updated 11:15 am EST, Mon December 8, 2008
First Look: VirusBarrier
The majority of worms, viruses and Trojan horses attack and infect Windows systems. While the Mac is theoretically more secure due to its Unix underpinnings, the growing popularity of Macs may only make them more enticing as a target. There are already a handful of Trojan horses for the Mac, and the threat will likely continue to grow. Anti-virus software may remain optional for Mac users, but if you want to play it safe, you can protect your Mac with something like Intego's VirusBarrier.
Don't let the name fool you; the program is, of course, able to detect and destroy worms and Trojan horses as well. The difference between these three categories of malware is subtle. A virus can only spread by attaching itself to another file, such as a Word document. The moment you share an infected file with someone and the person opens the file, the second computer becomes infected.
Viruses are seen as a dying technology however, given that few people share individual program files anymore, and viruses that infect document files must rely on macro programming language, such as VBA (Visual Basic for Applications).
Many Windows users use Microsoft Office, which includes VBA support. However, not as many Mac users rely on Microsoft Office, and if they use the latest Office 2008, it doesn't include VBA support at all. As a result, the threat of virus infection on a Mac is minimal at best.
The real danger comes from Trojan horses and worms. A Trojan horse is simply a program disguised as something else, such as a game. The moment you run a Trojan it may do something unexpected, such as wipe out your hard disk, or simply poke a hole in your firewall to allow later access.
Fortunately, VirusBarrier can detect and destroy common Mac Trojans, such as a new series dubbed RSPlug. Since Trojans can often circumvent firewalls due to users' choice, expect more to appear.
The other type of malware is worms, which are like self-contained viruses that spread themselves throughout the Internet. A firewall alone can often block a worm from getting into your computer, but an app like VirusBarrier may act as a second line of defense.
A problem with many anti-virus programs is that they gobble up resources and slow your computer down, and so VirusBarrier is claimed to use a minimal amount of memory, as well as stay out of your way when scanning files. To speed up scanning, the software gives you the option of turning off its ability to scan for Windows viruses. One problem with all Mac anti-virus programs is that the number of real threats is fairly low, so they tend to pad their database with Windows virus signatures.
This allows the program to scan and kill any Windows viruses infecting your computer, but the larger question you have to ask is: do you really care? Even if your Mac is infested with a thousand different Windows viruses, they can't hurt your Mac one bit. If you regularly share files with Windows users, or copy files between your Mac and a copy of Windows running in a virtual machine, then stripping away Windows viruses might be important. For the large majority of Mac users, protecting yourself against Windows viruses is pointless.
One feature that separates VirusBarrier from its rivals is that it can also scan an iPhone or iPod touch for viruses. The feature is more of a preventative measure at this point, as there are no malicious iPhone or Touch viruses in distribution. Especially given Apple's vetting process before posting anything at the App Store, the chances are slim that a major virus outbreak will occur through one of its players.
For $69.95, VirusBarrier is a small, fast virus scanner that will keep a Mac free from software infestations. As the Mac's growing popularity will inevitably attract more malware creators, it's a nice program to keep your Mac secure, though it may not be a necessary one at the moment.