Downloading an antivirus or anti-malware program to safeguard your computer is one of the most important things you can do to protect your privacy and prevent identity or password theft. However, what exactly is the difference between antivirus and anti-malware, and which one offers better protection?
It’s a common question; most people don’t know the difference. That’s what this article will clear up.
Before you can understand the difference between antivirus and anti-malware, you first have to understand what a virus is, what malware is, and how they differ.
Photo by pixelcreatures/Pixabay
Viruses and malware are two terms that are often used interchangeably. These days, when people talk about computer viruses, they are usually referring to all types of malware, even those that are not technically viruses.
However, technically, a virus is a specific type of malware, while malware is a broader term that encompasses all types of malicious programs, not just viruses.
Malware is short for malicious software. Malicious software doesn’t just refer to viruses in the technical sense of the term – it can refer to spyware, adware, and other annoying programs, too.
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Computer viruses have been around long before computers became popular. The first computer virus (which was an experimental program) appeared on ARPANET in the early 1970s; ARPANET was the forerunner of the modern internet.
However, the idea of a computer virus was hatched long before that, with academic work on the subject written in 1949.
Think of a computer virus as a biological virus. A virus needs a host to infect and survive; in addition, a virus often self replicates.
That is why many human viruses do not last long after leaving the human body. Without a host, the virus dies.
Similarly, computer viruses are not standalone programs. Instead, they infect existing computer programs or files and may spread to other files.
Typically, a virus is a piece of code or a program that will embed itself into an executable file or program. That way, when the user opens the file or runs the program, the virus will run and execute itself first, doing whatever it wants.
Often, this happens undetected by the user. Some symptoms can point to a virus being active, but we’ll go over them later.
There are a few types of viruses, and they differ slightly in the way they infect your computer and execute themselves. I will explore the different types of viruses later in this article.
I’ll talk about worms and Trojan horses, often called viruses, in a minute. First, let’s move on to malware.
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Malware, as I explained above, stands for malicious software. A virus is a type of malware – after all, it is malicious software infecting your computer.
However, the main difference between a virus and malware is that malware can exist as a standalone program, without infecting an existing file or program on your computer.
For example, if you download a malicious program that shows you popups with ads every few minutes, that isn’t necessarily a virus. It’s just an annoying program that you downloaded by mistake – it isn’t necessarily infecting an existing file.
Nevertheless, it is still malware – it is bad software that you don’t want on your machine.
en:United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
As you can see, malware is a much broader term. It can refer not only to viruses but to spyware, ransomware, adware, etc.
Sometimes, you may download malware by mistake, thinking it is a legitimate program. This is known as a Trojan horse.
I will talk more about Trojan horses later, but a Trojan horse is generally used to refer to the method by which you download the malware. You think it’s a good program, but it’s not.
Image by RIFKIE DRAJAT PUTRA PRATAMA from Pixabay
There are a few types of viruses, so let’s go through some of the most popular ones quickly.
- File virus: This is a traditional virus. As I explained above, it infects an existing file and executes its code instead of the file’s code.
- Boot sector or memory virus: This virus goes a bit deeper and infects the boot sector or memory of the computer. As such, it can execute its code whenever you boot the system.
- Browser virus: This virus can infect your browser, redirecting you to a new page you did not want to visit.
- Multipartite virus: This virus can infect files as well as the system of your computer.
- Polymorphic virus: The chameleon of viruses, this virus changes its signature to avoid detection. Every time it is launched, it changes its code.
There are other types of viruses as well. Some viruses are easier to detect, while others, such as polymorphic or signatureless viruses, are harder, even if you have an antivirus program.
Nevertheless, a good antivirus program will be able to detect even sneakier viruses.
A worm is similar to a virus, but it works a bit differently. The main difference between a virus and a worm is that a virus infects files on the computer, and it usually requires some action on the part of the user before it can self execute or self replicate.
For example, it can self execute when the user launches the program it has infected.
Meanwhile, the purpose of a worm is to spread itself to other computers over the network or internet.
For example, a worm can have a mechanism in which it sends an email to your entire contact list with its malicious file. If someone in your contact list opens the email and clicks on the link, they will download the worm to their computer, in which case it would do the same thing as before – spread itself to that person’s contact list.
Perhaps the most famous example of a worm is the I LOVE YOU bug, created by Onel De Guzman in 2000. There were no laws against creating malware in the Philippines at the time, so De Guzman was not prosecuted.
Here’s how it worked: Users would receive an email with the subject line I LOVE YOU, with an attachment named LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.TXT.vbs.
However, the file type .vbs was hidden on Windows at the time, so people thought it was a .txt file, as the “.vbs” did not appear.
Once the attachment was opened, the worm would then send this email to all users in the person’s address book. It ended up infecting 10 million computers and causing $10 billion in damage by disrupting businesses.
