The Play Store hasn't been the most secure place for apps lately. A quick Google search for "Play Store malware" will give you a taste of some of the malicious apps that snuck their way onto Android's official app store. Google is aware of the problem and they're tying to fix it, but their new Play Protect program doesn't have a great track record, so you might want to look elsewhere.
Like Microsoft Windows, there's a debate about the necessity of antivirus programs on Android. Both operating systems have some form of antivirus protection built-in that, while adequate, isn't the best. Independent testing has even shown that the Google offering provides well below average security.
Many third-party apps provide much more than antivirus protection. In addition to having much better virus detection rates than Android's built-in antivirus solution, these apps act more as security suites that provide all the functionality of Play Protect and much more. By offering such an abundance of features, antivirus apps have moved from gimmicky to useful.
As you can see in the chart above, these are the principal antivirus features that we looked at when ranking the four finalist apps that made our list.
- Real-Time Detection Rate: AV-test.org tested each app's ability to detect the latest malware in real-time. A sample of 3,323 Android malware apps was presented to each app to determine the listed antivirus detection rates.
- Detection Over Four Weeks: AV-test.org tested each app's ability to discover the latest Android malware over the course of a month. A sample of 2,643 pieces of malware was used to determine each app's accuracy.
- Price: The cost to unlock all features. Each app on our list offers a free trial or limited functionality.
- Scheduled Antivirus Scanning: The ability to automate antivirus scanning based on time of day.
- Scan Play Store Apps: The ability to scan apps when visiting their Play Store page, providing the same protection as Google Play Protect, but with a better antivirus scanner.
- Scans New Apps: The ability to scan all newly installed app automatically.
- Anti-Theft Protection: Each of these apps provides three fundamental pillars for anti-theft protection: Remote lock, remote wipe, and the ability to locate. Remote lock lets you lock your device from anywhere, while remote wipe allows you to factory reset your device from anywhere. Finally, each of these apps enables you to locate your device if you should ever lose it.
- Remote SMS Control: Your device can be controlled using text message codes to enable anti-theft features such as remote wipe and lock.
- Call Blocking: The app can scan incoming calls and block spam or unlisted numbers.
- SMS Protection: Once enabled, all text messages are scanned by the security suite and compared to a blacklist, blocking any spam or other unwanted messages.
- Backup: The ability to back up your data. Only Norton lets you back up your contacts, protecting your data in case your Google account becomes compromised.
- Web Protection: Provides protection while using the browser. Once enabled, the security suite will protect you against fraudulent and malicious websites.
- App Vault: The ability to require authentication to use certain apps. Users will have to enter a passcode or use the fingerprint scanner to unlock apps in the vault.
- Wi-Fi Protection: Scans Wi-Fi and determines the network's security. Will evaluate open Wi-Fi for malicious users.
- Parental Control: The app provides some tools to manage your children's phone usage. These features can include limiting time spent in an app, a kid-friendly browser, and remote tracking.
- Security Advisor: The ability to scan your phone and provide recommendations to improve your privacy and security. Proposals include permissions recommendations for apps, and disabling (or enabling) specific options.
- VPN: A Virtual Private Network provides an encrypted tunnel between you and the unsecured internet. Recommended to use on open Wi-Fi network, VPN secures your connection to the internet, making it hard for hackers to intercept your session.
- Password Manager: Stores all of your passwords in one database, locking it with one master password. Users need only to memorize the master password, as the password for individual accounts can be copied and pasted from the manager. Only found in Sophos, this password manager can either be created or imported from KeePass (another popular password manager).
- 2FA Authenticator: Because a password only provides one layer of protection, it is recommended to require additional authentication to make sure a hacker can't access your account. 2FA authenticators generate numbers which are needed to log into your account after inputting your password. While you can download third-party 2FA apps, Sophos includes one with their security suite.
An antivirus app is only as effective as its detection rate — in other words, you want it to detect all malware, not letting any slip through the cracks. As such, our first requirement was a 100% detection rate for both real-time scanning and scanning over four weeks, based AV-Test.org data.
Almost as important as detection rate is how often false positives occurred. False positives are when the antivirus alerts you of a malware which doesn't exist. Having a security suite which can generate false positives lowers the user's trust. Therefore, we only considered apps which, based on AV-Test.org testing, had zero false warnings.
