MAY 23, 2024 /

Antivirus software explained: why it’s a must for your devices

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It’s tempting to think of computer viruses as a modern phenomenon, but the very first bits of software that worked in a “viral” fashion date all the way back to 1971. That code really doesn’t have much in common with modern computer viruses and malware however, because nearly all early viruses were simply destructive software. They’d write too many sectors to a floppy drive (or later a hard disk drive) or try to corrupt the motherboard on your computer with little thought put in beyond that.

Modern viruses and malware are a business, plain and simple. It’s not a nice business, but rather than destroy your data, they’d prefer to either harvest it for its value, or lock it away in such a manner as to compel you to pay to get the key, which is what we call ransomware. Classic computer viruses just destroyed what they could and spread largely over physical media such as floppy drives and shouted at you that they were there.

In the Internet age, viruses and malware spread online and want to remain as stealthy as possible. That way, they can do their work on your computer, but also possibly spread to other computers and systems without being detected or eradicated.

This is where what’s commonly called antivirus software comes into play. Really, it’s far more complex than just anti-viral protection because a modern antivirus package has to offer up a suite of features to keep your PC or Mac safer online.

Twenty or so years ago, antivirus makers could release monthly updates with recognised signatures for new viruses, in the same way that a vaccine creates a familiar pattern for your white blood cells to track infection. These days the malware market moves so swiftly that this is an approach that simply wouldn’t work, and there’s more of a focus on tracking and detecting everything going on in your PC to ward off the possible bad effects of an inadvertent malware installation.

Why doesn’t Microsoft or Apple include antivirus with their computers?

Well, they do… sort of. On the Windows side of the fence, Microsoft has its Windows Security Center, which includes software to scan for malware, some phishing attempts and firewalls to protect users at a basic level.

Basic is the word here, however, because it’s very much built around Microsoft’s own Edge browser for maximum protection, which means you’re far less covered if you’re using Google’s Chrome or Mozilla’s Firefox browsers. It’s also generally scored badly in most independent antivirus tests across a range of malware attacks. It’s better than nothing, but it’s not by accident that it’ll disable itself if it recognises a certified antivirus suite being installed, because this isn’t Microsoft’s core competency.

What about Mac users? Apple used to rather famously advertise that virus were a PC problem, not a Mac one. The software underpinnings of macOS do give it some larger structural barriers against malware, and Apple’s smaller overall market share has meant that malware writers haven’t targeted it quite as heavily as Windows.

However, just because you’re not targeted as much doesn’t mean that Mac malware doesn’t exist. Indeed, when Mac malware does spread, it tends to do so rather more rapidly simply because most Mac users tend to think that it’s just something they don’t have to worry about.

What about mobiles and tablets?

There’s some variance here as well for users of smartphones and tablet devices. The good news here is that the locked down nature of tablets and smartphones means that it’s harder for malware to propagate generally. Here there’s a definite divide between Apple’s iPhone and iPad devices, where apps must be signed off on by Apple and Google’s Google Play, which has had a slightly more live and let live approach to this kind of thing. Malware on Apple mobile devices really isn’t a thing, while there have been plenty of instances of dodgy apps on the Google Play store over the years. There’s not much of a market for antivirus software on iOS or iPadOS, but many makers of Mac/Windows antivirus also offer counterpart apps for Android devices.

The other caveat here is that while iOS viruses are rare as hen’s teeth, the same outfits that try to get you with malware will use more direct methods to try to entice you, such as “phishing”, where they send you an SMS or email message that appears to be from a trusted source, compelling you to click on a link to, say, secure your bank account or deal with the tax office or similar. They’re fakes, but on a desktop PC, a lot of antivirus software will catch that the links aren’t genuine and protect you. With no onboard antivirus, you’ve got to use your head in those situations.

What antivirus features should I look for when buying antivirus software?

Nearly all reputable antivirus software sells these days on a subscription basis, typically with an annual payment and regular updates.

It’s worth comparing and checking how much coverage you can get, and on how many devices. If you only have the one PC, there’s no point in paying for a package that will cover five. Conversely if you’ve got a family of five and everyone’s got a computer and smartphone, a multi-device subscription would be a smart move.

Look for packages that offer not just simple antivirus scanning, but also malware and phising protection in real time. Beyond the fiscal, there is a price to pay in terms of slightly more pop-ups as your computer activity – online and offline – is checked, but that’s all to keep your data and personal information safe. Some packages will also offer a password vault feature, which is super handy to keep, generate and recall passwords for multiple services without falling into the trap of using the same password across multiple services.

It’s also worth considering online cloud backup, which is also a common feature in antivirus packages these days. These ensure (in theory) that if the worst does happen to your data as the result of corruption or a ransomware attack, you can restore your data without having to engage with cybercriminals at all.

Many packages will also remind you – and it is good advice – to keep your systems up to date with the latest available software updates. Many of these specifically address security flaws as they’re discovered, blocking off easy avenues for malware to propagate on your system.

Browse the range of antivirus software from Officeworks here.

As always, if you’re having issues with updates, software, or antivirus, you can talk to the team at Geeks2U to get up to speed, safely online or back on track if you have encountered problems.

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Alex Kidman
A multi-award winning journalist, Alex has written about consumer technology for over 20 years. He has written and edited for virtually every Australian tech publication including Gizmodo, CNET, PC Magazine, Kotaku and more.