When it comes to protecting a PC running Windows 10 against viruses, malware, and other malicious threats, Windows Defender is the default choice since it comes pre-installed on Windows 10.
But just because it’s built-in, it doesn’t mean its the only option available to you – or in fact, the best one. You definitely don’t need both Windows Defender and a paid antivirus: there are some decent free antiviruses, particularly TotalAV, as well as Avast and Bullguard, which may offer better protection and even more handy features.
We’ll take a look at the pros and cons of each free antivirus to uncover which is best, and whether it’s worth going for choice rather than default.
- What is Windows Defender?
- What do the tests say?
- The competition
- TotalAV vs. Windows Defender
- Avira vs. Windows Defender
- Avast vs. Windows Defender
- Bitdefender vs. Windows Defender
- Malwarebytes vs. Windows Defender
- Other options
- What we recommend
- Windows Defender review
A Bit About Windows Defender
You may know Windows Defender as Microsoft Security Essentials if you’re using or have used an operating system earlier than Windows 10. Previous versions had fewer features and, in fairness, could barely be considered an antivirus. For many years, Microsoft Security Essentials scored at the bottom of most antivirus tests.
However, the new and improved free option that comes with Windows 10 can now:
- Scan your programs
- Download new virus definitions through Windows updates
- Scan automatically or on-demand for malicious programs
- Offer firewall protection
What do the Tests Say?
In antivirus tests, Windows Defender performs well in the fields of protection, performance, and usability. Its ability to detect and remove threats is comparable to other dedicated antivirus software like Avira and Bitdefender.
What it does well
- It offers 100% protection against zero-day attacks
- It has 4% web browser slowdown compared to the industry average of 10%
- It yields fewer false positives than competitors
What it doesn’t do well
That being said, Windows Defender isn’t perfect. In other tests, it didn’t perform as well in “user-dependent” malware attacks.
- It’s susceptible to user error: While the antivirus will warn you whenever a malicious program attempts to run, it doesn’t stop you from executing it anyway if you choose to do so
- It slows down the installation of frequently used applications more than other dedicated antivirus software
Overall, Windows Defender covers the basics, making it an attractive free option for users looking for a barebones antivirus that actually works. It offers decent protection, it’s free with Windows 10, and it runs with relatively low system impact.
It wouldn’t be accurate to look at Windows Defender or other AV software in isolation. We need to know how Windows Defender performs when compared to some of the biggest, full-scale antivirus programs out there.
We’ve tested Windows Defender against some of the most recognized names, such as TotalAV, Avira, Avast, Bitdefender, Malwarebytes and more. We also tested Windows Defender against some other recognized names including AVG, ESET NOD32 and Norton, however, they are not compared further because while they have a good AV, they are not as effective as the ones we have compared in this article.
Here’s how they stacked up:
TotalAV vs. Windows Defender
What TotalAV does well:
- The system cleaner tool frees up space and boosts performance
- Good phishing protection with the Safe Site browser extension
- Speedy scanning
- Dedicated support whereas Defender is lumped in with Windows 10 support
What TotalAV doesn’t do well:
- Lacks the real-time protection that Defender offers
- TotalAV doesn’t have a firewall like Windows Defender
The bottom line: TotalAV is a decent free antivirus and while it doesn’t offer real-time protection or a firewall like Defender, you can upgrade to the paid version for both of these features – plus many more.
Avira vs. Windows Defender
Avira Antivirus (see user reviews) commonly ranks near the top in antivirus testing, outperforming other industry giants. Here’s how it compares with Windows Defender:
What Avira does well:
- It comes with a password manager
- Less impact on system performance
- Avira Protection Cloud to upload unknown samples to the cloud database for analysis (ie. better zero-day protection)
- Additional browser protection that warns you of risky links before you click them
- Free Virtual Private Network (VPN)
What Avira doesn’t do well:
- Avira does not offer a firewall like Windows Defender
- The free version includes bloatware, such as pop-up advertisements
The bottom line: As a dedicated antivirus, Avira offers more features than Windows Defender, and while it doesn’t come with a firewall, you can upgrade to the premium version for decent all-round protection.