Another important requirement is complete anti-theft protection. Our phones face dangers from both actors far away and nearby. Thieves can steal your phone, and with direct access, steal your data. As a security suite, it must protect you from all threats. Therefore, we felt it necessary for our recommend choices to include an anti-theft protection which included remote wipe, remote lock, and tracking ability.
One criticism of antivirus is that it slows down your device and consumes a large amount of battery. As a result, many users have forgone their usage to avoid these problems. AV-Test.org has tested every app on our list, and as a part of their testing process, evaluated the impact on the battery life and performance. All the apps on our list have no impact.
Finally, we looked for a clean design and additional features that improve functionality to the security suite. For example, the addition of an app cleaner won't qualify as a feature that enhances the security suite, but genuinely useful features like Wi-Fi protection, VPN functionality, or a password manager will.
It is pretty amazing that the only truly free security suite on our list is actually the best option. It easily offers the most features, a 100% detection rate, and has an easy to use interface, all for the low price of $0.00. Sophos Mobile Security provides its users all the tools they need to keep their mobile experience as secure as possible without an annual subscription.
- Play Store Link: Sophos Mobile Security (free)
Sophos offers real-time antivirus protection with the ability to schedule automated scans. While Sophos doesn't allow users to scan apps beforehand, its 100% detection rate will isolate any malware and alert you before any major damage occurs on your device.
Sophos can offer additional protections to other apps by requiring a passcode (or fingerprint) to access your app vault. Known as App Protection, it keeps your apps (and their data) safe even in those rare times you need to let someone else use your phone. You can even control the grace period before authentication is required. This is a great security feature if your device isn't always in your possession, and a much more trusted option compared to other apps that offer this functionality.
What makes Sophos unique is the additional features known as "Security Tools," which improve your overall security despite the fact they aren't necessarily connected to antivirus scanning. For example, Sophos is the only app on our list which includes a two-factor authenticator. Combine this with its password manager (another feature unique to it), and your online accounts are significantly more secure. There's even a secure QR code scanner so you can safely scan these codes to open links.
Finally, there is Privacy Advisor and Security Advisor, which evaluate your device and make suggestions to help improve overall security. The Privacy Advisor looks at app permissions and gives you an idea of which permissions should be disabled, while the Security Advisor goes through a checklist of features and sensors that your device should have enabled or disabled for optimal security. With the exception of Bitdefender, no other app on our list has these features.
The only major omission of Sophos Mobile Security is the ability to scan apps before installation. However, that is not enough to remove it from the top spot. With its "Security Tools," along with all the essential features you've come to expect from a security suite, it easily took the top ranking from Norton Mobile Security. With its free price tag, there is really no reason why you shouldn't be using this app, especially considering how bad Play Protect is.
Norton Security and Antivirus provides complete protection for your mobile device with a well-designed app. The way the menu is laid out makes navigation easy for everyone, including your grandparents. However, its best feature is App Advisor for Google Play (more on that next).
- Play Store Link: Norton Security and Antivirus (free)
When App Advisor for Google Play is enabled, Norton will automatically scan apps you view in the Play Store. It will then display a popup on the app's Play Store listing informing you whether it's safe or not. This is similar to one of Google Play Protect's main features, but with a much higher detection rate.
With its 100% detection rate of the latest Android malware (both in real time and over a four-week span), you can be confident that your device won't become infested no matter where you choose to download your apps.
Anti-theft protection is available with the ability to remotely control your device using text messages. By texting an action word (such as "lock" or "wipe") with the provided passcode, you can remotely enable features such as locking your device or conducting a factory reset.
Call blocking is present for individual and unlisted numbers. You can even block any number not located within your contacts for additional privacy.
Norton is the only app on our list to offer VPN protection for privacy and security while using Wi-Fi. Users will need to install a plugin to add the feature, which costs $4.99 a month for one device.
When you combine Norton's VPN with its Wi-Fi Security and Web Protection, you can rest assured that you'll be browsing the web safely and securely. Norton even includes protection against harmful links with its Link Guard feature, which will scan links before you open them, detect any potential risks, and alert you beforehand.
Norton has all the extras you would want from a security suite. Aside from a password manager (a feature exclusive to Sophos Mobile Security on our list), there isn't any feature lacking here. Norton even includes the ability to scan apps before installation, a feature only found in one other app on our list.
