Windows 10 won’t hassle you to install an antivirus like Windows 7 did. Since Windows 8, Windows now includes a built-in antivirus named Windows Defender. But is it really the best for protecting your PC — or even just good enough?
Windows Defender is essentially the latest version of Microsoft Security Essentials, a free antivirus program Microsoft offered for Windows 7. Now it’s built-in, ensuring all Windows 10 PCs have some baseline level of antivirus protection.
Is Windows Defender Good Enough?
Antivirus is already running out of the box. Windows Defender automatically scans programs you open, downloads new definitions from Windows Update, and provides an interface you can use for in-depth scans.
But how good is this? Well, truth be told, Microsoft’s antivirus is a bit behind the others when it comes to comparative antivirus software tests. We’ve sounded the alarm on this before, and we were particularly worried because we had previously liked Microsoft’s antivirus product so much.
Windows Defender has a lot of advantages. It’s built-in, won’t harass you with pop-ups and requests for money, and is lighter than some competing antivirus solutions. It won’t attempt to harvest your browsing data and make money from it, as some free antivirus programs have started doing in an attempt to make a profit.
Overall though, Windows Defender doesn’t provide bad protection. Assuming you keep Windows up-to-date — which happens automatically now — and use an up-to-date browser, avoiding potentially dangerous plug-ins like Java — you should be okay. Windows Defender and with the standard computer security practices you should be following anyway do a fine job.
Despite the low “scores” offered to Windows Defender by AV-Test — just “0.5/6″ for protection — Windows Defender caught 95 percent of the “widespread and prevalent malware” in June 2015, along with 85 percent of the zero-day attacks. BitDefender managed 100 percent and 100 percent of the tested samples, while Kaspersky managed 100 percent and 99 percent. So, despite the wide difference in scores, Windows Defender still does a solid job. In the past, Microsoft has alleged that it focuses on malware that’s actually prevalent in the real world while the tests aren’t representative and other antivirus vendors tune their products to do well in tests. Microsoft employees don’t generally comment on test results anymore, however.
Windows 10 also includes various other protections introduced in Windows 8, like the SmartScreen filter that should prevent you from downloading and running malware, whatever antivirus you use. Chrome and Firefox also include Google’s Safe Browsing, which blocks many malware downloads.
Windows Defender should probably be fine for most PCs, along with some common sense and other good security practices. However, if you’re regularly downloading pirated applications and engaging in other high-risk behaviors, you may want to skip Windows Defender and get something that does better against the collection of obscure malware samples used to test antivirus software.
Use MalwareBytes Anti-Exploit, Too
We also recommend an anti-exploit program to protect your web browser and plug-ins, which are the most targeted by attackers. MalwareBytes Anti-Exploit is the free program we recommend here. It functions similarly to Microsoft’s own EMET security tool, but it’s more user-friendly and offers more security features. This helps block common exploit techniques, even if they are zero-day attacks that have never seen before. MalwareBytes Anti-Exploit would have blocked all those nasty Flash zero-day attacks you heard of recently, for example. It hardens your browser, plug-ins, and other targets attackers frequently target, defending you against the most common attack techniques rather than attempting to catalog and defend against every known piece of malicious software.
Windows Defender plus MalwareBytes Anti-Exploit is a good, free, low-hassle combination of security programs we recommend to keep the average Windows 10 PC secure. Enterprise Windows 10 PCs would often have Windows Defender running along with Microsoft EMET, but Windows defender and MalwareBytes Anti-Exploit is a better combination for the average home PC.
(MalwareBytes itself is a solid anti-malware program that functions well as a compliment to any antivirus program, including Windows Defender. It finds a lot of the “potentially unwanted programs” (PUPs) and other junkware that a typical antivirus won’t find, but MalwareBytes Anti-Exploit is a separate program.)
But What’s the Best Antivirus?
Okay, so maybe you aren’t happy with Windows Defender. You might want to select another antivirus instead.
If you’re looking for a paid antivirus product, Kaspersky and BitDefender are consistently ranked up there at the top of the various antivirus tests. You might want to do a bit more research or examine the latest versions of the tests yourself and see which antivirus programs are doing the best. But Kaspersky and BitDefender are both solid, well-respected options if you’re prepared to open your wallet.
If you’re looking for a free antivirus solution, Windows Defender really is fairly solid. But, if you want something else, be sure to avoid installing whatever toolbar or browser extensions the antivirus wants to install. Free antivirus companies have turned to bundling software and harvesting data to pay for those “free” antivirus solutions.
Windows Defender will automatically disable itself when you install a third-party antivirus, and then re-enable itself again if you ever uninstall that third-party antivirus. It’s designed to get out of the way.
Whatever antivirus you choose, it won’t provide complete protection. If you download and run harmful programs, you’re going to end up in trouble at some point.
Selecting an antivirus that has better protection scores against obscure malware you may never encounter may help make you a bit safer, but other security practices are more important. Ensuring you stay safe and keep your system secure is more helpful.
And, considering the scariest attacks these days are zero-days that use holes in browser plug-ins and plug-ins themselves to compromise your system, MalwareBytes Anti-Exploit will likely offer better real security against the actual most dangerous attacks than a replacement antivirus.