Windows Defender: Should You Use It?

Should I turn on Windows Defender?

After years of leaving security software in the hands of third-party vendors, Microsoft introduced a free security suite for Windows in 2009. Now, it's a fully integrated part of Windows 10.

What Is Windows Defender?

Windows Defender offers real-time protection against various threats, such as adware, spyware, and viruses. It operates quickly and uses few system resources, allowing you to continue with other tasks while a scan runs. The application can help protect your computer from many rogue programs online and those inadvertently downloaded via email.

Navigating Defender

The interface is basic, with a few panels (depending on the Windows version) on the left. To check if Defender is active on your computer running Windows 10, go to Settings > Update & Security > Windows Security. (In Windows 8 or 7, look in Control Panel > System and Security.) This area contains the controls to run malware scans and at-a-glance status reports for your PC.

Windows Security in Windows 10

Updating Threat Definitions

The Virus & threat protection updates section is where you update the software's antivirus and malware definitions. Defender updates automatically, but updating the program yourself is always a good idea before running a manual scan.

Windows Defender with Check for Updates highlighted.

Running Scans

Defender runs four basic types of scans:

  • Quick scan: Looks at the most likely places that malware hides.
  • Full scan: Looks everywhere.
  • Custom scan: Looks at a specific hard drive or folder that you're concerned about.
  • Microsoft Defender Offline scan; Restarts your PC to do a special scan for more difficult to remove software.
Windows Defender Scan options.

The Full and Custom scans take longer to complete than the first. Still, running a full scan every month or so is a good idea.

This is a basic, no-nonsense security product, so added features such as scan scheduling are not available. The simplest option is to make a note in your calendar to run a full scan on, for example, the second Saturday of the month (or whatever day makes the most sense for you).

Enhancements With Windows 10 Anniversary Edition

Most of the time, you'll notice Defender only when it has acted against a potential threat. The Anniversary Update for Windows 10, however, added enhanced notifications, which provide periodic status updates. These updates appear in the Action Center, don't require any further action, and can be disabled if you prefer.

The update also allows you to run Defender at the same time as a third-party antivirus solution in Defender's limited periodic scanning mode, which acts as a low-impact backstop for added security.

The Bottom Line

Defender is a free, basic, real-time security solution capable enough for the average user who sticks to mainstream sites. Still, it's not considered the best option for PC security. Compared to third-party security suites in independent tests, Defender typically performs toward the middle or bottom of the pack.

On the other hand, Defender's simplistic approach makes it a nice alternative to these security suites, which come with an increasing number of confusing features and tend to bug you regularly to run a scan, read a weekly security report, consider an upgrade, or go through a security check. Windows Defender, by comparison, needs only to be activated to provide adequate protection for your PC.

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