Several years ago, people were furious that Windows Defender was so useless. It was basically guaranteed that you were going to get a virus using it as your PC’s only protection.
But recently, Windows has turned Defender into a pretty decent free antivirus. For instance, Microsoft has recently updated Defender to include sandboxing and cloud-based malware detection — boosting overall protection and making threat detection faster.
Even still, our readers keep asking us these three questions:
- Is Windows Defender fast enough to remove threats without slowing down my PC?
- Can it handle serious malicious threats like ransomware and spyware?
- Is it good enough to use as a standalone antivirus, or is there something better?
Windows Defender failed to block some malicious programs from running during my tests. Also, it doesn’t include additional features that I find essential for full data security, like an integrated VPN. While Defender is okay, I wouldn’t currently trust it to fully protect my PC.
Since Windows Defender is a free antivirus, I thought I would compare it to the other free antiviruses out there to see which offers the best protection.
Short on time? Click to see our Windows Defender head-to-head match-ups for 2020:
About Windows Defender (aka Microsoft Security Essentials)
There are many reasons to like Windows Defender, especially as Microsoft has worked really hard to improve it over the last few years. It now offers:
- Real-time threat detection.
- Firewall protection.
- Parental controls.
- Cloud-based virus protection library (to speed up overall performance).
So after these huge upgrades to the software, I started wondering if I needed to use another antivirus, or if I could just rely on Windows Defender alone to protect my PC.
Is Windows Defender Good Enough?
Again, Microsoft has made really big improvements over the past several years. But there are still a few things that I don’t like about Defender:
- Parental controls are limited to Microsoft browsers.
- Internet security features have to be installed on non-Microsoft browsers (like Chrome and Firefox) separately.
- Real-time protection failed to successfully block some malicious files during testing.
- It can be challenging to navigate for first-time users.
- It doesn’t include a VPN or an integrated password manager.
- Microsoft doesn’t update their database often enough to stay current.
The good news is that Windows Defender can be used alongside another free antivirus, making your malware protection much more secure.
Many other free antivirus programs offer better virus and malware protection than Defender, and they sometimes offer additional security features that Microsoft hasn’t included in the software, such as a VPN and password manager. But these antiviruses can also be limited in other areas, such as real-time protection. This is why using one in combination with Defender can provide many PCs with decent protection.
However, even using Defender in combination with another free antivirus, I would never trust my data to be 100% protected. Since I store a lot of sensitive information — passwords, banking/credit card info, decades worth of pictures — on my Windows computer, I would much rather spend a few bucks a month on a low-cost antivirus like Norton 360 than I would deal with the hassles of a free antivirus.
The Competition: Windows Defender vs. Free Antiviruses
TotalAV vs. Windows Defender
TotalAV is easy to use, and it offers really good protection for PCs. Its free antivirus comes with a nice range of tools, including a PC optimization feature — which is already better than Windows Defender. The free PC optimization tools are pretty good. The Junk Cleaner scanned my device and helped me to free up nearly 4 GB of precious hard drive space.
It detected and blocked all of the sample malware files during my testing. However, you have to upgrade to access real-time protection — something which Windows Defender includes for free.
The paid version unlocks the Safe Browsing VPN with unlimited data, a password manager, and Ad Block Pro. Windows Defender doesn’t offer these features, but other free antivirus brands, like Kaspersky, do offer similar features for free.
While the premium version of TotalAV is one of the best PC antivirus products on the market, the free version is pretty comparable to Windows Defender in terms of offering basic PC protection. But with added features, such as the PC optimization tools, and a lack of real-time protection, TotalAV is a good tool to use in conjunction with Windows Defender.
TotalAV has an easy to use interface, and it offers a lot in terms of features and functionality — with great PC optimization tools to enhance device performance. While it doesn’t provide real-time protection for free, you can upgrade to the paid version to get access to it. I like using TotalAV’s free software with Windows Defender — so I can optimize my PC while having real-time malware protection.
Kaspersky vs. Windows Defender
Kaspersky has a really good range of free PC cybersecurity tools that make it a much better choice than Windows Defender.
The malware scanner included in Kaspersky’s Security Cloud Free is entirely cloud-based — meaning the database is continuously updated with the latest malware threats. While Windows Defender does have a cloud protection option, it’s not 100% cloud-based like Security Cloud Free — meaning it’s not as lightweight or fast.
