Does The Mac Need AntiVirus?

Posted May 23, 2008 11:02 am by with 28 comments

Ever since I personally made the transition to the Apple platform late last year, we have (obviously) had a lot more coverage of Apple here on PCMech. This has helped raise the awareness of Apple products on what used to be a very PC-centric tech site. As a result, I often get asked questions about Apple and OS X by PCMech visitors. Very often these questions come when we are doing our PCMech LIVE show.

One of the questions we get most has to do with antivirus for the Mac. Does it need it? What do I recommend?

Security Confusions for Mac Owners

One thing all Mac owners need to keep in mind is that OS X is not immune to viruses. The overwhelming reason Windows has so much more virus activity is because Windows is so much more popular than OS X. If OS X were as highly used as the Windows platform, OS X would have a much larger virus problem. In fact, I would expect that as the Apple platform gains in popularity, we will see more viruses come into the wild specifically targeting OS X.

That said, much of the talk about virus activity for the Mac is propagated by companies who market antivirus programs for the Mac. These companies will issue press releases laced with scare tactics talking about huge increases in Mac viruses in the wild. In reality, though, there are only around 200 known Mac viruses in the wild, most of which have caused very little in the way of damage. Further, many of those 200 target versions prior to OS X.

It is common knowledge that Windows is barraged with virus attack after virus attack. Windows users, even the newbies, know they need some security on their systems. Mac owners, though, are left in a bit of a conundrum. We care about security, but we don’t really know what we need. Speaking for myself, I don’t have any special security on any of my Macs and have had no problems at all.

Rich Mogull says the following over at TidBits:

Even if Mac OS X is no more secure, we Mac users are currently at a lower level of risk than our Windows counterparts. It’s reasonable to assume that this dynamic could change, but considering the current level of risk, and the resource intensity of most antivirus software, it’s hard to recommend antivirus except under limited circumstances.

And he leads me into the heart of the matter…

Do Mac Owners Need Anti-Virus Or Not?

I will never sit here and tell a Mac owner not to install anti-virus. If you do install something, chances are it is going to impact the performance of your Mac in a negative way. But, you will be safer than if you run nothing.

Personally, though, I choose not to. I don’t want the performance impact. When I weigh out the risks, it isn’t worth it for me. Let’s see, a tiny risk of infection from the small batch of Mac viruses that actually exist, or the 100% chance that my system performance will suffer at the hands of an intrusive anti-virus program. And face it, antivirus programs ARE intrusive. They have to be to do their job.

So, Do Nothing?

On the contrary. As I said, Macs are not immune to security breaches. In fact, as far as pure OS design, I wouldn’t say OS X is really any better in the security department than Windows Vista. I think it is clearly more secure than Windows XP SP2, but Windows Vista (despite it’s annoyances) is a more secure version of Windows. Windows Vista just happens to have a bigger target on it so it appears to be less secure.

Mac owners can enjoy their relative obscurity for now, but don’t rest on your laurels and do nothing. There are some things a Mac owner can do to not invite problems:

  1. You DO want anti-virus scanning on your incoming email. The good news here is that most free web-based email services do this for you. I am a Gmail user and they scan all my attachments for me.
  2. Don’t surf porn or fringe websites. If you surf websites that would be run by people who like to shirt the usual society ethics standards, you are at higher risk of infection. Period. If you surf these kinds of sites, be aware of the additional risk. If you lay down with dogs, you’ll wake up with fleas. So, you might also want to use Firefox along with the NoScript add-on to shelter you from some of the risk associated with these sites.
  3. If you are running an Intel-based Mac and use Windows on your Mac, you want to install anti-virus to your Windows installation. Windows is still Windows, regardless of the machine it is running on. If you install Windows to our Mac, you just installed that big bullseye to your machine.

Mac Anti-Virus Options

While Mac users can take comfort in the fact that they are more or less under the radar for the time being, we have to remember that our Windows friends are front-and-center targets of virus authors. Since we live in a very Windows-centric world, it is important to take into consideration those who do use Windows. If you, as a Mac user, routinely share files and forward emails to friends who use Windows, you might want to consider running anti-virus in order to protect THEM. While your risk is low, their risk is higher so you wouldn’t want to help infect their systems unwittingly.

There are several anti-virus options available for the Mac, if you wanted to run one:

  1. Norton AntiVirus. Some have reported issues with Norton on their Macs while others say it runs flawlessly. Norton is and will remain a leader in this field, but my experience is that their products tend to take over the machine.
  2. aVast! AntiVirus for Mac.
  3. Sophos Anti-Virus for Mac
  4. McAfee VirusScan for Mac
  5. ClamXav. This is a free, open source antivirus utility that generally gets good marks from those who use it. It supposedly has lower impact on system performance, which is a good thing.

Just run a search on Google for “mac anti-virus” and you’ll find other options available.

Finis

Mac users, we currently enjoy a mostly virus free computing experience. The need for anti-virus programs on our Macs is questionable. At this point, I personally fall on the side that says they do more harm than good at this point. But, Mac users need to not make the mistake of becoming cocky about this. All “Mac versus PC” hype aside, the fact remains that OS X can and has been compromised before. OS X is not immune. For the time being, we will remain under the radar. As Mac sales increase as people defect from Windows, our under-the-radar status might not last forever.

Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.

28 responses to Does The Mac Need AntiVirus?

  1. Michael Crispin May 23rd, 2008 at 11:21 am

    Viruses are not caused by popularity, they are caused by inherent weaknesses in the OS.

    In as much as you blame the the amount of viruses in Windows environments on the brute amount of people knowledgeable to attack it, would it not also be fair to point out that the “good guys” who are trying to protect Windows are also numerous?

    Given that there have been no significant attacks in OSX since it’s arrival in 2001, one would think the target would be increasingly attractive. Certainly the first person to do some damage to OSX would indeed become instantly famous and respected.

    All other things aside, I agree with your general view on OSX security. You just didn’t apply much critical thinking to your premise.

        Reply

    • David Risley May 23rd, 2008 at 12:14 pm

      It isn’t about number of virus authors who use Windows. It is about number of end users who use Windows. A virus author is looking to make maximum impact. It brings notoriety. Windows is a more attractive target because a virus can spread like wildfire. On a Mac, not so much.

      And, yes, I would think a good OS X virus *would* bring notoriety. But, I think that actually makes OS X look good being that it hasn’t happened yet.

          Reply

  2. Dusty Edwards May 23rd, 2008 at 3:24 pm

    I’m a new Mac user myself and often wonder about AV protection for OSX. After reading this post, you have cleared up many ?’s I’ve had about the vulnerabilities of OSX v. Virus’s. At this time I’m not willing to sacrifice system performance with the threat level as low as it is for now.

    I would like to say Thanks, for such a great post and clearing up so many ?’s regarding AV’s and OSX.

        Reply

  3. silicon avatar May 24th, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    The best AV software for Windows is Nod32 from Eset. It’s too bad they don’t make an OSX version.

    It seems kind of silly not to run a free AV scan once in a while. The performance hit of a program like ClaimXav should not be that great on any modern Mac – and if it is you can just take it back off.

    It’s basically free insurance.

        Reply

  4. Dusty Edwards May 24th, 2008 at 8:36 pm

    I agree, Nod32 is great! I have been running Nod32 on my Win PC’s for yrs. and would like to see it available for OSX. I think as Mac’s continue to grow that we will see more and more AV Distro’s available to the Mac Community. We, can only hope and wait … ;-)

        Reply

    • The anti virus GUY July 2nd, 2009 at 4:41 pm

      Nod32 isn’t the best Av solution for windows Bit Defender is and it does not slow down your pc

          Reply

      • Marco June 5th, 2010 at 10:03 pm

        Yes it does. Try measuring the frame rates of a game with and without bitdefender and you’ll see the difference

            Reply

  5. bibop June 11th, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    so.. where are those osx virus?? the overwhelming answer is, there no virus for osx in the wild, only a couple of proof of concepts… stay hungry, stay fool stay virus free :)

        Reply

  6. tony September 9th, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    so based on what you are saying as long as i delete my temp internet files and my temp files i should be able to avoid any virus problems due to the low number of viruses and (based on my understanding) that OSX and other mac os have closed registries that can’t be messed wtih

        Reply

  7. Jenn January 12th, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    I had Norton Antivirus my school provided for free on my Mac. I just uninstalled it because it caused my computer to not be able to shut down when scanning.

        Reply

  8. Rods January 23rd, 2009 at 5:38 am

    New Trojan targets Mac OS
    January 22, 2009
    Source:Web User
    http://www.webuser.co.uk/news/275636.html

        Reply

    • KELLY August 15th, 2009 at 3:35 pm

      hmmm…. hard to see this as a virus that could catch the unsuspecting Mac user off guard…. if anyone is stupid enough to download pirated versions of software, they’re asking for bad things like malware…

          Reply

  9. dfw24 February 26th, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    I don’t understand what the big deal about anti virus is. I have been running Windows on six different computers for six years without any anti virus or third party firewall. I have run several Norton scans through the years,all with the same result-THEY FOUND NOTHING!

        Reply

    • Caroline June 11th, 2010 at 12:02 pm

      dfw24, unfortunately, that doesn’t mean nothing is on the system. On our PC’s we’ve used Norton, Spysweeper, and McAfee and all left Trojans and other malware undetected.

          Reply

  10. BlackEgo March 8th, 2009 at 5:25 am

    Thank you very much for this post.
    in a scale of 1-10 , I give u 10 for this post.

        Reply

  11. mt2911 April 1st, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    This was very helpful. I have both Mac and PC, and have been worried about my Mac, suspecting but not sure that the threat level was pretty low. I am not a “risky” user, so its not been a huge concern, but still, this was reassuring and informative.

        Reply

  12. After 1 year of switching to Mac | 'A' Club April 14th, 2009 at 8:57 am

    [...] caution is observed, no need of installing anti-virus as well. Check out the relevant articles at PCMech and [...]

