What's the best antivirus product of 2014?

If you're lucky, you'll never get hit by a virus, drive-by download, or any other kind of malware attack. But...how will you know your antivirus is working? When the inevitable attack does hit, will your antivirus protect you? Independent antivirus testing labs exist to answer that question. They put popular antivirus products through grueling tests and report on how they do.

The latest report from AV-Test summarises test results from January and February. This time around they used 64-bit Windows 7 on the test PCs, and the results came out a bit differently from the previous test, which used 64-bit Windows 8.1.

In this test, each product can earn up to six points in three categories, protection, performance, and usability. The protection score rates how well the product defended against a small collection of zero-day attacks and a large collection of recent "widespread and prevalent" malware. The score for performance is based on how much the product slowed a variety of common activities, among them copying data and downloading software. Usability doesn't refer to the program's user interface or ease of use; rather, it reflects how often and how badly the antivirus reported a good file or website as malicious.

Last time around, Qihoo earned 5.5 points in each category, for a total of 16.5. This time it took a perfect six of six points for protection, and usability, raising that score to 17.5 of a possible 18. Bitdefender and Kaspersky tied that score. McAfee, Norton, and Trend Micro came very close, with 17 points each.

I could write an antivirus that's guaranteed to score a perfect six for usability. It wouldn't report any valid files as malicious, because it wouldn't flag any files at all. Since it does nothing, it wouldn't put any drag on the system, so there's another perfect six, for performance. Of course, its protection score would be a big fat zero.

Sounds absurd, but it's not far from reality. Korean antivirus AhnLab was the only product that didn't reach the minimum score needed to pass the test. It earned zero for protection, 3.5 for performance, and 5.5 for usability, for a total of nine points. To get certified, a product needs a total of ten points, and no zeroes.

The test includes Microsoft Security Essentials as a baseline. Any product that can't beat the security built in to modern Windows editions really isn't worth much. Do note that the researchers didn't actively turn off this built-in protection, though some of the products may have done so. Microsoft, too, scored zero for protection. Four points for performance and six for usability yielded a total of ten points for Microsoft. Note that my fictional do-nothing antivirus would have scored 12 points.

ThreatTrack passed with the bare minimum of ten points, but got just 2.5 points for protection. PCKeeper, included in testing for the first time, also earned just 2.5 points for protection, but managed a score of 11 overall.

Thanks to AV-Test and the other antivirus testing labs around the world, you can check whether your antivirus is effective without having to wait for an actual malware attack. Their work is truly crucial to understanding which security products do the best job.