5 Mac AntiVirus Tools for OS X (And Do We Need Them?)

Wait aren’t Macs supposed to be immune to viruses? Can Macs really be attacked by malware? Should you be protecting yourself?

Today we’re going to take a look at five popular Mac AntiVirus utilities and jump head first into the raging debate about whether or not they should even exist. No matter which side you’re on, you’ll definitely want to check out the information below.

Why Macs Are So Safe

One of the most amazing benefits of being a Mac user is that you simply aren’t as prone to malicious virtual attackers. The primary reason for this is that the core architecture of OS X is designed to be secure right out of the box.

So why is this architecture so secure? One of many answers is that OS X heavily restricts global actions that can be performed by third party applications and utilities. What this means on a practical level is that if you hypothetically downloaded something that was tainted, it shouldn’t be able to get at your important system files.

This technique, known as “Sandboxing,” essentially blocks those silly people who sit around and create viruses (seriously, get a life man!) from doing too much damage.

Downstreaming

Keep in mind that just because most infected files won’t hurt your machine doesn’t mean you can’t act as a carrier and pass them along to your less fortunate PC brethren. If you’re of the type that loves to forward every random spam email you get (and you shouldn’t be), then you could in fact be spreading malware.

So Should I Be Worried?

There will always be Chicken Little Mac users screaming about how the sky is falling and that our hubris will lead to our eventual demise via some new Mac virus that will eat our very souls. Likewise, there are also plenty of users that stubbornly claim that Mac viruses are about as real as the Toothfairy and will always remain strictly in fantasy.

So who is right? Perhaps a more realistic view is to take the advice of the very people who created OS X: Apple inc. Here’s a screenshot of a friendly cautionary message from their site:

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A Message from Apple

There you have it, straight from the source. Granted this message is quite vague and was probably included on the advice of Apple lawyers just to protect them from any litigation, but it still holds a bit of truth in the area that I highlighted: “no system can be 100 percent immune from every threat.”

Whether or not you believe that you’re more likely to get hit by a bus while being struck by lighting during a fatal heart attack induced by over-exhaustion on a unicycle than to get infected by a Mac virus, there are still several precautions that you should consider.

Staying Safe: The All Natural Way

Before we look at the third party virus protection options, you should know a few simple techniques you can use to keep your Mac safe.

Software Updates

First of all, the most important thing you can do on a regular basis is to always install OS X Software Updates when they pop up (especially the Security Updates). It’s never a convenient time to take a break and let them run but I can’t stress enough that you need to make time for these.

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Never Ignore the Software Updates

Apple is awesome about recognizing security threats and addressing them as immediately as possible. This is yet another reason Macs are so resistant to outside intervention. When someone does come up with a clever way to manipulate a weakness, the issue is quickly solved and sent to you in the form of a Security Update. If you ignore these updates for an extended period of time, you could be failing to protect yourself against a widely publicized threat.

Protecting Your Files

While OS X goes about its business of automatically protecting your important system files, they leave it up to you to decide how much protection you want for your personal documents.

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OS X's FileVault

Go to System Preferences and click on Security to find the FileVault. Here you can encrypt all the data in your home folder to make them harder for anyone, physically present or not, to get at.

Be Internet Smart

Aside from this, just remember to use your brain when using the Internet. Don’t download anything from sources you know nothing about. Don’t open attachments from people you don’t know or even acknowledge stupid chain letter email forwards from people you do know.

If your Mac tells you that a site is bad and that you shouldn’t enter it, take the advice. Keep in mind that OS X will always warn you before opening anything you download from the web. This is almost a pointless warning though as it pops up for good and bad files alike and should therefore only serve to remind you to consider the source of the download before proceeding.

Anti-Virus Software

As Apple pointed out, even following the steps above you won’t be absolutely 100% safe. If you’re still worried about potential security threats remember that you pretty much can’t ever be too safe. Here are a few options that promise to protect you from the virus thugs.

