[Switch your antivirus] Microsoft Windows Defender

An exceptionally lightweight package that provides only a basic level of protection

Windows Defender – the latest version of Microsoft Security Essentials – is built in to Windows 8. It’s therefore our benchmark for system responsiveness, and, it must be said, it sets a high bar.

In our real-world tests, no other package this month – free or paid-for – was able to match Defender’s lightness of touch. Compared to the group average, our Atom-based system running Defender proved more than 10% faster at opening Explorer windows, and more than 20% ahead of the pack when opening applications.

This nimble performance is doubtless assisted by the fact that – as the Security Essentials brand implies – the package itself sticks to one simple job, namely scanning files and applications for malware. Other types of threat are addressed by other parts of Microsoft’s ecosystem: the OS has its own built-in firewall, while Internet Explorer offers SmartScreen and Protection Mode to intercept unwanted scripts and downloads. Recent versions of Windows also offer a cloud storage system in the form of SkyDrive integration.

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It adds up to a respectably balanced offering, and it’s unobtrusive, too; in our tests, it almost never bothered us with unnecessary interruptions or misguided warnings about legitimate software, again serving as a yardstick for the rest of the group (seepl26). Since it’s already built in to Windows, you don’t have to give up any extra disk space to use it, as you do with third-party options.

All of this makes Defender a tempting option if your prime concern is that a security suite should stay out of the way and not bog down your system.

Sadly, there’s a big catch: Microsoft’s malware-detection routines are far from the best in the business. In our tests, it intercepted only 82% of the threats we threw at it, placing it behind every competitor save McAfee. Although there are things to like about Defender, it’s hard to recommend it when it makes such a lacklustre job of its core function.

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