Over the years, antivirus has morphed into security software. You can still buy basic antivirus, or get it completely free, but it’s just one form of defence against a multitude of threats that exist today.
Really, you need a security suite to protect your devices from other kinds of malware besides viruses, as well as helping you to avoid so-called phishing attacks, which trick you into handing over personal information such as login details, your name, address, bank account numbers and more.
VPN services are increasingly being bundled into security suites to add another tool in the modern armoury, offering a mix of security and privacy when browsing the web, shopping online and downloading files.
More recently, VPN companies themselves have begun to add antivirus to their offering, either for free or – more commonly – as a bolt-on feature for an extra free.
They all promise all-round protection under a single subscription, but the question is which is the better approach?
VPN vs Antivirus: what’s the difference?
Antivirus is responsible for preventing malicious software from harming your device and its data. Ideally, it should block any threats before they are even downloaded to your device, but should also be able to detect any rogue files or apps already present, as well as scan email attachments.
Think of it like a shield that protects you from any internet nasties, regardless of what they do. Some might try to spy on you by recording what you type, or by using your device’s camera or microphone to watch and listen. Others might encrypt your files and demand a ransom to unlock them, while others still might just display unwanted adverts. Good antivirus software stops them all.
So, this is what a traditional security suite does:
- Blocks and removes malware, including viruses
- Protects your files from ransomware
- Helps protect you from phishing scams
VPNs, on the other hand, are Virtual Private Networks. This is completely different to antivirus. A VPN creates a safe ‘tunnel’ between your device and the internet so that any data that travels through it cannot be seen by anyone wanting to find out what it contains.
A VPN makes it safer to use public Wi-Fi in cafes, hotels and airports, as well as safer to use the internet in general, preventing anyone seeing what you’re searching for online, which websites you’re looking at, and what you’re downloading.
As a totally separate benefit, a VPN can make it appear that you’re somewhere other than your true location. This allows you to access websites, videos and any other content that’s restricted to certain countries or regions.
These are the benefits of a VPN:
- Encrypts your data so no-one can eavesdrop on your online activities
- Hides your IP address to make it hard for anyone to identify who you are
- Can change your location so you can access region-locked content
Admittedly, there aren’t loads of options here, but that’s because we’ve only listed the services we’d use ourselves. The others simply don’t make the grade… yet.
Both NordVPN and Surfshark have added antivirus to their VPN services: Nord provides this for free and Surfshark does if you pay extra for its ‘One’ bundle.
Surfshark has now been independently tested by AV-test in November and December 2022. The results aren’t wonderful: it managed to block only 91.9% of so-called zero-day attacks compared to the industry average of 99.3%. yet, so it’s not possible to say how they compare to the best antivirus out there.
It also caused slowdowns for browsing popular websites and installing apps: an average of 72.5% slower for installing apps compared to the average of 17%.
Given that free antivirus from a variety of companies performs better than this, there’s currently no reason you’d choose Surfshark’s.
NordVPN hasn’t been tested yet by any of the labs (that we know of) so it’s not possible to recommend it either.
Best VPN and Antivirus
1. Bitdefender Premium Security Plus (Ultimate Security)
- Excellent antivirus
- Decent VPN service
- Identity protection
- Can’t use VPN on smart TVs / Firestick
Price When Reviewed:
$89.99 (first year); $179.99 (subsequent years)
Bitdefender Premium Security Plus (or Ultimate Security in the US) is the company’s latest mega-suite which includes all of its security products: antivirus, VPN, password manager and identity protection. The latter is what makes it ‘Plus’ and ‘Ultimate’ and it’s possible to opt for a cheaper package which doesn’t include the ID protection if you don’t want it.
Of course, you still get antivirus and VPN and Bitdefender has really stepped up its VPN game over the past year. Although it hasn’t quite managed to roll out WireGuard to all four apps, it’s there on Android and it now unblocks some popular streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu. It didn’t allow us to watch any UK streaming services including BBC iPlayer, though.
There’s now a kill switch and various other features such as split-tunnelling and auto-connect, but their capabilities vary considerably between operating systems. And it’s a shame that (as with some others here) the VPN works only on the main four: Windows, Android, iOS and macOS. Nevertheless, this is still just about the best VPN from a traditional antivirus company that we’ve seen.
Bitdefender’s antivirus is excellent, providing strong security against all types of malware without slowing down your device.
If you do go for the top package with identity protection, you’ll benefit from a personal “Health” score which makes it easier to understand how much of your data has been compromised and how serious the breaches are. Of course, you’ll also get alerts any time there’s a new leak containing any of your details, as well as recommendations for what to do about it.
2. Norton 360 Deluxe
- ID protection
- Cloud storage included
- Unlimited use of VPN
- Not all features available on all devices
- No kill switch on Android
Price When Reviewed:
$49.99 (1 year, 5 devices), $104.99 subsequent years
Norton is one of the best-known names in security, and also one of the most trusted. There’s little need to talk about how great its antivirus is: it’s had three decades to hone that to near perfection. (It also offers a 100% virus guarantee, so if some malware does make it onto your device and Norton’s techs can’t remove it, you can claim your money back.)
The VPN side of things has improved significantly over the past year or two, to the point where we’re happy to recommend it as a great alternative to the best standalone VPN services. It has been developed by Norton, rather than being bought in and branded as Norton – something that’s fairly common with other antivirus software providers.
