Is Windows Defender Good Enough in 2020? (You Won't Like the Answer)

Sophie Anderson
Published on: May 15, 2020
Is Windows Defender Good Enough in 2020? (You Won't Like the Answer)

Several years ago, Windows Defender was really bad — it wasn’t nearly secure enough to keep all PCs protected against computer viruses and malware.

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:

  1. Is Windows Defender fast enough to remove threats without slowing down my PC?
  2. Can it handle serious malicious threats like ransomware and spyware?
  3. Is it good enough to use as a standalone antivirus, or is there something better?

Windows Defender failed to block many instances of malware during testing. And Microsoft doesn’t issue enough regular updates to the Defender software. And let’s say that you do get a virus, Microsoft isn’t going to help you — they’ll just tell you that you should’ve had another antivirus installed! In general, while Windows Defender is a good basic antivirus, I wouldn’t currently trust it to keep my PC safe, not even running Windows 10.

Since Windows Defender is a free antivirus, let’s see how it compares to all the other free antiviruses out there, and let’s find out which antiviruses offer the best free Windows protection for 2020.

Short on time? Click to see our Windows Defender head-to-head match-ups for 2020:

About Windows Defender (aka Microsoft Security Essentials)

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 big improvements over the past several years, and the current Windows 10 version is a decent antivirus. But there are still a lot of things that are not good 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 most third-party internet security companies include additional features that Microsoft doesn’t include in Defender — like a virtual private network (VPN)

But free antiviruses can be limited in other areas. Maybe they lack real-time protection or maybe their malware scanner doesn’t work well. It’s actually really hard to get complete protection using just a free antivirus. That’s why using a free third-party antivirus in conjunction with Defender can give many PCs decent protection.

That said, even using Defender in conjunction with another free antivirus, I would never trust my computer to be 100% protected. Since I store a lot of sensitive information — passwords, banking/credit card info, decades worth of pictures — on my PC, I would much rather spend a few bucks a month on a low-cost premium antivirus like Norton 360 than I would deal with the hassles of a free antivirus.

The Competition: Windows Defender vs. Other Antiviruses

TotalAV vs. Windows Defender

The Competition: Windows Defender vs. Other Antiviruses

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.

Bottom Line:

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.

Visit Total AV

Kaspersky vs. Windows Defender

The Competition: Windows Defender vs. Other Antiviruses

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.

Bottom Line:

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.

Visit Kaspersky

Avira vs. Windows Defender

The Competition: Windows Defender vs. Other AntivirusesAvira’s PC antivirus offers a huge range of features — even on the free version.

There’s:

  • 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.

Bottom Line:

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.

Visit Avira

Bitdefender vs. Windows Defender

The Competition: Windows Defender vs. Other Antiviruses

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).

Bottom Line:

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.

Visit Bitdefender

Malwarebytes vs. Windows Defender

The Competition: Windows Defender vs. Other Antiviruses

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.

Bottom Line:

Malwarebytes Free 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.

Visit Malwarebytes

Avast vs. Windows Defender

The Competition: Windows Defender vs. Other Antiviruses

In line with our new policy regarding Avast, we can no longer recommend them for any purposes. Avast has allegedly been selling users’ data (because nothing is “100% free”!), which I find to be a major security issue in itself. I’d much rather use the free version of Avira or Kaspersky and not put myself or my data at risk.

Bottom Line:

We no longer recommend Avast or any subsidiary company (like AVG) on this website.

Other Options

There are plenty of other excellent free antivirus options out there like Sophos Home and Trend Micro that offer their own features and impressive performance metrics.

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.


🤔 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.

About the Author

Sophie Anderson
Sophie Anderson
Cybersecurity researcher and tech journalist

About the Author

Sophie Anderson has spent the last 10 years working as a software engineer for some of the biggest tech companies in Silicon Valley. She now works as a cybersecurity consultant and tech journalist, helping everyday netizens understand how to stay safe and protected in an online world.
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