After all the flak Windows has received over the years about security, it's no surprise Microsoft invested in improving the Windows image from Vista through to Windows 7.
While there are plenty of third-party options to choose from when it comes to anti-malware and anti-virus products for Windows, Microsoft's homegrown options these days are actually pretty good. And, more importantly, they're free for legitimate Windows users to boot.
But as Microsoft's stance to security evolved, so too has its range of products, and today it can be a little confusing about what tools provide what cover. So here's the breakdown, with our recommendation on what to use.Windows Defender
Windows Defender comes preinstalled on Windows 7, Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008. Despite its name it only covers critical anti-spyware threats, which is unfortunate as many Windows users may be tempted to just update the Windows Defender definitions from Windows Update and believe they are covered. Windows Defender is superseded by Microsoft Security Essentials (and in fact MSE will disable Windows Defender upon install).Microsoft Security Essentials
Microsoft Security Essentials is an anti-spyware, anti-malware and antivirus toolkit with real-time monitoring. It's free for home users and businesses with up to 10 computers. MSE is the Microsoft equivalent of suites like Norton or Kaspersky, though it doesn't have the range of extraneous tools these packages often bundle. However it has the most important components - antivirus and anti-malware - and can receive regular updates to virus definitions via Windows Update. As far as security suites go it's simple and effective and mostly unobtrusive. There's no reason not to be using it, certainly in lieu of using nothing at all. MSE can be installed on Windows 7, Windows Vista and Windows XP.Malicious Software Removal Tool
Despite its name this tool is designed to run once when downloaded from Windows Update and scan for specific anti-malware. It's not a replacement for Windows Defender or Microsoft Security Essentials, but can be helpful when Microsoft releases updates to newly discovered threats. However, technically, the same profiles that go into the Malicious Software Removal Tool also go into Microsoft Security Essentials, another reason to keep MSE up to date. It comes in handy if trying to salvage a machine where MSE isn't installed, and you know that the tool will remove the threat.Microsoft Safety Scanner
Similar to the Malicious Software Removal tool, the Security Scanner is a one-time-use tool to quickly scan and remove viruses, malware and spyware. It doesn't provide real-time protection and is intended to address an immediate threat - as a result it will expire after 10 days. It's regularly updated with the latest definitions, but to use these you need to download and run the latest version. MSE uses the same virus scanning engine, so if you're running MSE you don't need the Security Scanner.
Note: there's also Microsoft's new Standalone System Sweeper
, useful for recovering systems which won't boot to run offline scans, plus corporate products Microsoft Forefront
and Microsoft Intune
for anti-malware and security on a large scale.