Windows Security review: There are better options, but not for the 'price'

Windows Security (nee Windows Defender) has come a long way.

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At a Glance
  • Windows Security

For years, the attitude towards Windows 10’s built-in security was that it’s a nice idea, but you really shouldn’t rely on it. That stared changing in 2019, with the major testing houses giving Windows Security top marks.

Could it be true? Can you really ditch your $100 annual antivirus subscription and rely on Microsoft’s native solution instead? Here’s our opinion.

Windows Security is a very basic utility. In a way, it doesn’t need to be fancy, since it’s part of Windows itself. If you need extras like backups or hard drive cleaning, you can find that in other parts of the OS.

Note: This review is part of our best antivirus roundup. Go there for details about competing products and how we tested them.
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The Windows Security dashboard.

Windows Security is accessible via the Start menu or an icon in the system tray. It has seven sections: Virus & threat protection, Account protection, Firewall & network protection, App & browser control, Device security, Device performance & health, and Family options.

The first five sections will display a green check mark when everything is fine or a yellow alert symbol when it’s not. Unfortunately, these alerts aren’t always being honest. The Account protection section alerts you when you’re using a local account and not a Microsoft account. That means you’ll always have a yellow check mark on the Windows Security icon in the system tray unless you dismiss that particular alert, which few people do. That’s unfortunate, since more vital alerts could be ignored as the yellow alert status just blends into the background.

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Windows Security’s virus scan section.

The Virus & threat protection is where Microsoft has really filled out its antivirus chops, and its AV program is still known as Windows Defender. In earlier versions, built-in security for Windows just did its job in the background. The current version allows you to run four different kinds of scans, all of which are pretty standard for antivirus.

You can run a quick scan to search the most common places that viruses and malware are likely to hide.There’s a longer full scan section that checks all files and programs on your hard disk. You can also choose a custom scan to check specific files or folders. Finally, there’s the Windows Defender Offline scan that shuts down your computer and scans your device for particularly pernicious malware that other scans are unlikely to find.

For anyone who uses free, third-party antivirus, the new Windows Security offers pretty much all you need. Windows Security also has the added benefit of not harrassing you with notifications to upgrade to a paid product every few days.

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Windows Defender’s scan options.

There’s a lot more functionality inside Virus & threat protection. Under the settings area for that section we have a few on/off sliders for options such as real-time protection, cloud-delivered protection, automatic sample submission, and tamper protection. All of these options are turned on by default, and all of them have clear explanations about what they do if you’re thinking about turning any of them off.

In addition, there’s an option for controlled folder access to keep malicious programs away from sensitive folders. If Windows Security misidentifies an app as unfriendly you can also whitelist it. This section is also where you can set up OneDrive for ransomware data recovery.

Going back to the settings for Virus & threat protection, you can set up specific folders so they won’t be scanned, and adjust your notification settings.

Again, that’s a lot of basic antivirus protection packed into this suite that is active by default on new Windows 10 PCs.

There’s not a whole lot of interesting stuff in the Account protection section. If you’re using a Microsoft account, this is where you can manage your sync settings, activate Windows Hello for sign-ins, and manage the Dynamic Lock feature that pairs a Bluetooth device to automatically lock the PC when you step away.

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The firewall section in Windows Security.

The Firewall section lets you manage the built-in firewall, and allow apps through the firewall if necessary. Then the App & browser control is where you manage Windows SmartScreen for apps and file downloads, browsing on Microsoft Edge, and the Microsoft Store.

This section exposes one downside of Windows Security: It doesn’t really do as much as other third-party suites can do for third-party browsers. If you stick with mainstream browsers they have their own built-in protections, and you can also add third-party blockers such as uBlock Origin to keep out a good chunk of potential ad-based malware penetrations. These moves won’t catch everything, however, especially if you’re visiting the less reputable corners of the web. Norton, for example, is often more proactive about blocking malicious activity than the browsers are. That said, regardless of your browser, Windows Security should have no trouble blocking potentially malicious file downloads.