Avast vs. Windows Defender
Avast (see user reviews) is another popular solution that scores high in malware protection, occasionally better than Windows Defender. Let’s take a look at how they compare:
What Avast does well:
- More features and utility tools
- Less impact on system performance
- Gaming mode for disabling background CPU usage and notifications when a game is running
- Extra features include a home network scanner and a password manager
What Avast doesn’t do well:
- The user-interface isn’t as easy to use as Windows Defender
- Slow on-demand scanning – it doesn’t run in the background as smoothly as Windows Defender
The bottom line: Avast comes with more advanced features than Windows Defender, despite both being free. However, because of these features, it does have a greater impact on your computer’s performance.
Bitdefender vs. Windows Defender
Bitdefender (see user reviews) is another great dedicated antivirus that offers top-of-the-line anti-malware and web protection. Let’s weigh it up alongside Windows Defender:
What Bitdefender does well:
- Extra features like a password manager and a virtual private network
- It has a clean and simple user-friendly interface
- No toolbars or pop-ups
What Bitdefender doesn’t do well:
- Slow initial scanning
- The free version is very basic and light on features though
The bottom line: Bitdefender’s free version is comparable to Windows Defender in many cases. Neither one comes with unnecessary bloatware that slows the system down, but if you’re looking to take advantage of the extra features like a free VPN and password manager then Bitdefender is the way to go.
Malwarebytes vs. Windows Defender
While Malwarebytes (see user reviews) isn’t technically an antivirus, it’s still a fantastic anti-malware program. But how does it compare with Windows Defender?
What Malwarebytes does well:
- Stops PUPS (potentially unwanted programs) from entering your system BEFORE they have a chance to infect
- Detects viruses better than most free antivirus software
- It can work alongside another security software
What Malwarebytes doesn’t do well:
- Only offers on-demand scanning (no automatic scan)
- Doesn’t remove threats, only identifies them
- Many of the best features are locked behind a paywall, but these features are worthwhile
The bottom line: While the free version of Malwarebytes offers on-demand scanning, which is capable of catching some threats better than other antivirus software, it’s weaker than the competition in other areas. Plus it cannot remove threats, only detect them.
For this reason, we recommend combining Malwarebytes with another antivirus like Windows Defender to get the best of both worlds. Plus, if you choose to go for the paid version, you’ll enjoy protection against exploits, zero-day attacks, and ransomware.
Like most people, you probably own multiple devices. Some AV programs like Panda offer better protection for several devices simultaneously, making them great for families looking for total protection across all devices.
But the question still remains: “Should I bother getting a dedicated antivirus, or is Windows Defender enough for me?”
Here’s What we Recommend
You need to have an antivirus installed on your computer, but you don’t want more than one full antivirus running on your system at a time. Why? Multiple scanners running at the same time can slow down your system and create conflicts between the antivirus software.
Therefore, we recommend using two options:
A combination of Windows Defender (antivirus) and Malwarebytes (anti-malware). Windows Defender functions as your basic antivirus and firewall, while Malwarebytes offers protection against a handful of threats that Windows Defender can’t reach.
Both programs run well together with minimum system impact. Best of all, both are completely free. If you ever believe you need an extra boost, consider investing in the paid version of Malwarebytes for additional anti-ransomware and zero-day attack protection.
And in the case you aren’t a fan of Malwarebytes, you can combine Windows Defender with any of the above options. If you decide to choose another program, simply modify your scanning schedules in order to reduce conflict and to stop untimely scans from popping up.
An In-Depth Overview of Windows Defender
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.
The protection that Microsoft offers includes Cloud protection—so users receive protection against both known vulnerabilities, for which signatures have been created, as well as emerging threats. Nothing to argue with here.
In addition to virus and threat protection, Windows Defender also includes Windows Defender Firewall with Advanced Security. This tool isn’t particularly rookie-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 incredibly 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.
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.