Antivirus with a Mac, Do You Need It?

In the past eight years that OS X has been around, there’s been a few pieces of Malware written but nothing on the scale that Windows users face. This doesn’t mean Macs are impenetrable as many may think. To counteract Malware, there are several Antivirus programs. While it’s a no-brainer that Windows needs them, what about the Mac users? Do OS X users need Antivirus?

Is Antivirus on the Mac necessary?

As I wrote in a previous article, OS X is really not as secure as many think. Making things worse, Apple is slow to patch known serious vulnerabilities long after they are public knowledge.

The best analogy to how safe OS X is, imagine a house in the middle of nowhere with an average lock on the door. It’s easy but no one is going to break into that house, because there is no one around.

Malware writers don’t target OS X because its not worth their time or they aren’t familiar with the OS. As the user base grows this may change, however the real tipping point will be when OS X becomes acceptable for use in the enterprise.

So, do you need Antivirus? On one side, Macs aren’t all that secure. On the other, no one targets them. Whether you need it or not depends on what type of user you are.

Are you a user who:

- Updates OS X regularly or automatically?
- Properly secured OS X?
- Uses a properly secured Firefox?
- Updates Firefox, Flash, Microsoft Word and everything else regularly?
- Isn’t easily fooled by socially engineered spam?

Or are you a user who:

- Downloads and installs pirated software?
- Has no idea what a codec is and just wants to watch that video?
- May update OS X every now and then but nothing else?
- Has all sorts of services, widgets and system doo-dads running?
- Deals with many Microsoft Office documents from others?
- Thinks Adobe Acrobat Reader is necessary on OS X?
- Works and shares files with Windows users often.

Let’s be honest here. Most users are a combination of the two. You may be smart enough not to download cracked software but haven’t updated your legitimate Adobe CS suite in a year.

The point is, if you are responsible with your system, are able to secure it properly, and continue to properly maintain it, for the moment – Antivirus isn’t necessary. This may change in the future but it’s not likely until three things happen:

1. OS X becomes accepted in the Enterprise.
2. OS X’s worldwide market share grows.
3. OS X development becomes more familiar in Asia, Russia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

Most of us aren’t perfect angels with our systems, and in the future we may all need it, so Antivirus is highly recommended. In addition, if your system were compromised – would you be able to tell?

Which Antivirus to use?

There’s many Antivirus vendors out there. Some are more effective than others. Some eat system resources and slow down your machine more than others. Some are so popular, malware is written to get around them.

Also, when reading AntiVirus reviews, remember that the majority of them are focusing on the Windows version. Unless they specifically review the Mac version, assume it’s Windows and your results with the OS X version may differ from their results.

Note: No Antivirus is 100% effective and for the most part, it’s a catch-up game. The Virus comes first, then the definition/patch to detect and remove it.

- Norton Antivirus for Mac: Symantec’s Norton AntiVirus is one of the most popular. With a huge installed base, Norton is well known enough for malware authors to write code specific to getting around Norton’s defenses. With a reputation for being a huge brick upon your system as resources, and an uninstaller that doesn’t always remove everything, Norton AntiVirus is a monster. In addition, Norton AntiVirus will repeatedly nag you if you let the subscription run out. While they have made huge improvements in their latest offering, Norton AntiVirus is still not recommended at all.

- McAfee: In second place for mainstream popularity is McAfee’s VirusScan for Mac and catering to a corporate / business / large deployment base, they do not offer a home version for OS X. So, McAfee can’t be recommended for home users.

- Sophos: Sophos AntiVirus for Mac is also for enterprise / corporate / large deployment use only. Can’t be recommended for home users either. Am I beginning to detect a trend?

- Intengo: Intengo’s VirusBarrier is highly recommended by MacWorld. Low on system resources and developed by a company that works exclusively with OS X, it’s “the gold standard” for Macs. A little pricey but if it protects you without bricking your system, it’s worth the extra cash.

- Avast!: Highly recommended by security professionals on the Windows side, Avast! Mac edition is one of the few available to home users. It’s low on resources and it’s ICSA certified scanning engine offers a wide range of archive support and a 100% detection rate of “In-the-wild” viruses.

- ClamAV: Completely open source, if you’re familiar with Linux and Unix, you may already know about Clam AV. Mainly used as a virus scanning engine on mail gateways, it may also be used on your Mac. While it’s comparison to commercial antivirus apps is usually pretty bad, according to Wikipedia, the testing procedures are often undocumented and may not offer a fair evaluation. Also note that ClamWin, the Windows version, is slightly different from ClamAV and has lower detection rates. I’d be willing to bet that they use ClamWin when they do their evaluations.

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