De Guzman’s goal was to steal passwords to get free access to internet sites. He removed geographical restrictions for the bug later, out of curiosity, after which the bug spiraled out of control, way beyond his expectations.
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Fredrik Posse, Copyrighted free use, via Wikimedia Commons
A Trojan horse is a type of malware that masquerades itself as a legitimate, useful program. In that sense, it is similar to the Trojan horse in the myth – the city of Troy thought they were getting a beautiful gift of a giant horse, but inside, there were Greek warriors, ready to take over the city.
Trojan horse malware is similar to the original Trojan horse. It can have one of many purposes, but it infects your computer by hiding itself as a good program.
It can be a keylogger, spyware, or even adware – a Trojan horse is not a specific type of malware but rather a mechanism of how it infects computers.
As malware is a broad term, there are many types of malware, and there isn’t enough space to talk about all of them. Generally, however, these are some of the most common types of malware:
- Viruses: Viruses infect files or programs. The purpose of a virus might be to display a message, slow down or take control of your computer, or execute a program that steals your data.
- Spyware: The goal of spyware is to spy on your activity. It might be able to steal your passwords or even just your browsing history to sell to advertisers.
- Keyloggers: A keylogger might enter your computer as a Trojan horse. They can log your keystrokes to steal important data and passwords.
- Adware: These don’t necessarily steal your data. Instead, they display ads, either in a toolbar at the top of your browser, through popups, redirects, or in any other way.
- Ransomware: This type of malware is very sneaky and slowly takes control of your computer, demanding a ransom before it gives you back control.
- Scareware: This type of malicious software pretends it is an antivirus program, warning you about your computer being infected. Those who are unaware may mistake it for a legitimate program warning them about a legitimate threat. Instead, it is designed to get money out of you or even have you enter personal details.
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Now that we know that a virus is a specific type of malware and malware is a broader term, it’s easy to understand the technical, hypothetical difference between an antivirus program and an anti-malware program.
An antivirus program is software designed to target viruses. However, anti-malware is software with a broader goal in mind – it tries to detect more types of malware, not just viruses.
However, these days, the difference between an antivirus and an anti-malware is not as pronounced. In the early days of the internet, traditional viruses were more common as opposed to newer types of malware.
As such, security companies created antivirus software to find and destroy those common viruses and worms which existed at the time.
Of course, as viruses evolved, so did the antivirus industry. Antivirus software became better at detecting sneakier viruses.
These days, most good antivirus programs look not only for traditional viruses in the technical sense of the word. Indeed, they often look for adware, spyware, keyloggers, Trojans, and other programs that would technically fall under the malware category but not the virus category.
Often, the difference between an antivirus and an anti-malware boils down to branding and marketing. That is because these days, the term “virus” is used to refer to all types of malware, including spyware and adware.
When people talk about computer viruses they want to avoid, they are talking about programs on their computers doing sketchy things that they don’t want.
An antivirus program is almost always an anti-malware program on some level. In other words, it will protect against at least the most common malware as well.
Nevertheless, some anti-malware programs are still more advanced and more comprehensive than antivirus programs.
Some antivirus programs focus on detecting and stopping common, known viruses, and malware. They will update their databases as new viruses and malware become known and widespread.
On the other hand, some anti-malware programs are more advanced, using unique methods to detect malware, even if that malware is not as well known or widespread. They use innovative techniques to stay one step ahead of malicious actors and protect against a somewhat wider range of threats, even if those threats are not listed on any database.
That’s not always the case, however. An antivirus program can be more advanced and better at detecting threats than a so-called anti-malware program.
Indeed, the days of needing anti-malware in addition to your antivirus program are over. If you get a quality, premium antivirus software like BitDefender, you don’t need a separate anti-malware program – though it doesn’t hurt to run a scan with an anti-malware program like Malwarebytes every once in a while, just to be sure.
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In the past, antivirus software typically used a traditional, signature-based method of scanning for viruses. Most viruses had signatures that made them easily detectable.
However, many antivirus programs now use a heuristic approach to detect viruses that do not have signatures. It’s not just anti-malware programs that use a heuristic approach.
For example, while Kaspersky does use a database of known viruses, it also uses heuristic scanning to detect new viruses.
In conclusion: There is no practical difference between antivirus and anti-malware programs. A good antivirus program protects against all that an anti-malware program protects against.
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Some people, zealous to protect their security online, install both an antivirus program, like BitDefender or Kaspersky, and an anti-malware program, like Malwarebytes.
However, is it truly necessary to have both of them?
The answer, generally, is no.
First, however, let’s talk about whether it’s still necessary to have an antivirus in the first place. These days, Windows has become pretty good at beefing up its built-in security.
