What is the best antivirus for Windows 10 and 11? (Is Microsoft Defender good enough?)
Windows 10 and Windows 11 won’t bother you with installing an antivirus like Windows 7 did. Since Windows 8, Windows now includes a built-in free antivirus called Microsoft Defender. But is it really the best for protecting your PC – or even good enough?
Microsoft Defender (formerly Windows Defender) was originally known as Microsoft Security Essentials in the Windows 7 days when it was offered as a separate download, but now it’s built right into Windows and enabled by default. Many people have been trained to believe that you should always install a third-party antivirus program, but that is not the best solution to today’s security problems, such as ransomware.
So what is the best antivirus? Please don’t make me read all of this
Historically, we’ve had a combination of Microsoft Defender and Malwarebytes† Since we know a lot of people just scroll down and browse, here’s our TL; DR recommendation for how to keep your system safe:
Use the built-in Microsoft Defender for traditional antivirus – The criminals have moved from regular viruses to focus on Ransomware, zero-day attacks and even worse malware that traditional antivirus just can’t handle. Microsoft Defender is built-in, lightning fast, doesn’t annoy you and does its job of cleaning up old-school viruses. Usage Malwarebytes for anti-malware and anti-exploit – Many of the massive malware outbreaks today use zero-day errors in your browser to install ransomware to take over your PC, and only Malwarebytes offers truly outstanding protection against this with its unique anti-malware exploit system. There is no bloatware and it will not slow you down.
However, we know that many people prefer to use a more complete security suite rather than Defender. Or maybe you are looking for an alternative to Malwarebytes. Be sure to check out our list of the best antivirus programs for other excellent tools we recommend.
Note: This doesn’t even mention the fact that: Malwarebytes, the company, is staffed by some really great people that we really respect. Every time we talk to them, they are excited about the mission to clean up the internet. It’s not often we give an official How-To Geek recommendation, but this is by far our favorite product and something we use ourselves.
A one-two punch: antivirus and antimalware
You need antivirus software on your computer, no matter how “carefully” you surf. Being smart isn’t enough to protect you from threats, and security software can help as another line of defense.
However, antivirus on its own is no longer sufficient security. We recommend that you use a good antivirus program and a good anti-malware program. Together they will protect you from most of the biggest threats on the Internet today: viruses, spyware, ransomware and even potentially unwanted programs (PUPs) – among many others.
So which one should you use and should you pay money for it? Let’s start with the first part of that combination: antivirus.
Is Microsoft Defender Good Enough?
When you install Windows 10 or Windows 11, you already have an antivirus program active. Built into Windows, Microsoft Defender automatically scans programs you open, downloads new definitions from Windows Update, and provides an interface you can use for in-depth scans. Best of all, it doesn’t slow down your system and stays away most of the time – which we can’t say about most other antivirus programs.
RELATED: Do I Really Need Antivirus If I Browse Carefully and Use Common Sense?
For a short time, Microsoft’s antivirus lagged behind the others when it came to comparative antivirus software tests – far behind. It was bad enough that we recommended something else, but it has since bounced back and now offers excellent protection.
So in short, yes: Microsoft Defender is good enough (as long as you pair it with a good anti-malware program, as we mentioned above – more on that later).
But is Microsoft Defender the best antivirus? What about other programs?
If you take a look at that antivirus comparison we linked to above, you’ll find that Microsoft Defender – while excellent – has some stiff competition. What if you want to use something else?
Let’s take a look at those scores first. AV TEST found that in January and February 2022, it captured 100% of “widespread and common malware”, along with 100% percent of zero-day attacks in the same time frame. You literally couldn’t ask for better. Its performance in the previous months was comparably excellent – it has had perfect protection scores for almost two years. It tops the list with the best third-party antivirus options.
RELATED: Beware: Free Antivirus Isn’t Really Free Anymore
Moreover, security is about more than raw protection scores. Other antiviruses may occasionally do a little better in monthly tests, but they also come with a lot of bloat, such as browser extensions that actually make you less safe, registry cleaners that are terrible and unnecessary, lots and lots of unsafe junkware, and even the ability to track your browsing habits so they can earn money. Besides, the way they often hook themselves into your browser and operating system causes more problems than it solves† Something that protects you from viruses but exposes you to other attack vectors is not good security.
Just look at all the extra garbage Avast is trying to install alongside its antivirus.
Microsoft Defender does none of these things – it does one thing well, for free and without getting in your way. In addition, Windows 10 and 11 already include the various other protections introduced in Windows 8, such as the SmartScreen filter which should prevent you from downloading and running malware whatever antivirus you are using. Chrome and Firefox similarly include Google’s Safe Browsing, which blocks many malware downloads.
If for some reason you don’t want to use Microsoft Defender, we’ve rounded up the best third-party antivirus software available.
If you choose to use a third-party antivirus program, make sure to disable the bloated, unnecessary features they try to install.
Antivirus Isn’t Enough: Use Malwarebytes too
Antivirus is important, but today it is more important that you use a good anti-exploit program to protect your web browser, which is often the target of attackers. Malwarebytes is the program we recommend here.
Unlike traditional antivirus programs, Malwarebytes is good at finding “potentially unwanted programs” (PUPs) and other junkware. As of version 3.0, it also includes an anti-exploit feature, which aims to block common exploits in programs, even if they are zero-day attacks that have never been seen before, such as those pesky Flash zero-day attacks. It also includes anti-ransomware to block extortion attacks like CryptoLocker. The latest version of Malwarebytes combines these three tools into: one easy-to-use package for a low annual fee†
Malwarebytes claims to be able to completely replace your traditional antivirus, but we disagree. It uses completely different strategies to protect you: antivirus blocks or quarantines malicious programs that make their way to your computer, while Malwarebytes tries to prevent malicious software from ever reaching your computer. Since it won’t interfere with traditional antivirus programs, we recommend running both programs for the best protection.
Note: As of Malwarebytes 4, the Premium version of Malwarebytes now registers itself as the system’s security program by default. In other words, it will handle all your anti-malware scans and Microsoft Defender will not run in the background. You can still run both at once if you want. Here’s how: In Malwarebytes, open Settings, click the “Security” tab and uncheck the “Always register malwarebytes in Windows Security Center” option. If this option is disabled, Malwarebytes will not register itself as the system’s security application and both Malwarebytes and Microsoft Defender will run simultaneously.
Note that you can get some features from Malwarebytes for free, but with caveats. For example, the free version of the Malwarebytes program only scans on-demand for malware and PUPs – it doesn’t scan in the background like the premium version does. In addition, it does not include the anti-exploit or anti-ransomware features of the premium version.
You can only get all three features in the fully paid version of Malwarebytes, which we recommend. But if you’re willing to forgo anti-ransomware and always-on malware scanning, the free versions of Malwarebytes and Anti-Exploit are better than nothing, and you should definitely use them.
There you have it: with a combination of a good antivirus, Malwarebytes, and some common sense, you’re pretty well protected. Remember that antivirus is just one of the basic computer security practices that you should follow. Good digital hygiene is not a substitute for antivirus, but it is essential to ensure that your antivirus can do its job.
Want something different instead? Check out our picks for the best antivirus software.