Here’s the short version: antivirus itself is no longer adequate security on its own. We recommend you use a good antivirus program and a good anti-malware program. Together, they will protect you from most of the biggest threats on the internet today: viruses, spyware, ransomware, and even potentially unwanted programs (PUPs)—among many others.
So which ones should you use? Let’s start with the first part of that combo: antivirus.
When you install Windows 10, you’ll have an antivirus program already running. Windows Defender comes built-in to Windows 10, and 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 it? 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, Windows Defender doesn’t provide bad protection, assuming you keep Windows up-to-date, use an up-to-date browser, and avoid potentially dangerous plug-ins like Java. In short: the standard computer security practices you should be following go a long way, and Windows Defender combines that with a baseline of protection.
Windows Defender receives fairly low “scores” in antivirus rankings–just 3.5 out of 6 from AV-TEST and the vague but not-very-complimentary “tested” from AV-Comparatives. However, when it comes to actual statistics, AV-TEST found that it still caught 99 percent of the “widespread and prevalent malware” in October 2015, along with 95 percent of the zero-day attacks. AV-Comparatives real-world protection tests found that it caught 94.5% of threats. That’s decent, although still lower than almost every other option (and when you consider AV-Comparatives’ sample size of 1517 threats, it meant that 89 threats still got through).
BitDefender and Kaspersky, on the other hand, managed to protect against 100 percent of AV-TEST’s zero day threats, and 99.9% percent of both AV-TEST and AV-Comparatives’ real world tests.
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.
In short: Windows Defender isn’t bad, per se, it just isn’t as good as your other options. However, it’s by far the least intrusive, considering most other antivirus programs come bundled with crapware, install problematic browser extensions, and contain occasional popup ads.
If you’re following common sense and other good security practices, Windows Defender may be fine, depending on your risk tolerance. However, if you’re regularly downloading pirated applications or 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.
Okay, so that was a little vague. The fact of the matter is, it’s hard to say whether Windows Defender is “good enough”–in fact, it’s hard to recommend only one specific product, since everyone’s needs and tolerances are a little different. Even among our own staff, each of us prefers something different.
However, we can list a few of our favorites, and you can choose what works best for your situation.
If you want the absolute best protection: then you’re going to have to pay a little bit for it. Kaspersky is consistently ranked at the top of various antivirus tests, and we like its interface, so if you want the best possible protection for your PC, look no further.
If you want the best free protection: You can examine rankings for yourself to see the best free options, but we think Avira Free Antivirus currently offers the best balance between protection and non-intrusiveness. It regularly scores highly for protection, and as long as you uncheck the Ask Toolbar during installation, uninstall its browser extension, and don’t mind the occasional popup ad, it’s less intrusive than most other free options.
If you want the least intrusive free protection: Windows Defender will never trick you into installing something you don’t want, and it will never nag you with ads. If you care more about intrusiveness than you do about perfect protection, Windows Defender is a decent option.
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.
Remember: 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. Good security hygeine is just as important, if not more important, than running antivirus, so don’t use it as an excuse to be irresponsible.
Antivirus is important, but these days, it’s almost more important that you use a good anti-exploit program to protect your web browser and plug-ins, which are the most targeted by attackers. Malwarebytes is the free program we recommend here.
Unlike traditional antivirus programs, Malwarebytes is good at finding “potentially unwanted programs” (PUPs) and other junkware. As of version 3.0, it also contains an anti-exploit feature, which aims to block common exploits in programs, even if they are zero-day attacks that have never seen before—like those nasty Flash zero-day attacks. It also contains anti-ransomware, to block extortion attacks like CryptoLocker. The latest version of Malwarebytes combines these three tools into one easy-to-use package for $40 per year.
Malwarebytes claims to be able to replace your traditional antivirus, but it uses completely different strategies for protecting you. Since it doesn’t interfere with traditional antivirus programs, we recommend you run both programs for the best protection.