Norton’s VPN has no data limits, so you can use it as much as you like. We also found that it was able to unblock US Netflix, which is good news if you want to watch those but don’t live in the US. It doesn’t unblock everything, and there are no apps for smart TVs or streaming devices, but it does let you choose from a list of 29 countries, and blocks ads when the VPN is connected.
On Windows and Android, you can even download torrents by selecting Torrent-optimised region from the list of locations. We’d still like to see a kill switch added to the iOS app, but there is one in the Windows and Android apps.
Beyond antivirus and VPN, Norton 360 Deluxe has plenty to offer, including 50GB of cloud storage, a password manager and identity protection.
If you want a single subscription for all your security needs, Norton 360 Deluxe is very difficult to beat.
Read our full
Norton 360 Deluxe review
3. Avast One Essential
- Completely free version available
- Excellent protection
- Protection more limited on iOS and Android
- No kill switch in VPN
Price When Reviewed:
Avast One is a new offering from Avast, which is well known for its free antivirus. It’s available for Windows, Mac, Android and iPhone.
On the antivirus side, it uses exactly the same ‘engine’ as the paid-for Premium version of Avast One, so you’re getting the same top-notch protection without paying. And top notch it is, with excellent ratings from the virus test labs we follow, and it also warns you of potentially dangerous websites – you just have to install the browser extensions. Plus, it automatically protects the files and documents in common folders on Windows from ransomware.
We’re big fans of the friendly interface which is clear and easy to understand, and offers both dark and light modes.
Of course, there’s also a VPN as part of the bundle, and this is where the free version places some limits. You can’t select a location from the 35 countries available to paying users: it just connects to the fastest available server.
That means you can’t use it to unblock US Netflix or other streaming services. However, it does grant you 5GB of data per week which, considering you won’t be using it to watch video, is absolutely loads.
It’ll remind you when you might need to turn on the VPN, and it’ll do this when you’re on a shopping, banking or other ‘sensitive’ websites. It can also be set to connect to a server when your device connects to an untrusted Wi-Fi network. Unfortunately, there’s no kill switch to protect your real IP address and data from ‘leaking’ out if the VPN connection ever drops.
But, for free, you’ll struggle to find a better antivirus and VPN bundle than this.
4. McAfee Total Protection
- ID protection
- Very easy to use
- Unlimited use VPN
- No kill switch in VPN
- Doesn’t unblock streaming services
Price When Reviewed:
US$39.99 per year (2 years, 5 devices), $119.99 subsequent years
McAfee is a huge name in antivirus and its apps have a much friendlier interface than they used to. You’ll see meaningful messages that tell you what to do – or not to worry – rather than bamboozle you with worrying-sounding technical terms.
Like Norton, the antivirus side of McAfee is ace. It scores highly in tests from the independent malware-testing labs. And also like Norton, it bundles extras including a password manager and – relatively new for UK users (but old news for those in the US) – an ID protection service.
McAfee bought well-known VPN service TunnelBear a few years back, so it’s unfair to say that it’s simply using another VPN’s service branded as McAfee, though you won’t see any mentions of TunnelBear when you use the VPN.
Unfortunately, McAfee does still fall down on its VPN offering because it doesn’t reliably unblock streaming services. McAfee says it’s for security, not entertainment, so it’s suited to those who only need the privacy side of a VPN. And for that, it offers unlimited data, a choice of 50 countries and – on Android – the ability to choose which apps use the VPN and which don’t.
It’s disappointing that there’s no kill switch in any of its apps, so there’s a risk your data and real IP address could be exposed if the VPN connection ever stops.
This is why McAfee doesn’t place any higher on this list.
Read our full
McAfee Total Protection review
How to choose a good VPN + antivirus bundle
If you’re going to get antivirus and VPN together, both need to perform well. But how do you choose the best one?
Here are some features to look out for:
- Antivirus test results: Although no antivirus can guarantee 100% protection against all malware, some are more effective than others. Look for the most recent test results from independent test labs including SE Labs, AV-Test and AV-Comparatives.
- Extra features: Look for tools such as password managers which store your logins and enter usernames and passwords automatically for websites, apps and wherever you need to log in.
- VPN features: To get the best protection, you really want a kill switch, but there are nice-to-haves such as double VPN (which routes your connection through two servers instead of one). Avoid services with daily data limits: if you’re paying, you should be able to use it as much as you want.
- No-logs policy: It’s crucial that any VPN service can be trusted with your data. Almost all claim not to ‘log’ any data, but look for third-party audits which confirm that the company does what it says.
- Customer support: When you need help, it should be available 24/7 from knowledgeable agents.
- Price: Make sure the service covers all the devices you need to protect, and look for discounts. These can save you money for one or more years, but watch out for renewal prices that are much, much higher.
If you’re wondering if you need both, you do. A VPN alone can’t protect your devices from malware and antivirus alone can’t protect your data and your identity online.
The other option is to subscribe to antivirus and VPN services separately. Think of it a bit like mixing and matching, which means you can get the best antivirus and the best VPN and don’t need to compromise on one of them.
It’s less convenient than an all-in-one bundle because you need to sign up and pay separately and it may cost more because you’re paying for two services. However, it doesn’t have to be a lot more and – as mentioned – it is possible to get free antivirus which can be as good as paid-for packages (albeit with fewer features in most cases).