Norton AntiVirus

That’s right, the same people that keep all those PC users safe from the never-ending sea of Windows attacks also offer protection to Mac users.

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Norton AntiVirus

Features:

  • Antivirus
  • Internet Worm Protection
  • Automatically detects and removes viruses
  • Scans and cleans downloaded files and email attachments
  • Protects against attacks that target software vulnerabilities
  • Delivers industry-leading protection in the background, so you can work and play without any noticeable impact on performance

Price: $49.95

McAfee VirusScan for Mac

McAfee is another big name in virus protection. VirusScan promises to protect you against “all types of viruses and malicious code, even new unknown threats.”

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McAfee VirusScan for Mac

Features:

  • Continuous policy enforcement for multiple files, directories, or volumes, including volumes on remote computers connected through the network.
  • Protects your Macintosh systems against all types of viruses and other threats, including emerging malware.
  • Uses the Mac OS X interface, you can initiate on-demand scanning using file drag and drop
  • Scans files as they are accessed to determine if they are infected with malware

Price: $19.99 (from CDW)

ProtectMac

For what it’s worth, ProtectMac is definitely one of the more attractive options on the market. I’m much more prone to trust someone with the protection of my Mac if they prove they really understand OS X by actually developing an application that looks and feels right at home on Snow Leopard.

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ProtectMac

Features:

  • Designed by security experts to keep you protected from today’s computer threats.
  • Real-time file-access scans, scheduled background scans, user scans, Finder scans and automatic scans of volumes.
  • Learns which files and applications are important to you, ensuring that access to these ‘hot’ files is as quick as possible without compromising computer security

Price: $44.99

iAntiVirus

iAntiVirus is attractive, extremely easy to use and claims to be “designed from the ground up to detect and remove Mac specific threats.”

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iAntiVirus

Features:

  • Perform a variety of scan types
  • Protects your Mac against infections in real time
  • Quarantines all detected infections, allowing you to easily view and restore items in the case of a false positive
  • Designed to work silently in the background, threats are blocked and removed without any system impact

Price: $29.95

VirusBarrier X6

VirusBarrier X6 definitely has an interface that’s all its own and claims to be the “only antivirus program for Mac that includes full anti-malware protection together with firewall, network protection, anti-phishing, anti-spyware features and more.”

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VirusBarrier X6

Features:

  • Includes a powerful two-way firewall, extending the program’s protection beyond detecting and eradicating malware
  • Protects users from intrusions, attacks and booby-trapped web pages
  • Detects suspicious actions carried out by applications that may be malicious
  • Protects users from phishing web sites that try to trick them into entering personal information
  • Users can choose a level of CPU time to be allocated to background scans

Price: $49.95

Closing Thoughts

Though I can hold my own on both sides of the Mac virus debate, I should admit that I don’t actually run any virus protection myself. However, my reasons for this are purely experience related (and therefore not the best to follow).

I’ve been using Macs for well over a decade. I’m on the web at least ten hours every day for work performing all kinds of research as well as downloading apps and design resources from obscure sources. I receive tons of email from all kinds of people I’ve never met. Despite all this, I’ve never come across a single file, application or website capable of doing any damage to my system.

That being said, I am still cautious. I follow all the common sense advice I gave above and generally avoid apps that seem like they really mess with important parts of my Mac (ShapShifter anyone?). I also simply never visit the types of sites that are most famous for distributing viruses and other malware (you know the sort).

Finally, I keep hourly backups of all my important data via Time Machine so if anything does go wrong I can just restore my system to where it was before the event occurred.

That being said, I think taking the extra step to purchase anti-virus software is neither overkill nor the result of being unnecessarily paranoid. It’s a great step towards protecting your Mac and something you should absolutely consider. I daresay you won’t spend too much time regretting taking the extra precaution.

Leave a comment below and let us know where you stand in the virus debate. If you do use virus protection software, which app is your favorite?