Editors' note: On March 5, 2008, CNET revised its antispyware review ratings to emphasize a product's ability to remove spyware. The new ratings are based on the following formula: Installation (20 percent), Features (20 percent), Performance (50 percent), and Support (10 percent). In most cases a product's rating went down, expanding the range between highest and lowest rated.Microsoft Windows Defender is perhaps the best free antispyware application we looked at this year, but we disagree with Microsoft's aggressive need to verify our Windows license--not once but twice--before allowing us the opportunity to download and install Windows Defender. Given that it's a free app, we would prefer that Microsoft see the larger picture and have all desktops clean of malicious spyware, regardless of their Windows status. Once Windows Defender is installed, it's pretty darn good. Advanced users will appreciate the granularity in its controls. We do continue to fault Windows Defender only for being too lenient with some adware and spyware, labeling most every item we tested as low threats, an opinion not shared by other vendors, but Windows Defender did detect 9 out the 10 spyware items in our CNET tests and was among our top products for completely removing spyware infections.
Although Windows Defender is free, you cannot simply download it and run the product. As mentioned, if you haven't already done so, you must first download and install the Windows Verification tool on your desktop, then you must validate that you are in fact running a licensed version of Windows. Only then may you download Windows Defender. Guess what? Microsoft then asks you again to validate your copy of Microsoft Windows before continuing with the Windows Defender wizard. If you follow the default settings in the installation wizard, you are automatically signed up for SpyNet, Microsoft's in-house database of spyware seen in the wild. If you do not want any information transmitted back to Microsoft, choose the Install Definition Updates Only option instead. You will also need to agree to a supplemental license agreement, one that goes beyond what you agreed to when you installed your genuine version of Windows XP SP2 or Windows Vista. And there you have it. It's like getting frisked (twice) as you walk into the post office; Microsoft makes the process of downloading and installing so unpleasant for this free application that you might not have the patience for it.
The final release of Windows Defender didn't wow us with its design. The interface looks as though some coder realized he needed a front end to go with the program and slapped together some buttons, a dropdown menu, and a few other goodies. More advanced users won't care; the interface is clean and relatively well-organized. But there's a lot of unused white space and small type.
The free Windows Defender is more than adequate, although Microsoft says a more enhanced version is available in Microsoft Windows Live OneCare. Still, the free version offers a fast scanning engine and protection for non-administrator users on your system. As for specific features, advanced users may appreciate these more than the casual user would.
The Windows Defender History feature acts like HiJackThis, logging changes made to the system registry. The difference is that HiJackThis provides a snapshot; Windows Defender provides a running log of all system changes. The Tools page is Defender's catch-all page. Under Options, you'll find automatic scanning, default actions, real-time protection options, advanced options, and administrator options. Most users will not need to change these settings. There's also an option to join or leave SpyNet. As a member, quarantine lists will be sent to SpyNet for processing, alerting Microsoft to new outbreaks and new spyware.