You don’t need to pay for antivirus software anymore. Microsoft’s Windows Defender, a free service that’s built right into Windows 10, is now as good as the paid antivirus/antimalware solutions that have been collecting your money for years. There, we said it.
Many PC users became accustomed to paying for antivirus software for two reasons: Good, free alternatives were scarce, and Microsoft offered minimal protection via Windows, ceding the category to Norton, Kaspersky, and a host of other third-party vendors. Windows’ first antimalware efforts were so abysmal that testing agencies like AV-comparatives.org and AV-test.org used Defender as the baseline (i.e., junk) level of performance. In December 2013, for example, AV-test.org tested how well 23 antivirus vendors blocked real-world malware samples using Windows 8.1. Microsoft finished dead last (go.pcworld.com/wn81).
That was then. Over the intervening years, Microsoft started taking endpoint security seriously. In 2019, Microsoft’s own Windows Defender Antivirus, built right into Windows 10 for free, often outperforms paid services. (Windows now lumps Windows Defender Antivirus underneath what it calls Windows Security, which includes Windows Firewall and other tools.) It’s not perfect: The incidence of “false positives,” where legitimate apps are mistaken for malware, can be high. One test also noted that it slowed down a low-end PC more than others do. You can decide for yourself: Are these “costs” more affordable than paying $60-plus per year?
We still review the best antivirus apps (go. pcworld.com/ant1), and there are still some reasons why you’d want one, which we’ll get into later. But first let’s look at how far Windows Defender has come, and how well it could stand on its own as your primary antivirus package.
WHY YOU SHOULD USE WINDOWS DEFENDER TO PROTECT YOUR PC
Two separate testing houses, AV-comparatives and AV-test, rank Windows Defender nearly at the top of the products both labs have tested.
It’s important to note that antimalware testing is a time-intensive process. Even sites like AV-comparatives use automated tests that crawl the web and seek out malicious sites and URLs, trying to reproduce real-world scenarios that all of us would encounter in our daily work.
One key point stood out: In AV-comparatives’ test (go.pcworld.com/ avct), Microsoft was one of the four vendors (out of a total of sixteen) that didn’t allow any malware to take over its test systems. Vendors whose PCs ended up compromised with malware included big names, such as McAfee and Symantec. (Malware and protection mechanisms are constantly evolving. AV-comparatives ran its tests from February through May, 2019, to demonstrate the “average” level of protection over time.)
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