For many years, Apple fans scoffed at the idea of installing antivirus protection for Macs. Viruses? Malware? Those are Windows problems! While it’s true that Windows is a much more popular target for malware coders, macOS devices aren’t as invulnerable as some might think. If you don’t want to spend money on antivirus protection for your Mac, consider installing the free Sophos Home (for Mac). It’s extraordinarily simple, and it does well in testing.
Installation and Interface
To get started with Sophos, you register for an online account. Once you’ve confirmed your email, you can install protection on 10 devices, macOS or Windows, and your subscription never expires. Installation on my test Apple MacBook Air 13-Inch went very quickly. Within a minute or two, the product was ready to use, including all the latest antivirus signature updates.
I mentioned that this product is simple, with a clean interface. The main window reports status at the top, with a button to get details about any alerts. Another button takes you to your Sophos account online. One click launches a full scan. There doesn’t seem to be a quick scan option. The rest of the window is occupied by three simple on/off switches for real-time protection, web protection, and detection of PUAs, or potentially unwanted applications. That’s it!
Pricing and OS Support
Mac users often justify skipping antivirus protection on the basis that there just isn’t a lot of Mac malware. Why spend money on something you might not need? But Mac malware is on the rise, and you can install Sophos at no charge, as long as you’re not using it in a commercial setting. Avira Free Antivirus for Mac is also free, with no restrictions, and no requirement to even register.
Commercial Mac antivirus pricing is typically just under $40 per year for a single license. Half of the current products fit that model, and most of those give you three licenses for $59.99 per year. With McAfee AntiVirus Plus (for Mac), that $59.99 subscription price gets you not three licenses but unlimited licenses. You can install it on all the macOS, Windows, Android, and iOS devices in your household.
My experience has been that Mac users are more likely to keep their operating systems fully updated than their Windows-loving counterparts. Even so, not everyone has the very latest macOS Sierra installed. Like Intego Mac Internet Security X9, Sophos supports older versions, back to Mountain Lion (10.8). Avira, which is also free, requires at least El Capitan (10.11), the most stringent OS requirement among my current collection of Mac antivirus products.
Good Malware Protection Test Scores
A lot of different criteria go into the making of a good antivirus product, including excellent bonus features, an attractive user interface, a reasonable price, and so on. None of these matter, though, if the product doesn’t keep your Mac free of malware. The independent antivirus labs put security products to the test and report just how effective they are. Much more test data is available for Windows antivirus utilities, but two of the labs do release test results for Mac on a regular basis. It’s a good thing, from my point of view, because few of my own testing techniques carry over to macOS.
Sophos received Mac malware certification from AV-Comparatives, with 100 percent detection in the main Mac malware test. Of course, the same is true of all the other products in this test. Several products also detected 100 percent of a collection of Windows-based malware samples, among them Bitdefender and Kaspersky. Sophos managed 98 percent detection in this second test.
The researchers at AV-Test Institute perform several different tests to rate Mac antivirus. The most important, of course, is a test of Mac malware protection. Like ESET Cyber Security (for Mac), Sophos earned 98.4 percent on this test. Bitdefender, Intego, Kaspersky, and Symantec managed 100 percent detection.
PUAs, or potentially unwanted applications, aren’t necessarily malware, but as the name implies, you probably don’t want them around. When challenged with a collection of PUAs, Sophos protected against more than 95 percent. That’s good, but most tested products scored more than 99 percent. As for detecting Windows malware, AV-Test gave Sophos (and several other products) the top score.
Scanning and Scheduling
Immediately after installing an antivirus utility you should run a full system scan for malware, to make sure there’s nothing lurking. Running that scan with Sophos on my test Mac took 45 minutes, a little longer than the average of 42 minutes, but that’s not too bad. Trend Micro’s full scan ran for more than three hours. At the other end of the spectrum, running a full scan with Webroot SecureAnywhere Antivirus (for Mac) took just two minutes.
Quite a few Mac antivirus utilities also offer a quick scan. This type of scan checks for active malware and scans system locations frequented by malware. Sophos doesn’t offer a separate quick scan. Like Bitdefender Antivirus for Mac and Kaspersky, it also doesn’t run scans on a schedule, on the basis that real-time protection should take care of any nasties that crop up after the initial full scan.
