Skip to main content

Malwarebytes review

Veteran malware hunter adds even more layers of PC protection

Malwarebytes
(Image: © Malwarebytes)

Our Verdict

Malwarebytes Premium offers some powerful features, but it's not as smart as the company claims. Use it if you like, but make sure it’s alongside a second antivirus app with greater accuracy.

For

  • New interface is easy to use
  • Powerful anti-exploit module
  • Works with other antivirus tools

Against

  • Below-average detection rates
  • Few independent testing results

Malwarebytes is a Californian company which has been developing malware-hunting products for more than 15 years.

Its latest product, Malwarebytes 4.0, claims to be smarter than traditional antivirus, thanks to layers of technology like anomaly detection, behavior matching and application hardening.

New features in this release are mostly under the hood, with more rapid publishing of threat definitions, enhanced zero-hour detection and a brand new Katana engine using improved behavior monitoring techniques to block the very latest dangers. Oh, and the company claims Malwarebytes 4 is faster and more lightweight, too.

There's also a very visible change in the completely redesigned interface, which has been optimized for simplicity but also provides more information.

Installing Malwarebytes gets you a 14-day trial of the Premium version with full real-time protection. After that it falls back to a free edition with on-demand malware, spyware and rootkit detection only.

Malwarebytes Premium is priced at $40 for a single computer (Windows, Mac, Android Chrome OS), one-year license, or $60 to cover three computers. Extending this to two years gets you a 25% discount on the second year, cutting costs to $70 for a single computer, $105 for three.

That's very similar pricing to other big antivirus names, although they'll often also give you a worthwhile discount on the first year. Kaspersky and Bitdefender's baseline antivirus packages start at around $25 to cover three devices for a year, for instance, although they rise to the same $60 a year on renewal.

Setup 1

(Image credit: Malwarebytes)

Setup

Malwarebytes installs quickly and easily. We were offered the chance to have a 14-day trial of Malwarebytes Premium, and although this requires handing over an email address, there were no other hassles of any kind (we didn't even have to confirm our email.)

Checking the Malwarebytes installation folders showed a relatively lightweight package at around 210MB of files. Some antivirus tools require three to five times as much space, more when you factor in virus definitions.

Our system wasn't weighed down with active processes, either. We only noticed three, and they made minimal demands on our system resources.

In a previous review we noted that Malwarebytes' 'self-protection' layer was vulnerable, and an attacker could disable it with little more than a batch file. This release is much better defended, and our test attacks weren't able to stop the core Malwarebytes service, change its settings or otherwise compromise our security.

Setup 2

(Image credit: Malwarebytes)

If you're the hands-off, 'set and forget' type, there's not much to do after installation. Malwarebytes runs in the background and protects you immediately, with nothing else to do.

When you need to run an on-demand scan, that's as easy as double-clicking Malwarebytes' system tray icon, hitting the Scan button and waiting for the results. It's all very straightforward, and even the least technical of newbies will feel at home right away.

Scanning

(Image credit: Malwarebytes)

Scanning

Malwarebytes main Scan feature quickly checks memory, startup items and key areas of your file system. It made sensible choices on our test system, examining enough areas to be useful, but not so many that we were kept waiting for results, and completed in a speedy 7 minutes.

That's great, but if you're in a real hurry, a Quick Scan checks only RAM and startup objects in around 30 seconds. 

A separate Custom Scan enables choosing the items you'd like checked, including specific files and folders, and gives you a little control over how they work (whether it should scan inside archives, and what to do with 'potentially unwanted programs', for instance.) It's a welcome touch, although doesn't begin to match the high level of control you'll see with more geek-friendly products from Avast, Avira and others.

You're able to scan files, folders or drives from the right-click Explorer menu. Well, most of the time. Unfortunately, the Windows client can't handle simultaneous on-demand scans, so if it's running a regular scan, you'll be told you must wait until that's finished before it can check anything else. This isn't a critical issue - Malwarebytes' engine will still pick up threats as it detects them, even if another scan is running - but it's a hassle that you don't get with the best antivirus.

Scan Results

(Image credit: Malwarebytes)

We were a little concerned to see that Malwarebytes didn't detect a threat when it was extracted from an archive. Again, this isn't a critical issue, as the threats are picked up if they're explicitly scanned, launched or opened by another application. But not scanning files when they're written removes a layer of protection you'll get with many competitors.

URL Filtering

(Image credit: Malwarebytes)

Malwarebytes also provides simple URL filtering, detecting and blocking any attempts to access malicious links. Results were only average in our tests, but even that's enough to be useful, and it's a worthwhile addition to the package.

The Settings dialog is mostly about toggling features on and off (updates, notifications, web filtering, malware protection and so on), but you do get some fine-tuned control over Malwarebytes' exploit protection, where the packages uses multiple techniques to protect against zero-day attacks for common applications and application types.

These options are so technical that even the most expert of users might struggle to know what to do with them. (Should you apply 'Dynamic Anti-HeapSpraying Enforcement' to all your browsers, for instance? Quickly, now.) Other options are easier to understand, though ('Protection for Internet Explorer VB Scripting'), and just having this level of control could be useful if the exploit protection breaks a particular application, and you're looking for a fix.

Real-Time Protection

(Image credit: Malwarebytes)

If you're hoping for a pile of bonus features - or any extras at all - then you're out of luck. There's no specialist banking protection here, no password manager, none of the items you might get with some packages. This focus on the fundamentals does at least keep Malwarebytes easy to use, though, and if you don't need that kind of extra, you might appreciate its simplicity and lack of clutter.

Protection

(Image credit: Malwarebytes)

Protection

Malwarebytes has never been the best performer in conventional lab tests, and the most recent AV-Test results aren't impressive.

The company performed well against well-known malware, blocking 99.9% of sample threats, but managed only 98.6% and 93.2% in the zero-day tests (the industry average is 97%), leaving Malwarebytes ranked 17th out of 19 for protection.

This test was based on the previous Malwarebytes release, so it's possible the new Katana engine is much more accurate, but there's clearly a lot to do. Check the latest report before you buy.

Scan Complete

(Image credit: Malwarebytes)

To get some independent data on Malwarebytes' abilities, we decided to pit it against a simple ransomware simulator of our own creation. As Malwarebytes wouldn't have seen this before, we would be able to see if its behavior monitoring could detect the threat.

The results weren't good, with Malwarebytes doing nothing at all as our simulator encrypted thousands of test documents. That's disappointing, especially as Malwarebytes 3 passed this test without difficulty during our last review.

We don't treat failing this test as a major black mark, because our simulator isn't real malware, and it could be argued that allowing it to run was the right decision. 

It does leave us wondering about the effectiveness of Malwarebytes' new Katana engine, though, and we'll be interested to see how the company does in AV-Test's reports throughout 2020.

Final verdict

Malwarebytes Premium is a likeable security app which will make your PC a little safer, but it's not the full antivirus replacement claimed on the website. Grab a copy of the free version, maybe, but run it alongside another antivirus app to ensure your safety.