Windows Defender

Overview

Key features:
-Bootable rescue disk available as separate download
-Built into Windows 8/8.1/10
-Available for Windows Vista/7 as Microsoft Security Essentials
-Will run on any Windows system
Microsoft’s own anti-malware tools come by default with Windows 10, giving you a modicum of protection even if you’re not able to immediately install dedicated anti-malware tools. Available for Windows Vista and 7 under the Microsoft Security Essentials name, and called Windows Defender when it accompanies Windows 8 through 10 in a slightly more up-to-date incarnation that includes extra protection against rootkits and boot sector viruses, Microsoft’s security software provides both scanning and real-time protection.

Defender was among the worst performing anti-virus products tested by AV-TEST this spring. While it did well against a reference set of recently collected malware, spotting 99.7% in March and 99.8% in April, it put in a consistently poor performance against real-world exposure tests to malware that was live online, with a detection rate of 88.9% in March and 88% in April.

It was also a little more prone to misidentifying legitimate software as malicious, although with five false positives out of a set of more than a million, it wasn’t a major problem. Defender proved to be fairly unobtrusive in terms of its effect on system performance, except when it came to installing applications for the first time, where it reduced performance by an average of 51%.

Windows Defender is by its nature a lightweight affair, which also makes it remarkably easy to use. Its main homescreen displays your protection and update status, details of when your last scan was carried out and lets you immediately run a quick, full or custom scan. Custom scans, as you’d expect, let you give any directory on a local or removable drive a quick once-over without having to scan your entire hard disk.

The Update tab lets you check and update Defender’s virus definitions database, and the History tab allows you to view the details of items on your PC that have been quarantined as malicious, manually allowed or detected in general. In an interesting privacy and security-orientated move, to view the details of these files, remove or restore them, you’ll need to click the View details button and log in as an administrator if your account doesn’t already have admin status.

Regardless of which tab you’re looking at, help and settings icons are always present at the top right of the Windows Defender client. Clicking on Help takes you straight to an online community forum in your browser of choice, while a dropdown arrow directs you to a page where you can manually upload a suspicious file for Microsoft’s malware team to analyse.

The Settings icon takes you straight to Windows’ main Update & Security settings. From here you can disable or re-enable features, including real-time and cloud-based protection and the automatic submission of potentially malicious files to Microsoft, and exclude specific folders, files, processes or file extensions from Defender’s scans.

While Windows Defender is better than having no anti-virus in place at all, we strongly advise against using it for long-term protection against malware due to its relatively poor performance in live malware exposure tests.

AVIRA FREE ANTIVIRUS

Overview

Key features:

Scheduled scan support
Can create bootable rescue disk
Windows 7/8/8.1/10
Requires 1GHz Intel Pentium 4 or later, 1GB RAM, 800MB free disk space
Avira’s Free Antivirus software is ad-supported and provides effective malware protection, but with a few additional bells and whistles. By comparison, the paid-for Avira Antivirus Pro dispenses with the free version’s occasional pop-up ads and offers some bonus tools for secure banking, local network threat scanning, and proper customer support.



Avira put in a strong performance in AV-TEST’s spring 2016 tests, consistently spotting and blocking 98.8% of all malware in real-world online exposure tests and 99.9% of malicious files introduced as part of a large reference set of recently captured malware. It only threw up one false-positive detection among millions of files, and its impact on system load was conspicuously lighter than average when compared to other free anti-virus software. There was less of a performance impact than most on file copying, installation, download and launching of applications and websites.

During installation, you’re prompted to optionally install some of Avira’s other utilities, including Phantom VPN, the System Speedup optimisation tool, the SafeSearch Plus browser plugin and the Online Essentials Dashboard to view the status of other devices associated with your account. While you have to manually skip through these, we prefer this option to having unnecessary extra features installed by default along with our anti-virus.

Although Avira’s browser extensions can offer up plenty of information about adverts, tracking and potentially malicious websites, they also include advertising and price comparison pop-ups on shopping sites – which we’d really rather not have.

Avira has a launcher that pops up from the Notification Area icon to show your protection status and which of the company’s extra software modules (if any) you’ve installed. From there you can open its main Protection interface: a no-frills affair that nonetheless manages to be clearer and more useful than many of its rivals.

All the options you need are right in front of you, either in the main status pane or arrayed along the left-hand tab bar. The result can be a little dense for users who’d prefer a simple interface, but we really appreciated having all the options where we could see them. The main status screen displays whether or not you’re protected and up-to-date, allows you to run manual scans and updates, and shows you which protection modules are installed.

Avira Free doesn’t include the web and email protection modules or the notification-free Game mode of the paid-for version, but it’s nonetheless a very capable anti-virus solution. Additional features included a scan scheduler, reporting, and quarantine features that let you see both what Avira has done and anything it’s detected while protecting you.

Advanced scan options can be accessed from the main status screen via gear icons next to the feature they relate to, allowing you to add scan exceptions and make the software’s heuristic scanning engine behave in a more sensitive manner.

Avira was among the most effective of the free anti-virus suites we looked at, coming second only to Qihoo in protection. Its lightweight system footprint and a clear interface make it an ideal choice for lower-powered PCs.