What is the Difference Between Antivirus and Antimalware ?
Computer viruses have long been simple, though malicious, forms of software. Detecting virus threats were simple and, while viruses were and remain dangerous, removing them from your system was usually pretty straightforward. Fast forward a few decades and you know have the idea of malware that seems to be much more ubiquitous.
In the simplest terms, a virus still qualifies as malware. But malware isn’t necessarily a virus. As technology has evolved, so too have threats that cripple your devices, steal your data and login information, or worse. Malware, broadly speaking, is far more dangerous than any particular virus. With that in mind, it’s important to understand the differences between viruses and malware and to understand why you’d want to use programs designed to prevent and remove them. But first, we need to take a closer look at both.
Viruses and Malware
Viruses and malware are often used interchangeably, but there’s an important distinction between the two. Malware generally refers to any type of “bad” software, regardless of the specific kind of harm it does or how it’s transmitted.
Viruses, on the other hand, are a specific kind of malware that replicates itself by inserting its code into other software programs. They’ve been around nearly since the creation of the internet, and since that time, they’ve replicated themselves by distribution through downloads from websites, email attachments and even file transfers from flash drives. Once a virus is activated, in addition to replicating itself, it could delete or encrypt important files, modify the programs on your computer or disable your computer’s critical system functions.
There are quite a few variations on the types of viruses out there, but there are three that are most commonly used:
- File infectors. These burrow into your computer’s applications and then spread through a network. They can overwrite a device’s operating system or even delete all of your data
- Macro viruses. A macro virus exploits programs that utilize macros, like Excel. What can appear to be an innocent Excel file can actually be infected with a virus that can cause harm to your system
- Poly morphic viruses. These kinds of viruses modify their own code and they’re capable of encrypting themselves, giving them the ability to evade detection by antivirus programs
Malware, on the other hand, encompasses all kinds of malicious software, viruses included. Malware, in general, has various objectives, but the more popular ones are:
- Tricking a victim into giving away personal data
- Stealing credit card or bank information
- Gaining control of multiple computers to launch denial-of-service attacks
- Gaining control of multiple computers to mine bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies
A Closer Look at Antivirus and Antimalware Software
Now that we know the distinction between the two terms—virus and malware—we can look at the programs used to combat viruses and malware. Both kinds of software were made to detect, remove and protect from their respective kinds of software.
While the term antivirus usually indicates that the program was made to protect specifically against viruses, it’s important to understand that there’s a lot of overlap these days. Good antivirus software can help protect against many of the more common forms of malware that we see today.
Antimalware, however, goes a step further and focuses on broader, more advanced threats that come out on a day to day basis. While this can include most viruses, it’s not always the singular focus of antimalware. That said, let’s look at some of the features relevant to both kinds of programs.
Antivirus Software Features
Antivirus software scans your computer or device and compares your files and software to a database of known viruses. A good antivirus program will offer a few key features:
- Real-time scanning to monitor your processes and files so that new viruses are detected before they can spread
- Automatic updates to ensure known viruses are continually added to the database
- Virus removal and cleaning
Antimalware Software Features
Antimalware software does some of what antivirus software does, but it also protects against constantly evolving threats, and it focuses on finding new iterations of infected files and programs. A good antimalware program has these features:
- An environment that allows for software testing before it’s allowed to work with the rest of the system often called sandboxing
- Filtering, which blocks access to and from suspicious websites and servers on the internet
- Active security, with the ability to run scans, detect and remove known malware such as viruses, adware and spyware
Which Protection Should I Choose?
No single program can detect every kind of malware. Most security experts recommend various layers of security for maximum protection. Antivirus software provides a focused approach on specifically viruses, while antimalware provides a much broader approach with a focus on new threats. If you can only choose one, antimalware might be a better choice, but keep in mind, having your first line of defense also be your last line of defense isn’t the greatest strategy.
Of course, neither application are replacements for the best defense available, and that's practicing safe browsing and computer habits. Always be mindful of the programs and software you download—be sure you only download files from safe websites and trusted sources.
The Bottom Line
While it may seem like antivirus software is less efficient than antimalware software, the best approach is to use both. A good antimalware application focuses on new and evolving threats while antivirus focuses on traditional types of attacks, like worms and phishing. These kinds of attacks are threatening and can still cause a lot of damage, so using both in tandem can offer far more protection than choosing one or the other.
Using both antimalware and antivirus software together is complimentary. Antivirus software gives your system proactive protection against potential threats, while antimalware protects your system from evolving malicious software. Using both programs will provide you with layered protection, and coupled with safe browsing habits, you’ll be highly protected from online threats of all shapes and sizes.