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Microsoft Defender review: Effective, effortless protection for zero cost

The interface is clunky in places, but Windows 10’s built-in protection is amazingly effective

Windows Defender screenshot
  • Excellent malware protection
  • Just works, no interaction required
  • Free
  • Interface is inconsistent and sometimes outdated
  • Doesn’t work on older versions of Windows

Microsoft Defender provides excellent malware protection that works from the moment you start using Windows. It’s ideal for anyone who just wants their virus protection to keep them safe without any configuration or interaction, and it’s effective for both home and business use.

While Microsoft Defender hasn’t always had the best reputation, its threat detection has been massively bolstered since the release of Windows 10 by the introduction of automatic, switched-on-by-default sample submission. It’s now consistently among the top performers in tests.

For example, in AV-Test’s most recent group tests (dated July/August 2021), Microsoft Defender provided 100% protection against all real-world and reference malware sample exposure tests, with only a single false positive. That puts it on a par with Kaspersky Internet Security. AV-Test did however find that it resulted in slower installation times than almost all rivals, although its impact on system performance was otherwise minimal.

Defender did almost as well in AV Comparatives’ real-world malware protection tests during the same period, achieving a 99.7% protection rate with no false positives. And it stormed through SE Labs’ Q2 2021 real-world tests with a 100% protection rating and no false positives.

Microsoft Defender’s interface is mostly clear and easy to use. Under Windows’ Security Settings you’ll find the usual controls for real-time malware protection, on-demand, offline and scheduled scans, as well as a firewall, parental controls, and protection against ransomware, via both OneDrive backups and folder access controls. There’s also reputation-based protection from potentially malicious websites and applications; it’s more features than you’ll find in many entry-level paid-for antivirus suites.

Windows Defender screenshot

Microsoft’s parental controls are particularly slick. They’re fully integrated with the OS and include web content filtering, screen time controls, Windows Store purchase protection, and family location sharing (though users can choose to disable this and protect their privacy). Apply these settings to a user’s Microsoft account and they can sync across multiple computers, phones and tablets.

Unfortunately, the pleasant interface doesn’t extend as far as Defender’s firewall. Manually configuring firewall rules is an only marginally less awkward experience than it was under Windows XP, with ugly interface panes and poor text wrapping. Although the default settings are generally fine for day-to-day use, the interface rapidly outstays its welcome if you need to configure a number of local firewall rules at once.

Scheduled scans can be a pain too: they have to be set up using the Task Scheduler, and there isn’t even a shortcut to this in the Microsoft Security interface. We’d really like to see both of these features revamped and made as user-friendly as the rest of the suite. It would also be reassuring to have a dedicated webcam protection module.

Microsoft Defender won’t be an option for everyone, as it requires an up-to-date version of Windows 10 or Windows 11. If you’re using an older edition, you’ll have to use a third-party option, such as Avast or Kaspersky. However, if you are running a supported release of Windows then Microsoft Defender deserves to be your first choice for malware protection.

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