With the Windows Defender Firewall, you are protected against basic virus and malware attacks. Windows Defender Firewall now offers real time protection against common threats, detecting viruses, and stopping them.
Windows Defender Firewall is pretty good, especially if you have an ad blocker to go with it. It detects almost all common viruses and malware.
However, its detection rate is still not as high as some of the better antivirus programs from third-party companies. Not only that, but its interface isn’t as intuitive.
Furthermore, it does not offer features that many antivirus programs offer, such as cleaning up unneeded files (even if they are not malicious).
When you download a third-party antivirus with active protection (meaning it is running all the time), you will be turning off your Windows Defender Firewall. So, make sure you are getting a good one.
While there are many free antivirus software out there, they might not necessarily be better than Windows Defender Firewall.
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Now, Avast may have somewhat better anti-malware and antivirus detection capabilities than Windows Defender Firewall. At least, Avast claims that it does.
However, you have to ask yourself whether it is worth downloading a free antivirus that might sell your browsing history and potentially leak your data. If you can’t trust them with your browsing history, can you trust them with anything?
You might be better off just using Windows Defender Firewall.
McAfee is another popular antivirus program. However, it is known to take up a lot of resources and slow down your computer.
If your computer has been running slow, and you are using McAfee, it might be to blame. Again, you have to ask yourself whether it’s worth bogging down your computer with McAfee when you have a pretty good antivirus built into your computer, with minimal impact on performance.
However, some antivirus programs are inarguably better than Windows Defender Firewall. Norton, Bitdefender, and Kaspersky are some pretty good choices.
Norton also has a VPN, so you can get even better protection and privacy.
Malwarebytes is a good free antivirus/anti-malware, and its premium version is even better. However, it can’t compare to BitDefender, despite branding itself as an anti-malware as opposed to an antivirus program.
If you have the Windows Defender Firewall, however, you can still download Malwarebytes, without active protection, and use it to run a deep scan once every week or two. You can do this even if you have a third-party antivirus installed, but it’s not necessary.
Since the Windows Defender Firewall by itself is lacking in some areas, installing Malwarebytes might actually be a good idea. Just use the free version.
Just be aware that Malwarebytes’ deep scans can take a while and use up a lot of your CPU, so don’t do it while working.
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If you are careful and know how to spot and avoid viruses, phishing attacks, and Trojan horses, you will already be protecting yourself against the vast majority of malware. It’s especially important to be careful if you only have Windows Defender Firewall.
- Don’t open emails from suspicious senders. Report them as spam and delete them right away. Under no circumstances should you click on any links or attachments in those emails.
- When getting emails from companies like PayPal or Facebook, learn to spot signs of phishing, such as an email address not attached to the actual domain name of the company, a button that seems misaligned, spelling mistakes, and so on. If they don’t know your name, that may be a warning sign, too.
- Be careful when visiting sites that allow you to pirate videos, movies, and software. Such software often comes bundled with malware or may be Trojan horses.
- Don’t click on links on suspicious sites.
- If you don’t have an antivirus, don’t disable the Windows Defender Firewall.
It is also important to spot the signs of a virus or malware on your computer. They can include:
- A computer that is suddenly running a lot slower than usual.
- Lagging, crashing, freezing, or other problems with your computer, whether during normal operations or when booting up.
- Files that are suddenly missing.
- Popups that keep appearing out of nowhere.
- Your browser constantly redirecting to URLs you did not enter or intend to visit.
- Alerts from your antivirus program or Windows Defender Firewall.
- An increase in internet activity, including using up a lot more bandwidth or data than you normally use, despite not changing your browsing habits.
- An increase in CPU consumption, despite not changing your habits, or your battery life suddenly getting very short.
Some viruses use up a lot more power than regular apps. If the malware is tracking your activity, and especially if it manages to infect your actual system, it can use up a lot of your processing power.
That can cause your computer to slow down and start lagging. Also, some malware may use up your processing power to mine cryptocurrency.
However, such problems are not always the symptom of a virus, as many things can cause a decline in performance and battery life, including the age of the computer.
Technically, an antivirus program is a program that looks for a specific type of malware: viruses. On the other hand, anti-malware is a program that looks for all types of malware, not just viruses.
Practically, however, there is usually no difference between an antivirus and anti-malware program these days except for branding. Most antivirus programs do a pretty good job of looking for, detecting, and stopping malware as well – they are rarely limited to actual viruses.
Instead of worrying too much about the technical term the program calls itself, make sure to get a good one, ideally a premium one, that is known to detect a wide range of threats.
Benjamin Levin is a digital marketing professional with 4+ years of experience with inbound and outbound marketing. He helps small businesses reach their content creation, social media marketing, email marketing, and paid advertising goals. His hobbies include reading and traveling.