While the standard subscription costs $14.99 a year, Norton does offer a great deal for those who use their software on their desktop. For $39.99 a year, users can cover up to five devices (including PC, Mac, Android, and iOS). You can opt to not pay, but you'll only have access to the antivirus scanner. While Norton is the second most expensive on our list, its features are second only to Sophos Mobile Security, making it a worthy recommendation.
G Data Internet Security offers the basics you've come to expect from a security suite. It has anti-theft protection, the ability to control your phone via SMS commands, and a call blocking feature. While it does have parental control (a feature only Sophos has), its lack of many other options is what compels us to place it in third place.
- Play Store Link: G Data Internet Security (free)
Besides the usual features, G Data also provides parental control. Apps can be password protected so that your kids can't access them when you lend them your phone. There is a different configuration for teenagers and children if you deem it necessary to distinguish.
With its web protection, you can modify a blacklist to exclude websites inappropriate for children. This way, your browser is both safe from malware and child-friendly.
G Data does offer a call blocking feature, but it has a caveat. Any device running May 2018 security patch or later will be unable to use the feature. While this isn't a big deal for those using older phones (or phones from OEMs notoriously bad at security patch updates, such as LG), it does deter potential customers using newer phones. SMS filtering is also available to protect you against spam text messages as well.
G Data's two most significant omissions are link protection and Wi-Fi protection. The inability to check links before opening them on your device is significant, as hackers have used this in the past to corrupt devices. The latter is the ability to scan the Wi-Fi network you are on for abnormalities. Especially when using public Wi-Fi, this could protect you from using the wrong networks and becoming the victim of a man-in-the-middle attack.
G Data doesn't have the clean interface, but does offer the basics. It is the most expensive on our list, but does include a 30-day free trial to try out features. The lack of features such as link protection and Wi-Fi protection hinder its placement over its competition, especially when considering its price tag. However, for those who lend their phones to their kids often, this a great option.
Let me start by saying that Bitdefender Mobile Security & Antivirus has probably the cleanest design out of all the apps on our list. Navigation occurs using the hamburger menu, features are well described, and performance is quick and smooth.
- Play Store Link: Bitdefender Mobile Security & Antivirus (free)
Bitdefender is also the second-cheapest security suite, with a yearly subscription costing only $14.95. There is even a monthly subscription for $1.49 if you don't want to make a long-term commitment. So why is it last on our list? Put simply, it's not quite as fully-featured as some of the other apps here.
Bitdefender doesn't offer a call blocking feature, unlike every other app on our list. Like G Data, it also doesn't provide any way to check links beforehand. It also doesn't have any security or privacy advisory for recommendations to improve your protection, despite previously offering the feature.
However, Bitdefender has received a major revision since the last time we reviewed the app. Not only has the interface changed, but it has gained new features include a free VPN. While limited to a very small 200 MB a day, it does let you connect securely through their servers to visit the web. For those wanting to actually to use this feature, there is a premium version of the VPN for $6.99 a month (or $39.99 a year) with unlimited traffic.
Bitdefender is also the only app on our list which hides itself from your recent apps list. The idea is if your phone is in the wrong hand, the unauthorized user won't know to turn off its protection, as they won't see it in Android's multitasking screen. Bitdefender also lets you scan your email address for any data leakage to see if you could potentially be compromised.
With Bitdefender, you get a great design, the basic features, and a VPN for the second cheapest price on our list. However, its lack of features such as call blocking and link protection forced us to place it last on our list, although it still a better option than relying solely on Google Play Protect.
Each of these antivirus and security suites offers much more than Google Play Protect. They all provide anti-theft protection, pack virus scanners (with two including the ability to scan apps before installation), and most importantly, they all offer 100% detection rates compared to Play Protect's ratings of 66.9% and 79.6%. So while Play Protect has the convenience of being built-in, its inability to detect malware is too poor to trust.
With its combination of ease of use and an extensive feature list, Sophos Mobile Security is our choice for best antivirus app. Sophos does nearly everything Play Protect can do and more — all for the same price of free. Sophos is ad-free and includes several features not found in any other app on our list, so the fact that it's completely free places it well ahead of the last two entries in our list.
For those wanting the ability to scan apps beforehand, Norton Mobile Security is a great option. While it does come with a $14.99 a year annual price, it has all the same features as Play Protect but at a much higher detection rate.
This article was produced during Gadget Hacks' special coverage on smartphone privacy and security. Check out the whole Privacy and Security series.