        Reply

  13. Malware Makers Begin Attacking “Under Served” Mac Users August 12th, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    [...] And for the past three years on my radio show I have said that the reason Mac users don’t get many viruses is because not many people were using Mac. [...]

        Reply

  14. KELLY August 15th, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    Just as an FYI to anyone who’s interested in getting AV software for their Mac; I have recently purchased the new “Trend Smart Surfing” from Trend Micro. Trend Micro is new to the Mac world; however, they are well respected in the Windows world… especially the corporate world.

    Anyway – Trend Smart Surfing has a very intuitive, well-designed interface, and runs with a light footprint.

        Reply

  15. D Knight August 21st, 2009 at 9:44 am

    I agree with some of the points you have raised and completely agree there is a low risk of Mac users catching viruses. I made the switch to mac about 4 years ago now because I was sick and tired of having to spend a disproportionate amount of my time cleaning up after my PC and defending against endless virus attacks.

    And as much as I agree the risk is low, there is a still a risk. How dumb would you feel if you were sitting there in your contempt little mac world thinking you were immune and taking NO precautions only to have your whole hard drive wiped or you financial data stolen. I’ve been running AV on my Mac from the beginning, I have Intego’s Virus Barrier, NetBarrier and Anti-Spam which costs me about £30 a year to keep them all running. Many people tell me it’s pointless and I’m wasting my money, but usually they’re all a load of Apple fan-boys who would give their left testicle to Mr Jobs given half a chance. I’ve always lived by the idea that it’s better to have something and not need it that need it and not have it.

    Think of it this way, we all have locks on our doors and windows right? So why do so many people have burglar alarms? Is it because they’re paranoid lunatics who think the world is out to get them? Of course not, it’s because they value what’s inside their home. It’s for the same reason people buy house, car, life, travel, phone and pet insurance. You might NEVER need any of it, but prevention is ALWAYS better than cure.

    Maybe I’m just paranoid and I really am wasting my money, but £30 a year is a relatively small fee for the added security benefits. I guess we will find out in time whether it’s worth it or not!

        Reply

    • Hedley September 17th, 2009 at 11:33 am

      I dont understand the fear against using an antivirus. If I am using my mac for online banking or shopping then its gona have an anitivirus package installed for sure. If I surf or interact with windows users via email then I am been exposed. Sure AV packages will have a slight performamnce impact but modern day antiviruses are optimised for speed, like not rescanning already scanned files etc, and any performance degradation is not really such a big issue.

          Reply

  16. Ubay25 November 4th, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    Who needs an antivirus when you’ve got Windows Steady State. I think is an absolutely great software from MS and it is free!
    If you get infected, a simple reboot will clear it all and you go back to your original configuration. This is also helpful for software testing, when you want to try different softwares by installing all of them, with WSS you just reboot the machine again and the softwares you installed are cleared!
    By just changing the model of protecting your machine, it makes all the difference no need to be bothered with antiviruses and antispywares, blah blah blah!

        Reply

  17. Paddy December 10th, 2009 at 8:53 am

    Hey. Thanks for this post. it was a balanced and well-considered view. I had heard that Macs were less susceptible to viruses but it is good to hear the current ‘state of play’ and topics to be considered. Well done!

        Reply

  18. Tom December 25th, 2009 at 12:50 am

    lol… i just installed PCTools’ iAntivirus onto my mac. Scans fast, doesnt lag… i dont see why ppl are complaining that AV software slows down your mac. Unless you have an old powerPC mac, they honestly dont slow down ur system.

    Checking out activity monitor with a scan running, it only uses 10% of my CPU…. Compare that to norton running on windows, it uses 70-80%.

    http://img194.imageshack.us/img194/5236/screenshot20091225at346.png

        Reply

  19. Alan January 14th, 2010 at 9:43 pm

    I use Clam. I update and scan with it every day. In the last year, it’s found 2 “infected files,” which were just phishing attempts that had already been dumped in Thunderbird’s spam folder.

    Just get Clam and maintain it. It can’t possibly hurt and you might avoid accidentally sending something malicious to your Windows-using friends.

        Reply

  20. Mike May 14th, 2010 at 2:04 am

    I’ve been using Kapersky AV for years on PCs (don’t appear to intrude like Norton and McAffee which are sometimes difficult to completely uninstall – there’s always a file lurking somewhere) but I’m thinking of getting a fast iMac . Wonder if anyone has tried using Kapersky on the newer i Macs.

        Reply

    • Geoff June 10th, 2010 at 6:29 am

      I’ve been using Kaspersky AV on my MacBook for some time now, I have it running all the time and have not noticed any degradation in machine performance and also the updates to virus definitions are tiny and daily, so always on top of any new threats. I have AV installed on my MAC as I also have windows machines on the network and without any protection my MAC would be the gateway for any malicious attack.

          Reply

  21. Steve Jobs October 19th, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    EVERYONE needs protection on the web. No OS is safe from attack. If Mac users think they are safe and don’t install protection, all it will take is one halfway-descent programming Mac hater to take down every Mac in the world.

    http://TechReview.LIEconomy.com

        Reply

Leave a Reply