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In-depth

How to turn on Windows Defender

Find out how to switch on Windows Defender in Windows 10 and older versions of the OS

First released with Windows Vista, Microsoft's free, built-in antivirus software has provided base-level protection for Windows machines for a number of years now, with its capabilities and efficiency improving with every iteration.

Windows Defender has appeared on every iteration of Windows since Vista and can still be found on the presently supported versions, Windows 10 and Windows 11.

Despite Windows Defender's effectiveness increasing in recent years to a point where it now rivals some of the more popular alternatives that are out there, users often instead opt for third-party products supplied by cyber security vendors of which there are plenty on the market, both free and paid-for.

There are benefits and drawbacks to paying for a third-party solution but the main consideration should be for how long you expect strong coverage, and how much you're willing to pay for it. Paid-for alternatives on the market often operate a subscription model whereby users pay a sum for a specified time period of coverage. With Windows Defender, the product is free which means you won't have to worry about managing subscription costs across the business.

However, if Windows Defender is enabled while a third-party anti-virus or anti-malware tool is also running, interoperability issues can arise which, somewhat ironically, can weaken the systems' security when users think they have double the protection from two anti-virus programs running.

Business users also now have the option of choosing an affordable paid-for version of Windows Defender since it was announced at Microsoft Ignite 2021. The paid business version operates on a subscription model, unlike the free consumer-grade Windows Defender, and costs £2.20 per user to protect against the most common threats faced by small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) specifically.

Why you should use Windows Defender

At first glance, Windows Defender might not seem like anything exceptional, especially compared to more popular antivirus alternatives offered by Norton or McAfee. However, Windows Defender is an obvious winner in at least one field: cost. After all, Microsoft’s security staple is completely free to use, and comes with a pretty impressive set of appliances. From malware detection and removal tools to real-time analytics and cloud-enabled protection, Windows Defender is the perfect antivirus for those who are happy to stick to the basics. In fact, it might be difficult to find another free alternative that is as well-equipped as the Defender and won’t bombard you with ads and pop-ups. 

What's more, when it comes to the Windows Defender, you don’t have to worry about the installation process. The tool is with you from day one, having been embedded in your device’s operating system. The only thing which you should keep an eye out for is the occasional update, and that can be easily downloaded and carried out through Windows Update.

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Although free and convenient, Windows Defender isn’t completely faultless. This was the case in March 2020, when Windows 10 users reported receiving messages that the antivirus was skipping files when conducting scans, despite not having any exclusions configured in the preferences. This was due to a bug stemming from a configured exclusion or network scanning setting which was confirmed to have affected both Quick and Full scan options, leaving users potentially vulnerable to malware.

All in all, Windows Defender is a convenient antivirus tool which makes security freely available to every Windows user. However, if your livelihood depends on the highly-sensitive data stored on your computer, you might want to invest in more advanced software.

How to check if Windows Defender is running

The first thing you'll want to do is check whether Windows Defender is on or off. To do this, take a look at the notifications area along the Taskbar (to the left of the time display, and just before the end of the Taskbar).

You'll need to find a small icon resembling a castle wall, although this may be found in items that have been hidden from view. Clicking the upwards-pointing arrow should expand the icon tray and show all apps running.

The Windows Defender icon should appear in this tray with a cross (X) if it's been turned off, and should be lacking the cross if it's running. There are no longer any steps you need to take if you'd like to keep it on, although read on if you're keen to turn it off.

How to turn on Windows Defender

1. To begin, click the Start menu (or on the start screen in Windows 8) and type "Defender" into the search bar (you can also press Windows key + Q to bring up the search bar needed). This shortcut will launch the search function on your system.

Windows Defender should appear in the results list. Click it to launch the program. If it is up and running, and takes you straight to the program's dashboard, skip ahead to step five.

2. A message may appear now, saying: "this application has been turned off and isn't monitoring your computer". If so, search for "Action Centre" in the Start menu (or start screen on Windows 8), and click it to open.

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3. Once in the Action Centre, click on the Security tab to see which program is managing Spyware and unwanted software protection'. If you want to replace an existing anti-spyware suite, such as AVG Free, and enable Defender, you should first uninstall the current suite via the Programs menu in the Control Panel.

On Windows 10, things are a bit different. You need to open the Control Panel (but not the Settings app), and head to System and Security > Security and Maintenance. Here, underneath the same heading (Spyware and unwanted software protection'), you will be able to choose Windows Defender. But again, make sure you uninstall any existing software first.

4. Now that you have uninstalled any existing anti-spyware or anti-virus programs, type "Defender" into the Start menu again, and click on the program. If it's disabled, you will be greeted with a message telling you so, and there will be a text link, saying: "Click here to turn it on". Go ahead and click the link to enable Windows Defender.

5. If your computer isn't already protected, you should be taken to the Windows Defender dashboard. Defender may well be out of date, so it is advisable to start by updating its protection software. Click on the Updates button, and follow the steps to install the latest Defender updates.

6. When you see a comforting green bar, Defender has been fully updated, and is ready to protect your computer.

If you click on the Tools link, and then on Real-time protection in the left-hand pane, there are also a number of additional options for scanning downloads, attachments and programs that are well worth enabling, too.

How to turn off Windows Defender

To turn off Windows Defender perhaps to install or return to using alternative anti-spyware software follow these steps.

1. Click the Start menu (or on the start screen in Windows 8) and type "Defender" into the search bar, and click on Windows Defender when it appears. You will be taken to the program's dashboard.

2. On Windows 7 or 8, go to the Tools menu, and then click on Options. From here, click on Administrator in the left-hand pane, and, finally, uncheck the box for Use this program'.

On Windows 10, things are a little more direct. Once you've opened the program, you'll see the Settings dashboard (You can also get here via Settings > Update & Security > Windows Defender). Now toggle the Real-time protection setting from On' to Off'. You can also turn off the Cloud-based Protection option if you wish.

3. You will then be notified that the program is off. That's it. Remember, however, that you will be unprotected if you don't have an alternative anti-spyware or anti-virus software.

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