made the list.
From the big name security software brands, Kaspersky and Symantec will attract many people because they are familiar names, but compared to some of the free options there’s really nothing there to justify the price tags. Same goes for the excellent NQ Mobile Security & Antivirus and Bitdefender Mobile Security & Antivirus. All scored 100 percent, but they are only free trials and will bug you about paying out an annual subscription.
And the winner is….
You can read about whether you actually need antivirus protection and run through some common sense ways to safeguard your Android device in the next two parts of this security series. However, if you do want to go ahead and get an Android security app, 360 Mobile Security is your best bet right now. It offers the functionality you’d expect from a premium app for free. If you’re not sure about 360 Mobile Security then we’d recommend ESET Mobile Security & Antivirus.
If you’ve tried any of these apps out or you have another Android security app you feel is worthy of a mention then post a comment and let us know about it.
Updated on 11-20-2013 by Simon Hill: Added updated results, tweaked text, added 360 Mobile Security from Qihu, updated other apps section and recommendations.
Article originally published on 8-1-2012.