During my testing, it blocked all of the phishing sites I tried to access on my Edge browser. It also detected all but one of the malware sample files (which it did later recognize when I launched the ‘.exe’ file). And Kaspersky is updated much more frequently than Windows Defender, so it’s always offering top-quality protection.
I also much prefer Kasperksy’s interface — Windows Defender was difficult for me to navigate when I first tried using it.
As noted in our in-depth review, Kaspersky’s free antivirus also includes a VPN and a password manager — two tools that Windows Defender doesn’t provide. The VPN is pretty decent in terms of speed. It provided me with 200 MB of daily data usage — the same as Bitdefender’s free VPN. The password manager is also pretty good, especially for a free tool. But I much prefer using a standalone password manager app, like Dashlane.
Kaspersky’s Security Cloud Free provides much better features and overall protection than Windows Defender. It’s faster than Windows Defender’s malware scan, and it also has a near-perfect malware detection rate. I was disappointed that some features, such as the PC Cleaner, required an upgrade. Similar PC optimization features are included in other free antivirus software, like TotalAV. However, the integrated VPN and password manager — tools that aren’t included in Windows Defender — are what make Kaspersky’s free software a much better choice.
Avira vs. Windows Defender
Avira’s PC antivirus offers a huge range of features — even on the free version.
- Real-time malware protection.
- Integrated firewall.
- Free VPN (with 500 MB of data per month).
- Zero-day threat detection.
- Browser-based phishing protections.
Avira’s malware scanner performed perfectly during my tests, detecting 100% of the malware sample files on my device — better than Windows Defender. I was particularly impressed by the “Custom scan” options which let me choose to only scan for specific malware like ransomware and rootkits.
Avira Prime (40% discount found here) unlocks additional features like a password manager and PC optimization tools — both of which are pretty good. Prime also includes USB scanning, but Windows Defender already offers external device scanning, so I think Avira should include this in their free software.
Avira’s real-time detection and malware scanning engine performed much better than Defender in my tests. The company includes a decent VPN, but the free version of the antivirus is missing key features, like USB scanning, which are already included in Windows Defender. There are also a decent range of premium features — including a password manager and PC optimization tools — which make Avira a good complement to Windows Defender.
Bitdefender vs. Windows Defender
Bitdefender’s advanced malware scanning engine detected 100% of the malware files on my PC and instantly removed the remaining ‘.exe’ files when I tried to launch them — much better than my experience with Defender.
While the free version of the software is pretty basic in terms of features, it also includes Bitdefender’s world-famous malware engine. It’s surprisingly lightweight, and overall, I found it much easier to use when compared to Windows Defender.
The range of Bitdefender’s paid plans (which all have free trials) include some great tools — more customizable scans, an integrated VPN, parental controls, and secure banking tools. Again, while Defender offers pretty decent scanning options, it lacks additional tools like a VPN and parental controls.
In my opinion, Bitdefender’s premium ransomware protection feature, Safe Files, is what makes it a much better choice than Windows Defender. Safe Files stops ransomware from accessing files and displays a popup message anytime a malicious app tries to access or encrypt the PC’s data. But again, that feature is only on the paid version (30-day free trial here).
Bitdefender’s scanning engine is substantially better at malware detection than Windows Defender. Bitdefender’s free version is lightweight yet very powerful, and it’s basically just the scanning engine (with real-time protection). The premium version of Bitdefender offers advanced features that Defender doesn’t include, such as a VPN and parental controls. And Bitdefender’s ransomware protection is also so much much better than Defender — making it worth the upgrade cost.
Malwarebytes vs. Windows Defender
Malwarebytes isn’t technically an antivirus, but the Premium version of Malwarebytes is a fantastic anti-malware product, which is a powerful standalone antivirus for PCs. It offers advanced protection against a wide range of threats, including zero-day attacks and ransomware.
Malwarebytes Free is very limited in terms of features — as noted in our review, it only offers malware scanning and doesn’t provide real-time protection. But it works well in conjunction with Windows Defender. Malwarebytes’s powerful anti-malware engine detected malware that Defender missed. Likewise, Defender has real-time protection, a firewall, and sandboxing tools that aren’t offered by Malwarebytes Free to ensure viruses can’t infect the computer.
Malwarebytes’s dashboard is super easy to use. I really like how everything is laid out, with simple buttons — perfect for non-tech-savvy users.
But don’t rely on the free version of Malwarebytes by itself. You need to use it in conjunction with Defender, or opt for Malwarebytes’s low-cost Premium package.