Moving on, Device security is a section that does its work in the background and anything you see here is mostly informational. Device performance & health, however, gives a quick glance at the current hardware status, including battery life, storage capacity, software, and the Windows Time service. This is also where you can carry out a “Fresh start” to reinstall Windows.

Finally, the Family options area lets you manage your child’s activities. Microsoft allows you to manage Windows 10 devices, Xbox One consoles, as well as Android devices if they have the Microsoft Launcher installed. That’s a great set of options, and is on par with a lot of other services. You can set screen time limits, and restrict time for specific apps and games. There’s also an option to implement buying restrictions on the Microsoft Store.

Overall, Windows Security has a good set of options for security, from antivirus scans and ransomware all the way down to parental controls.

Performance

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A malicious file warning from Windows Security in Windows 10.

Judging Windows Security performance is a little tough since the utility is built right into Windows. Nevertheless, you can turn off a lot of the functionality to get a sense of its impact on PCs.

Running PCMark 10’s Extended Creative test saw a dip of just five points between Windows Security in active and dormant modes.

The large-file transfer test was a different story, with the test PC scoring a slightly slower speed by 23 seconds with Windows Security active. Again, not a huge drop but lower-end PCs might see a difference when transferring large files. The other performance tests included the archive and unarchive test, with a difference of about 20 seconds. The bottom line is that most PCs won’t suffer much of a performance impact, if any, from Windows Security.

As for the testing houses, AV-Test gave Windows Defender (the AV portion of Windows Security) a 100 percent score for both its 0-day and prevelant malware tests, using 368 samples and 13,000 samples, respectively. The testing period covered July and August 2019.

AV-Comparatives also gave Windows Defender a high rating. In its real-world protection test for July and August, using 352 samples, Windows Defender blocked 100 percent of the threats. That’s fantastic, but Windows Defender also had the highest false positives rate at 39.

AV-Comparatives’ malware protection test from September 2019 was a mixed bag. In that test of more than 10,000 samples, Windows Defender had a 29.7 percent offline detection rate, which is terrible and the second lowest. The online detection rate was the absolute lowest at 76.3 percent, whereas most security suites are hitting around 97 to 99 percent. The online protection rate, however, was very high at 99.96 percent. There were 13 false alarms, which is a mid-range result.

Finally, we looked at SE Labs, which gave Windows Defender a AAA rating. SE Labs put Microsoft in the second tier of AAA products along with ESET and McAfee, all of which missed one public threat, but stopped everything else including targeted attacks.

From these results we can gather that Windows Security is highly cloud dependent for malware detection, and probably isn’t up to the job if your PC spends a good amount of time disconnected from the internet. It also means there are still far better choices for protection despite Windows Defender’s top ranking.

Conclusion

Windows Security has all the elements you need in a solid security suite, including antivirus scans, ransomware protection, and parental controls. It doesn’t have a lot of the extras you’ll see in other suites, but some of those things, such as automated backups, are built into other parts of Windows.

If you’re all about the added features of a top-tier security suite then Windows Security will not be a satisfying option. It doesn’t have encrypted cloud storage for sensitive documents, secure file erase, a password manager, or a VPN subscription. Granted, many of these features would likely land Microsoft in hot water with anti-trust authorities. For that reason we wouldn’t expect Microsoft to push much beyond the equivalent of third-party free antivirus suites, which is what we’re seeing now.

Windows Security offers good protection, but if you look at the testing comparisons to other suites, there are still better options. Nevertheless, Windows Security has come a long way and should continue to improve its basic protection and detection capabilities.

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At a Glance
  • Microsoft's Windows Security, nee Windows Defender, was never considered the best protection for Windows 10 PCs, and many would argue it wasn't even adequate protection. That's slowly been changing. Microsoft has quietly filled out Windows Security into something equivalent to the free, third-party security suites, and now the testing houses are taking notice, giving Microsoft's built-in security for Windows 10 top marks.

    Pros

    • Excellent protection for a free security suite
    • Works out of the box

    Cons

    • Good protection, but there are higher-performing options
    • No extra features to speak of
  
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