What is an antivirus program?
The job of an antivirus program is to check whether any programs coming into the computer, via the Internet, USB stick or whatever, are malicious or harmful, and to stop any that are. Think of antivirus software as being like a customs officer at the airport, who checks the bags of incoming passengers to see if they are carrying guns, explosives or drugs.
NB: you should only have ONE antivirus program on your computer, as two or more will conflict with each other.
How do I check whether I have an antivirus program running?
Go to Control Panel and open Windows Security Center (see the link on the left for more details). Check the Virus Protection (XP) or Malware Protection (Vista) section.
If the Virus Protection/Malware protection is green, is everything OK?
No, not necessarily. You need to check that you only have ONE antivirus program installed. To do this, click on the arrow at the end of the section. If you have two antivirus programs installed, Security Center will report "multiple" antivirus programs. If this is the case with your computer, it's best to ask an expert which one to uninstall and how to do this.
Windows Vista users should note the following: Windows Vista Security Center also checks for an antispyware program (don't worry too much about what this is or how it differs from an antivirus program). You may find that your antispyware program is exactly the same as your antivirus program, as in the picture above; most programs actually do both. You may also have two antispyware programs, which is OK.
What should I do if Windows Security Center reports a problem with the antivirus program?
If Security Center reports that your antivirus program is out of date, it might be that you just need to open up the program and make it update. If this doesn't work, it might be that your subscription has expired; you need to pay every year for the virus definition service, i.e. the constantly updated list of malicious programs that your antivirus software will attempt to stop. If you know that your subscription has just expired, then you should be OK to pay for a new subscription online. However, if you don't know when it expires/expired, or the program won't update for any other reason, it's best to ask an expert for help. The whole reason for having an antivirus program is to make it safe to buy things online; if it's not working, a malicious program could grab your credit card details while you're renewing the subscription. If you should discover that you don't have any antivirus protection, don't buy a program online, for the same reason. Either buy a boxed product in a shop, or use a properly protected computer to buy the program, and transfer the downloaded software and licence key to your own computer on a USB stick. Better still, ask an expert to install the program for you, and check that no harm has been done.
Does it matter which antivirus program I use?
Yes, it does. Whilst any genuine antivirus program will be much better than nothing, some programs are much better than others. Some programs are much more effective at protecting your computer than others; some programs will run on older, slower computers without slowing them down; some programs are easier to use than others, and some manufacturers offer good telephone support when you need help, while others don't. For a recommendation for the best antivirus program for you and your computer, please click on the Antivirus Programs link at the top of the page.
I'm still using the 2003 version of my antivirus program. Is this OK?
No, we definitely don't recommend it. Most antivirus manufacturers, as well as constantly updating the list of viruses etc that the programs should stop, also bring out new versions of the entire program every year. The newer versions nearly always bring improvements in protection, such as better heuristics (proactively identifying viruses that are not yet in the database), ability to detect different attack routes for malicious programs (e.g. web pages, email), viruses concealed in archives such as zip files, and so on. If you are using an older version of the program, chances are you're not as well protected as you should be. We advise you to check with the program's manufacturer which version they recommend for your computer, and to install that. If you have an older computer, it's possible that the very latest version might need higher performance or a different operating system. For advice on changing your antivirus program, or installing a newer version, please click here.