Microsoft Windows Defender review

Anti-spyware stalwart starting to show signs of neglect

Our Verdict

It may be free but detection capabilities are sub-standard


  • The price is right

    Decent and simple scheduling tools


  • Ineffective at its core job

    Installation quirks

When Microsoft first acquired GIANT AntiSpyware a few years back, the company finally appeared ready to do the right thing.

GIANT had a reputation for being tough with spyware, and did an excellent job of preventing, detecting and removing even the most pesky and insidious infections. This trend continued when the product was reborn as the Microsoft AntiSpyware beta product, most effectively described as the same product with a new look and feel.

Much has changed since then. Now known as Windows Defender, the product no longer runs on Windows 2000, requires validation to install on Windows XP, but to its credit is integrated as a native tool in Windows Vista.

Gone are many of the advanced tools originally included with the product, such as the built-in tracks eraser and secure file shredder. The program is a stripped-down version of its former self, in more ways than one.

On the plus side, Windows Defender does have appeal, especially for users who want to keep things simple. The interface won't leave anyone guessing because there's virtually nothing to it.

Updates are applied automatically (except when things go awry - more on that shortly), daily scans are scheduled from the get-go, and the program's real-time protection does a decent job of keeping a clean system as it should be.

The biggest benefit, however, is that the program is free, making it a popular choice among users who can't be bothered paying for yet another round of yearly third-party subscription fees.

The Dark Side

Our problems with Windows Defender began right after the installation process, when the program announced that updates couldn't be downloaded, but provided us with a cryptic error number as a reference.

A Web search suggested that we visit the Windows Update Web site, and after downloading and installing the updates required to use the Web site, Windows Defender downloaded its updates and was back in business.

While the price might be right, those looking to Windows Defender as their sole anti-spyware solution would do well to reconsider, especially those with an infected system.

Our test PC was littered with malware threats, and yet when we performed a full scan with Windows Defender it managed to detect and remove only five threats. It not only failed to detect the Elite keylogger completely, but also missed the DNS-changing Trojan, our IE browser hijack and the malicious video ActiveX control, to name but a few.

Considering that many of these threats are designed to hamper the functions of core Windows components, we expected a better showing. In total, Windows Defender detected and removed less than a quarter of the threats on our test system, a sorry showing indeed.

At best, Windows Defender should be limited to providing real-time spyware protection, and only then if backed up by regular scans using a strong spyware scanner such as Spybot S&D. If your goal is to rid a badly infected system of malware we offer only two words of advice: look elsewhere.