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In-depth

How to turn on Windows Defender

Find out how to switch on Windows Defender in Windows 10 and Windows 11, and turn it off again if necessary

First released with Windows Vista, Microsoft's free, built-in antivirus software has provided base-level protection for Windows machines for a number of years now, with its capabilities and efficiency improving with every iteration.

Windows Defender has appeared on every iteration of Windows since Vista and can still be found on the presently supported versions, Windows 10 and Windows 11, although it has expanded to cover a variety of security tools since its initial launch.

Given it is proprietary software, Microsoft will regularly inform you if Windows Defender is turned on or off, and will direct you to the screen where you can turn it on if you so wish. If that hasn't happened, you can turn it on manually.

Defender is technically the anti-malware component of Windows, but these days it also controls a bunch of other security tools as part of Windows. Unfortunately, accessing the correct interface can be challenge depending on what version of Windows you're running, and what update you're on, as the user interface has updated a number of times.

How to check if Windows Defender is running

A screenshot of the Windows 10 desktop showing the notification area

The first thing you'll want to do is check whether Windows Defender is on or off.

  1. To do this, take a look at the notifications area along the Taskbar (to the left of the time display, and just before the end of the Taskbar)
  2. Look for a small icon resembling a shield - this may be found in items that have been hidden from view. Clicking the upwards-pointing arrow should expand the icon tray and show all apps running.

The Windows Defender icon should appear in this tray with a red cross (X) if some part of the security suite has been turned off, or a yellow exclamation mark if there is some issue with your device's security. If there are no crosses or exclamation marks, your Windows security is on and is running as normal.

How to turn on Windows Defender in Windows 10 and Windows 11

A screenshot of Windows 11's Security Center showing a number of security tools with one turned off with a red cross

If you see that Windows Defender is turned off, you can do the following to switch it on:

  1. Click the Start menu and type "windows security" into the search bar
  2. Click the Windows Security app
  3. Click 'Turn on' under 'Virus and threat protection'

If 'Turn on' has not appeared on screen:

  1. Click the 'Virus and threat protection' tool listed under 'Security at a glance'
  2. Scroll down to 'Virus & threat protection settings'
  3. Click 'manage settings'
  4. Click the toggle button for each function to turn them on

Note: You can also access every other Windows Security Center function using this method - simply click 'Turn on' displayed under each tool to enable them.

Following recent updates, the above process is the same across Windows 10 and Windows 11, however on certain older versions of Windows 10 you may find that the old UI presents itself. It's worth upgrading to the latest version of your operating system to avoid having to deal with these legacy interfaces.

How to turn off Windows Defender

A screenshot of Windows 11's Security Center showing virus protections turned off

Generally speaking, Windows Defender will automatically protect your system unless you either manually disable it or install a different security suite. In the event you want to disable Windows Defender, you can do the following:

  1. Click the Start Menu icon and search "Windows Security"
  2. From here, select 'Virus & threat protection'
  3. Scroll down to 'Virus & threat protection settings'
  4. Click 'manage settings'
  5. Click the toggle buttons on each function to turn them off
  6. You will then be notified with a pop up that the program is off

Why you should use Windows Defender

Despite Windows Defender's effectiveness increasing in recent years, to a point where it now rivals some of the more popular alternatives that are out there, users often instead opt for third-party products supplied by cyber security vendors of which there are plenty on the market, both free and paid-for.

However, if Windows Defender is enabled while a third-party anti-virus or anti-malware tool is also running, interoperability issues can arise which, somewhat ironically, can weaken the systems' security when users think they have double the protection from two anti-virus programs running.

Business users also now have the option of choosing an affordable paid-for version of Windows Defender, following an announcement at Microsoft Ignite 2021. The paid business version operates on a subscription model, unlike the free consumer-grade Windows Defender, and costs £2.20 per user to protect against the most common threats faced by small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) specifically.

There are many obvious upsides to using Windows Defender over other, third-party solutions such as Norton or McAfee. Convenience is a massive selling point and given that it comes pre-installed on any genuine Windows machine users can rest assured that whatever they’ve ordered is going to come with ample protections out of the box.

It’s also free, which is something that can’t be said for some of the most effective anti-virus or anti-malware tools on the market currently. Bundle that with a massively improved performance and overall detection rate in recent years and you’ve got yourself a perfectly serviceable security product watching your back in the long-term.

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In fact, according to recent tests by AV-Test.org, Windows Defender scored 100% in malware protection exercises putting it on par with the very best in the game. The only reported downside was slightly longer waits when installing new software but it’s, of course, a small price to pay for 100% protection, and other system-wide performance metrics were largely unaffected.

In addition to strong anti-malware protection, Windows Defender is also equipped with a serious arsenal of security features that cover both Windows and the Microsoft Edge browser, if you’re part of the growing base that uses it.

Biometrics is one of the oft-peddled features of Defender and with Windows Hello, users can access their device using face ID, fingerprints, personal identification number (PIN), or the traditional password too, should they wish to take the old school approach. Security controls for the entire family are also available as well as an array of features for safely browsing the web such as online tracking prevention, a password generator, and a tool that tells you when a password of yours has been stolen in a data breach.

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