Detailed Expert Review
Windows Defender comes pre-installed on all PCs, and for a free antivirus, it’s not bad. It’s definitely not the best free antivirus (there are better), but it’s OK if you’re not doing anything important on your Windows machine. That said, it’s still a free antivirus.
It doesn’t get updated often, doesn’t provide advanced protection against most malware threats, and has no accountability — you can’t complain to Microsoft if your PC gets hacked. I do not now and have never trusted Windows Defender to keep my computer secure. I recommend that most people don’t deal with the frustrations and risks of a free antivirus (especially one which comes pre-installed), and instead opt for a low-cost premium antivirus like Norton 360.
As Windows’ built-in anti-malware and firewall tool, Windows Defender may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you’re looking for premium-grade protection against threats like spyware and Trojans. Does this built-in tool have enough functionality to protect against these, or should you look elsewhere? Here’s what I found out during my evaluation.
Windows Defender Security Center provides basic protection against viruses, Trojans, ransomware, and other malware forms. It’s installed with Windows by default, so even if you don’t wish to install a third-party solution, your system has at least some level of protection against these threats. Additionally, the program automatically detects other antivirus systems you may have installed. This makes it easy to remove any old scanners if you want to entrust Windows Defender with being the sole protection against online threats.
Strong Endorsement from Testing Labs
After evaluating Windows Defender over three days, I was pleasantly surprised by the wealth of features in this free default tool. I’m also not the only one that thinks highly of it: independent laboratory AV-Test has frequently ranked Defender within their top ten solutions for virus detection, and the program achieved a perfect score for malware removal (my test samples were all detected).
The one caveat: the tool doesn’t detect and remove many so-called “low risk” malware vectors, such as adware, because most users can live with it. While adware can bloat your system with annoying popups, the experience is overall far less irritating than having your system hijacked (or your identity stolen) by a piece of ransomware allowed to run loose.
Speaking of ransomware, there’s also a nice integration with Microsoft’s cloud storage platform, OneDrive, to protect against this ever-growing threat. Users are able to copy critical personal folders through Defender into OneDrive so that they can still access them in the event that they’re locked down by a virus demanding a ransom payment. But there’s no protection against actual ransomware threats, just an integration with another (paid) Microsoft product.
In addition to virus and threat protection, Windows Defender also includes Windows Defender Firewall with Advanced Security. This tool isn’t particularly user-friendly but does allow you to create and administer comprehensive firewall rules for both inbound and outbound protections. Firewalls are vital for protecting the security of your local network, so I was impressed that Microsoft’s tool was so comprehensive.
There’s also phishing protection which automatically integrates, by default, with Microsoft’s own browsers: Microsoft Edge and Internet Explorer. I tested out some known phishing URLs from phishtank.com and they were all successfully flagged by the system—unfortunately, I couldn’t say the same for Google Chrome, which let me access the same URLs without flagging them as suspicious (and yes, I had the “protect you from dangerous sites” option enabled). For those that want to add Defender’s protection to Chrome, the Windows Defender Browser Protection plugin needs to be installed from the Chrome Web Store.
Feature-Rich Parental Control Options
What really impressed me is the fact that Defender includes a comprehensive parental control filter. These settings are configured online in the cloud and family members’ Windows accounts can be added so that their access can be monitored and controlled by an admin in the family. In fact, Microsoft even allows you to create special Windows accounts for your children, and the protection settings will automatically be applied whenever they log in and browse the net using Microsoft Edge (you’ll want to lock down access to other browsers if you have them installed). In addition to whitelisting and blacklisting functionalities, administrators are able to configure time limits and pull-down reports about browsing activity.
Ease of use
Windows Defender comes pre-installed on every Windows PC and, if no other antiviruses are installed, is automatically enabled. Naturally, this means that there’s no installation required. The program offers protection right out of the box. Settings are administered in two areas: the Windows Defender Security Center, which includes virus scanning, parental control, basic firewall, and system health dialogs, and Windows Defender Firewall with Advanced Security. The latter is better reserved for expert use but the Security Center itself is fast and straightforward to use.
Windows Defender is a factory-installed component, so Microsoft will resolve any issue you may encounter. The online Help and FAQ Center contains guides on how to set up scans and resolve common difficulties. If that fails to resolve the issue, users can “talk” to the Microsoft Virtual Agent (which was able to understand my question on the first try, and also directed me to the exact support resource I required to configure my scan). Finally, users have access to Microsoft’s global support network, which includes both telephone support and a ticket-based system. It’s fair to say that if you encounter a problem with Windows Defender, Microsoft has more than enough resources to get you unstuck.
That said, Microsoft explicitly states in their Terms and Conditions that they are not responsible for your computer’s protection if it becomes infected with malware. Compare this with a substantially better antivirus like McAfee or Norton who both have a “Virus Protection Promise”.
Windows Defender and all its components are included in the Windows operating system. The tool provides some seriously impressive functionality and I appreciated the fact that Microsoft does not attempt to upsell within the tool.
But the reason they don’t try to upsell you is because there’s nothing more to offer! In short, it’s basic protection, and if you’re relying on your PC for important things — work, online shopping, data storage, communication, etc. — Windows Defender is not going to keep you protected. There are other free Windows antiviruses which work well, but in general, free antiviruses are not meant to offer complete device protection. For that, you’ll need a premium antivirus — luckily, many of them are cheap, powerful, and 100% secure.