All of the Mac antivirus products I’ve reviewed also check for Windows malware, to make sure that your Mac doesn’t act as a conduit to other devices on the network. I copied my current collection of Windows malware to a USB drive and scanned it with Sophos. Impressively, Sophos detected every single one of the samples. It removed high-risk items immediately, but left lower-risk PUAs for my review. In each case, I clicked a button to clean up the PUA. I would have liked an option to clean them all at once rather than one at a time.
For a few items, Sophos recommended manual cleanup, with a button to get instructions. The instructions thoroughly covered situations including malware found in backups, in caches, and in email attachments. In my case, all I needed to do was delete the offending files. Sophos doesn’t bother with storing detected malware in quarantine. It strips virus code from infected files and simply deletes other types of malware.
Excellent Phishing Protection
Creating a drive-by download or other web-based malware attack isn’t easy, and the payload is almost always platform-specific. Creating a phishing website, on the other hand, is a total breeze. Just build a page that looks exactly like, say, the PayPal login page, and broadcast links to that page in a spam campaign. Each unwitting dupe who logs in to your fake page is another PayPal account you own. And phishing works on any platform, in any browser.
Unlike many of the Mac antivirus products I’ve looked at, Sophos doesn’t need to install a browser add-in for protection against malicious and fraudulent URLs. Filtering happens below the browser level, which is certainly convenient.
I always use the very newest real-world fraudulent sites in my antiphishing test, gathering several hundred from websites that track such things. A tiny utility that I wrote makes it easy to launch each URL in four browsers at once. Three of those rely on the protection built into Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer, while Norton protects the fourth. As for Mac testing, my utility is no help, so I simply copy each URL to the clipboard and paste it into the browser.
The fraudsters who create phishing pages are always coming up with new dirty tricks, so rather than report detection rates as hard numbers, I report the difference between the product under testing and the other four. Very few products, whether running on Windows or macOS, can beat Norton, so the fact that Sophos came in just three percentage points behind Norton is quite good. It also outperformed the protection built into all three browsers. Avira, by contrast, fared worse in this test than the three browsers, and much worse than Norton, a full 47 percentage points behind.
Kaspersky Internet Security for Mac did even better than Sophos in this test, lagging Norton by a single percentage point, and Bitdefender actually beat Norton by five points. The Norton product I use as my touchstone is the long-standing Windows edition; Symantec Norton Security Deluxe (for Mac) fell behind in this test, 14 percentage points below its Windows cousin’s detection rate.
Online Dashboard and Content Filter
Clicking the Home Dashboard button in the main window takes you to your Sophos account online. From the dashboard, you can extend protection to another Mac or Windows box, or manage your existing installations. You can view recent activity, turn features on or off, and even launch a scan remotely.
Here’s something I didn’t expect—there’s a simple parental control component built into the dashboard. For each device, you can configure how Sophos will handle almost 30 categories of website content. By default, they’re all set to allow access, but you can set it to block matching sites, or to give the user a warning before allowing access.
I tried to access several dozen inappropriate sites, and found that the content filter blocked all of them. However, it appears that the content filter can’t handle secure (HTTPS) websites. By logging in to a secure anonymizing proxy site, I completely evaded the content filter. The same was true of the similar feature in Trend Micro Antivirus for Mac. Kaspersky offers a full parental control component, with content filtering, internet time scheduling, and more, but it, too, fell victim to a secure anonymizing proxy.
Free and Easy
Sophos Home (for Mac) has pared down antivirus protection to the essential minimum. It totally does the job, with next to no configuration settings. Two independent labs certify its protection, though its scores aren’t all at the absolute top. It did well in my antiphishing test, and it detected every single Windows malware sample I threw at it. You can even use it for simple parental control.
Bitdefender Antivirus for Mac and Kaspersky Internet Security for Mac also took certification from the two labs, with high scores across the board. Bitdefender beat the pack in my antiphishing test. It marks up dangerous links in search results, and defends your documents against ransomware. Kaspersky is a full suite, with network protection, privacy protection, parental control, and more. These two are our Editors’ Choice products for Mac antivirus, but if you can’t afford them, Sophos Home is an excellent choice.