Like Windows before it, the 'open' and widely popular Android system from Google has a weak security system that makes it prone to infection from dangerous malware. We reveal the best six anti-virus apps for Android as lab-tested by malware specialists AV-Test, and also investigate which are more reliable in their other security functions. (See also: Best Android apps.)
Best Android antivirus
The idea of installing security software on an Android smartphone might seem like overkill, but there are plenty of good reasons to consider doing so.
Anyone – fraudsters included – can submit apps to the Google Play Store without pre-approval, and apps can also be downloaded and installed from a wide range of other sources. That means Android users face a greater element of risk than those with iPhones or Windows Phone handsets, who can only install apps that have been properly pre-vetted for safety.
The more open nature of the Android operating system makes it more susceptible to the kind of malware that we've grown accustomed to dealing with on Windows PCs. Although the scale of the Android malware problem isn't yet as bad as it is on Windows, it remains a threat all the same. The security software test lab AV-TEST [www.av-test.org], has no fewer than 1.8 million different pieces of Android malware in their database – malware that is typically used to steal your valuable personal data from your phone without your knowledge.
Yet, even if you're careful about what apps you install or which websites you visit, there are other strong motives for installing a security suite. Such security apps routinely include anti-theft features, for example. Contrary to the name, they won't prevent theft but they may allow you to lock or wipe the data from your stolen handset. Some even include features that allow you take photos or audio recordings of the thieves. If you've merely left the phone lying in a bar or restaurant, the anti-theft features can be used to locate your handset, and display a message on the lost phone's screen, providing instructions on how to contact you to return the handset.
Another useful feature commonly found in Android security suites is call blocking. If your mobile is constantly plagued by nuisance calls or spam texts, you might be able to block the callers so that they don't interrupt your day. But this won't work when you're being plagued by pre-recorded calls hawking PPI refunds and the like, when the caller number is Unknown or Withheld. Some apps include schedulers in their call-blocking facilities, so you can divert all calls from the office to voicemail at evenings and weekends, for example.
Some suites also include app managers that allow you to password protect access to the web browser or the Google Play Store – invaluable for parents who routinely hand their phone over to children to play games and worry that they might stumble into something they shouldn't, or run up horrendous bills by purchasing apps.
Less useful are the backup facilities found in many of these suites. Some merely back up contacts, which Android already automatically does when you sign in with your Google account, while others only offer a tiny amount of space to store your photos and files. The Google+ app, on the other hand, can be set to automatically back up your photos, and that offers gigabytes of free space. (See also: Best Android apps for new smartphones and tablets.)
Best Android antivirus: app reviews
Avast Mobile Security & Anti-Virus is a suit of security and backup tools for Android smartphones and tablets.
Ikarus Mobile Security is a decent and lightweight security app for Android phone and Android tablet.
£7 inc VAT
Kaspersky Internet Security offers solid protection for Android phone and Android tablet.
Norton Mobile Security 2014 offers a vast array of security and useful phone management tools, all without any charge whatsoever.
Qihoo 360 Mobile Safe provides a vast array of security and useful phone management tools, all offered without any charge whatsoever.
Trend Micro Mobile Security is a security app for Android phone and Android tablet.
Best Android antivirus: verdict
In terms of their ability to detect today's recognised malware lurking inside Android apps, there is almost nothing to separate our six contenders – they all do a faultless or near-perfect job, according to AV-TEST's results.
Big differences do emerge when it comes to the additional features they offer, especially the potentially valuable anti-theft features. Here, it was disappointing to see Norton Mobile Security fall behind the pack, especially given it's the most expensive package on offer here. Ikarus is also light on features, but it performs well and is significantly cheaper than Norton.
Kaspersky and Trend Micro both offer solid packages, but both have weaknesses: Kaspersky has a couple of notable usability flaws while Trend Micro's extras let the side down, especially its weak anti-theft and parental control features.
In the end, it's a shootout between the free Qihoo 360 Mobile Safe, which packs in an astonishing number of features for an app that is completely free, and our favourite package from Avast, which charges a modest fee for a wide breadth of features and the best anti-theft tools of any of the apps on test here.
It's the flexibility and variety of those anti-theft tools that narrowly earns Avast Mobile Security & Anti-Virus our Best Buy award, but Qihoo 260 Mobile Safe earns a richly deserved Recommended.