The free version of Malwarebytes is great for detecting and removing malware from a PC. Still, it’s not good enough to act as a standalone antivirus software because it’s missing essential features like real-time protection. Malwarebytes Free and Windows Defender work really well when used together. But for advanced protection, you’d need to upgrade to Malwarebytes Premium.
Avast vs. Windows Defender
Avast scores well in our malware detection tests, and the results are similar to Windows Defender. But the free version of Avast doesn’t do much beyond the basics. And it affected my PC’s performance way more than other free antivirus programs.
Avast is pretty annoying to use. It’s user interface, while attractive, is really just designed to get you to buy the premium version. Also, a lot of Avast’s “extras” like the included password manager are pretty bad. If you’re looking for a good free password manager, check out Keeper or Dashlane.
Also, Avast has been caught selling free users’ data (because nothing is “100% free”!), which I find to be a major security issue in itself. But if you’re just looking for a free antivirus, and you don’t mind having your data potentially compromised, Avast is an okay choice. But I’d much rather use the free version of Avira or Kaspersky.
The free version of Avast comes with more advanced features than Windows Defender. However, because of these features, it has a greater impact on your computer’s performance and many of those features are not even that good. It’s also really annoying to be constantly reminded about Avast’s premium product. And in terms of privacy protection, Avast is likely selling your data, so that’s not good.
And like most people, you probably own multiple devices. Some antivirus companies like Panda offer better protection for several devices (across different operating systems) simultaneously, making these options great for families looking for total protection across all devices.
Check out this list of the best free antivirus programs for Windows to see our latest recommendations.
Frequently Asked Questions About Windows Defender
👍 Is Windows Defender enough to stay protected?
It depends what you mean by “enough”. Windows Defender offers some decent cybersecurity protection, but it’s nowhere near as good as most premium antivirus software. If you’re just looking for basic cybersecurity protection, then yes, Windows Defender is fine. But if you have a lot of sensitive information on your device which might attract hackers — banking info, login details, private files — then no, it’s not “enough”.
😈 Can Windows Defender remove malware?
Yes. If Windows Defender detects malware, it will remove it from your PC. However, because Windows doesn’t update Defender’s virus definitions regularly, the newest malware won’t be detected, and as such, relying on Windows Defender as your sole antivirus puts your entire PC at risk of infection.
There are better free Windows antiviruses out there which get updated regularly. But no free antivirus can offer the kind of guaranteed malware protection that the best anti-malware programs can.
🛡️ Can Windows Defender protect against phishing scams?
Mostly, yes. The Windows Defender Browser Protection extension is designed to protect you from a wide range of online cybersecurity threats, including phishing emails and malicious sites which attempt to steal your personal information.
But the phishing protection offered is basic, and Windows doesn’t update Defender enough to stay on top of this threat. It’s much safer to go with a low-cost premium antivirus like Norton to stay protected from phishing attacks.
🆓 Is Windows Defender free?
Yes. Windows Defender is free for all PCs that have Windows 7, Windows 8.1, or Windows 10 installed. But there are better free Windows antiviruses out there.
🤔 Should I replace Windows Defender with another antivirus?
While Windows Defender has made a lot of progress over the past couple of years, Windows hasn’t been consistent about updating its software in line with the latest malware trends.
Using Windows Defender as a standalone antivirus, while much better than not using any antivirus at all, still leaves you vulnerable to ransomware, spyware, and advanced forms of malware that can leave you devastated in the event of an attack.
Here at SafetyDetectives, we recommend one of the following options:
- Option 1: Combine Windows Defender with Malwarebytes. This will give you both a powerful antivirus (Windows Defender) and a powerful anti-malware program (Malwarebytes) working together to offer you pretty decent protection. If you’re looking for advanced security that will beat any other antivirus out there, combining Windows Defender with the premium version of Malwarebytes is one of the best and smartest cyber defenses.
- Option 2: Choose a better free antivirus to replace Windows Defender. All of the above options are specifically designed to offer top-of-the-line virus and malware protection, whereas Windows Defender was only designed to give you the most basic protection. Again, Windows Defender is OK, but there are much better options out there. Check out SafetyDetectives’s latest recommendations of the best free antiviruses for Windows.
- Option 3: Guarantee your PC’s protection with a premium antivirus. No free antivirus will offer you 100% protection, and Windows Defender has repeatedly shown to be vulnerable to malware, ransomware, and spyware. It doesn’t cost a lot of money to keep you and your PC safe, so investing a few bucks a month in a premium antivirus is hands-down the best way of protecting yourself and guaranteeing your cybersecurity.