For many years, the perceived wisdom when it came to Windows PCs was that you needed to install antivirus software if you wanted to keep your computer and your data safe.
And that's certainly still the case today. In fact, there are ever-more threats against your data, your identify and your money, all of which can be mitigated by running the appropriate anti-malware software.
Does Windows 10 come with antivirus software?
It does indeed: Windows Defender. Windows has had virus protection for a number of years, and the latest iteration found in Windows 10 is the strongest it’s ever been.
If your laptop or PC didn't come with any other antivirus software pre-installed then Windows Defender will already be protecting your system.
Given that Defender's protection is just as good as the best antivirus software, you can relax in the knowledge it's keeping your laptops and PCs safe. In AV-Test's most recent report covering November and December 2019, Defender stopped 100% of 'known' viruses and also 100% of zero-day (unknown) attacks.
Microsoft’s offering should also have the advantage of being baked into the OS, but in fact it has a higher drag factor when it comes to system resources, causing apps to load more slowly than if you ran a paid-for security product such as Norton 360 Deluxe.
Of course, it still has advantages: it doesn't cost anything and you don't have to install it or configure it in the first place, which is also a bonus.
To check if Windows Defender is working correctly, launch the Windows Security app which will show you the status of antivirus and firewall.
If there's something not right, you might like to read our How to turn on or off Windows Defender guide. In the screenshot above, you can see Norton 360 is installed, which means Defender is automatically disabled.
Why pay for antivirus software?
That, of course, is the obvious question. If Defender is just as good as the best antivirus software that you can buy, why pay for a security suite?
Well, there are several reasons. We've already mentioned that Defender can slow down app loading times more than some rivals, but there are other advantages of dedicated anti-virus software. Namely, they usually provide a wider range of features in terms of how they protect your system, including cloud storage / backup, password managers to help you have different and secure passwords for each and every online service, parental controls, email and web-browser plug-ins which can warn you of dodgy email attachments and websites.
Ransomware protection is a key feature you'll find in many products, and this keeps your files safe from being encrypted should this type of malware manage to wreak havoc on your computer.
Windows Defender does now have 'Exploit Guard' which helps to protect your files against ransomware, but only if you've updated to the Creators Update (or a later version of Windows 10). So it's well worth updating and setting up Controlled Folders (which are the folders that get protected from Ransomware attacks). It's no use just having the latest version of Windows: you still need to pick your protected folders in the Windows Security app.
Paid-for antivirus software often gets new features sooner, though, and many now employ AI for better threat detection.
Don’t use an Administrator account
It's not a good idea to use a Windows account with Administrator privileges. This simple modification can eradicate many of the threats out there, as malware, spyware, and the like will not be able to install itself.
To do this you’ll need to create a new Administrator account (as you’ll want one on your system), then change your existing account to a Standard one.
This can be achieved in Settings > Accounts > Family & other people, where you add either a family member or a generic account.
Set this as an Administrator, then log out of your existing account. Log in as the new one, click on your normal account and when the option to Change account type appears click on it. This opens a window where you can select to make that account either Standard or Administrator.
With this up and running it should offer a fair amount of protection from accidental downloads with malware under the covers.
If you do find that certain programs you use regularly require the higher-level access, then you can always give that a special pass. Read How to run programs as Administrator in Window 10 for more details.
Have a dedicated web browser for Flash or Java
Another common weak point on Windows comes from third party software. Flash and Java both are known to be the route many malware programs take to get onto your system, so it’s wise to limit their use.
In some cases, this is hard, as you might have specific websites that require them – banking sites were a prime example for a time - meaning you can’t disable the programs completely.
Our advice is to download another browser - Chrome, Firefox, Opera, etc. - and have Java and Flash enabled on that one. Then whenever you need to use the website that requires them, you can open that browser, but for the rest of the time online you’ll be in a secure browser instead.
Be very careful what you click on
Many of the ways people are compromised these days comes through being fooled into clicking on links in emails, which then downloads malware, or clicking through to fake versions of websites which then ask you to log in, therefore stealing your account details.
A good rule of thumb is to always navigate to a site yourself. If you get an email saying your account password needs changing, or even that there’s a great sale on, then don’t click on the link. Instead, go to your browser and type in the address of the site. If the sale is real, then you’ll be able to find it.
Be very cautious about links in emails or social media messages too, as these can be just as perilous. Basically, treat every link or download as suspicious, and you can avoid a lot of problems.
Make regular backups
The last essential part of protecting yourself is to make regular offline backups. Yes, using online services is a good idea, and as you’ll see from our best cloud storage roundup there’s plenty of choice, but with Ransomware becoming more of a threat we’d also highly recommend creating your own local, offline backups too.
Follow our How to backup Windows 10 guide for more details on the software you can use, and how to set up a regular schedule for protecting your precious data.
No antivirus software offers a cast-iron guarantee that it will stop all viruses and malware each and every day. That's why it's crucial to stay vigilant, and stay safe.