Microsoft Windows Security review: Decent protection but you’re still better off with a paid alternative

Formerly known as Defender, Windows 10’s built-in antivirus tool now nestles among a whole suite of integrated security modules, within an umbrella app that’s simply called Windows Security. Some of these other components extend your protection in quite clever ways: for example, the Controlled Folder Access feature can stop ransomware dead in its tracks by blocking unrecognised applications from writing to your personal folders. READ NEXT: Our pick of the best password managers

Microsoft Windows Security review: What features does it have?

Microsoft’s SmartScreen technology has also evolved to take advantage of Windows 10’s extensive (and somewhat controversial) telemetry features, using them to identify and block programs with suspicious global usage patterns.

Similar checks are built into the Edge browser and the Microsoft Store, to help protect you from suspicious websites, downloads and apps. The Windows Security console also collects together various features that were previously scattered throughout the Settings app. These include Secure boot, which can defeat rootkits by preventing the BIOS from running startup code that doesn’t have the right cryptographic signature, and Windows Hello, which replaces your password with biometric authentication.

Windows’ built-in parental controls are managed from here too, as is the integrated firewall. With all this built right into the OS, you might wonder why you’d need to bother installing additional security software. Indeed, a 100% overall protection rating from AV-Comparatives and AV-Test provides pretty good reassurance that, if you simply leave Windows with its default protections enabled, you’re very unlikely to get infected.

The trouble is, living with Windows Security is not a particularly pleasant experience. When the system thinks it’s found a threat, it posts up an almost insolently terse notification, reporting only that the antivirus component “found threats”. If you want to know what they were, or what Windows did about them, you’ll have to burrow into the Security app, locate the pertinent timestamp in the event list and approve a UAC requester just to see the basic details.

That’s not a one-off, either – it’s par for the course with Windows Security. The process of allowing an application through Controlled Folder Access is just as overcomplicated, which is perhaps why that feature is unhelpfully turned off by default. Even finding your way around can be a chore: basic security settings rub shoulders with obscure technical controls, and since almost every page is presented in the form of a loosely spaced list of text items, taking stock of what’s in front of you involves a tiresome amount of skimming and scrolling.

Honourable exceptions are the firewall, which opens as an MMC snap-in, and the Family Safety controls, which as always are managed from a colourful web console.

Microsoft Windows Security review: How good is protection and performance?

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the fundamentally awful design of Windows Security is that you can’t entirely avoid it. Across AV-Comparatives and AV-Test’s malware tests, the antivirus module racked up five false positives – implying that, sooner or later, you may well need to go in and restore a file that’s been wrongly blocked. Even after you’ve gone through the rigmarole of rescuing an item from quarantine, Windows will simply zap the file again the next time you access or scan it, unless you additionally burrow into the settings page, scroll down and step through the laborious process of manually adding the file to your Exclusions list.

If all of this is starting to turn you off Windows Security, this next part might finish the job. Of all the security suites we’ve tested recently, both paid for and free, Microsoft’s own code ranks dead last in terms of system impact. Manual scanning is slow, too, and the predicted completion times seem to have no relationship with reality at all.

At one point during our testing, the virus scanner was confidently telling us it expected to be finished in 13 seconds when, in fact, there was more than six minutes of grinding still to go. READ NEXT: Take a look at our favourite VPNs

Microsoft Windows Security (2020) review: Should you stick with it?

I’d love to be more positive about Windows Security. Microsoft deserves credit for continually working to make Windows safer and for bringing antivirus performance up to levels that match the best paid-for security suites.

And as Windows accumulates a growing range of security features, it makes sense to collect them together under one roof. Unfortunately, Microsoft seems to have given absolutely zero consideration to the user experience, leaving us with a sprawling, confounding mishmash that’s neither efficient nor intuitive. Perhaps the major saving grace of Windows Security is that the key modules politely disable themselves when you install a third-party alternative, while the firewall and other low-level protections continue to do their thing behind the scenes.

That means you can get the best of both worlds by installing a nimbler, friendlier third-party package to take care of day-to-day security duties – and we strongly recommend that you do.

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