A guide to free antivirus applications on the Mac

A lot has been written arguing for or against the need for an antivirus application on the Mac. Due to their small numbers, Mac users have been lucky to go about their business with almost no fear of being targeted by malware and viruses. It’s called security through obscurity, and it’s a sort of security that’s tenuous at best. As Macs grow in popularity, it’s inevitable that more and more malicious attacks will be directed towards them. Additionally, Mac users can act as carriers by inadvertently infecting Windows users when sharing files.

Despite the small number of Mac users, there’s quite the selection of applications on the commercial side, from companies like Intego, Avast, McAfee, and Norton. Features and performance vary wildly, but they all run about $50 per year for a single computer.

There’s also a handful of free options, as well, which (IMHO) takes the steam out of any argument against using an antivirus on the Mac. Sophos is a British security company that has recently dropped the price of their Sophos Anti-Virus for Mac Home Edition to zero. It not only scans your computer, but also has an agent running in the background that will warn you if you download a malicious file. I found the agent to be fairly unobtrusive and not a noticeable drain on system resources (a major plus). It can detect not only Mac viruses, but ones affecting Windows as well. I did manage to freeze up my computer on the first scan with Sophos, due to a bug in the program that won’t let it properly scan Bootcamp partitions. Once I made an exception for Bootcamp, however, it ran smoothly.

ClamXav is an open-source option (the Mac equivalent of ClamAV for Windows and Unix) that has been freely to Mac users for several years. Unlike the Sophos program, I found it slightly more difficult to use and far more resource intensive (it was impossible for me to do much of anything while performing a scan). Also unlike Sophos, there is no background agent that will monitor downloads or files you open – it focuses more on scanning. You can, however, configure the “Sentry” feature to monitor specific folders, and files added to that folder will be scanned automatically.

Though I’ve never personally used it, iAntiVirus by PC Tools is also available for free. It focuses on being an extremely light and not resource intensive, with most reviews agreeing on its quick scan times. Unfortunately, it only protects against Mac-specific viruses, which still leaves open the possibility that your machine could be used to spread infections to Windows users you share files with.

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