I get these questions constantly.
Here’s a summary of my recommendations.
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- Windows Security, in Windows 10, is my recommended anti-malware tool for most.
- Your router can serve as your primary firewall at home or work.
- Leave the Windows Firewall enabled as well, unless it causes problems.
- Let Windows Update keep your computer as up to date as possible.
That’s it. Good basic protection in four steps.
Basic security software: Windows Security
In Windows 10, Windows Security — previously known as Windows Defender — comes pre-installed. Microsoft seems to be improving it with every release.
Windows Security does a fine job of detecting malware without adversely impacting system performance or nagging you for renewals, upgrades, or up-sells. It just does its job quietly in the background — exactly what you want from your anti-malware tool.
The ratings game
Every so often, Windows Security comes under fire for rating lower in tests published online than other security packages. I get push-back — often angry push-back — that it remains my primary recommendation.
There are several reasons I stick to that position.
- No anti-malware tool will stop all malware. Malware can and does slip by even today’s highest-rated packages.
- “Highest-rated” changes depending on the date, the test, and who’s doing the testing. There is no single clear, consistent winner.
- Regardless of how the data is presented, the differences among detection rates across most current anti-malware tools is relatively small compared to other factors.
There are also some practical reasons I continue to prefer Windows Security.
- It’s free.
- It’s already installed; there’s nothing you need to do.
- It rarely impacts system performance.
- It keeps itself up to date using Windows Update.
- It has no hidden agenda — it’s not going to pester you with renewals, upgrades, or up-sells to tools you don’t need.
It’s not perfect, but no security tool is.
My recommendation stands. Windows Security remains a solid, free security package with minimal system impact. It should be appropriate for almost everyone.
Alternative security software and additions
I also recognize that Windows Security might not be right for everyone. No single product is.
This is where I run into difficulty making specific recommendations. The landscape keeps changing. More than one tool that was once free has started promoting their paid product so heavily that the free version virtually disappears. People download and install programs thinking they are free, only to discover it’s a “free trial” or “free download” (if you want to keep it past a certain length of time, you’re required to purchase it).
Some have become as much self-promotion tools as they are security tools, bombarding you with sales pitches and upgrade offers to the point of getting in the way of your work.
Things keep changing. So to the extent that I mention specific tools below, caveat emptor: “let the buyer beware”. I can’t honestly predict these tools will remain recommendation-worthy.
Malwarebytes Anti-Malware has evolved over the years into a full-featured security package. It continues to have a good track record for removing troublesome malware other packages sometimes miss. (And yes, there remains a free version: after the “trial” of their pro version ends, what remains is the free version. Unfortunately, the free version is an on-demand scanner only.)
AVG, Avira, and
Avast1, or the “three AV’s”, as I like to call them, are three other free solutions I’ve recommended over the years. I continue to hear both good things, and not so good things, about each, often in waves as each make significant updates.
Caveats with all
I need to reiterate some important points.
- Beware of “free”. In most cases, a “free trial” is just that: a trial of a full-featured product eventually requiring payment. In some cases, like MalwareBytes, the “free trial” becomes a truly free version after the trial ends. In other cases, they are two separate downloads. And in other cases, there is no truly free version at all. Be sure you know which you are getting.
- Regardless of which you download, you are still likely to be faced with upgrade and up-sell offers, or even an ongoing subscription. Unless or until you know you want this, decline.
- Speaking of declining: when installing any of these, always choose custom installation, never the default. The default may include other unrelated software you don’t need or want. Consider using Ninite to install the free tools — all are available there.
What else besides security software?
They don’t have to be expensive, and are one of the simplest approaches to keeping your computer safe from network-based threats. If all the computers on the local side of the router can be trusted, there’s no need for an additional software firewall.
When traveling, or if you don’t trust the kids’ computer connected to the same network as your own, I recommend turning on the built-in Windows Firewall. In recent versions of Windows, it’s already on by default. There’s no harm in leaving it on, but it can occasionally get in the way of some local machine-to-machine activities, like sharing files and folders.
I strongly recommend you back up regularly.
In fact, I can’t stress this enough. 99% of the disasters I hear about could be completely avoided simply by having up-to-date backups.
Stay up to date
Keep your computer — Windows and all the applications you run — as up to date as possible.
In Windows 10, this happens automatically, as long as you don’t take steps to disable it. Needless to say, I strongly recommend you not take those steps, and let Windows Update keep your system as up to date.
Many of the security issues we hear about are due to individuals (and, sadly, corporations) who have not kept their operating system or applications current with the latest available patches.
And finally, Internet Safety: 7 Steps to Keeping Your Computer Safe on the Internet has even more tips for keeping your computer safe.
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Footnotes & References
1: Or perhaps not: The Cost of Avast’s Free Antivirus: Companies Can Spy on Your Clicks (PCMag, January 2020)
2: To be clear, I’ve not run any of the paid versions, and I’ve not run the “three AVs” in many years. Their mention here is simply based on their reputation over the years.