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.