Every modern Windows installation comes with free antivirus protection from Microsoft built in. We’ve never advised users to rely on the built-in Windows Defender—the best third-party antivirus applications are significantly more effective. Even the antivirus testing labs treat Microsoft as a baseline, rather than as a competitor. Lately, though, Microsoft has been faring better and better in tests, which puts the pressure on other vendors to match or beat the baseline.

Just a few years ago, Microsoft routinely tanked third-party tests, sometimes earning a below-zero score. Microsoft’s own security experts argued that their telemetry shows the product really works, and therefore they don’t need independent tests to validate its efficacy. Even so, current events suggest that perhaps the Microsoft team is now working to score big both in their own telemetry and in independent tests.

Testing MethodsAV-Test Institute is one of the labs that treats Microsoft’s test results as a baseline. They don’t come out and say this, but if a product doesn’t beat the baseline, it’s not doing very well.

The test in question rates products on protection, performance, and usability, with six points possible in each area. To pass the test, a product need only attain a total score of 10 points, with a non-zero score in each of the three categories. It’s been a while since any product failed to reach that minimal level of success.

In last November’s report, Microsoft scored 14.0 points. Of the 20 tested products, 14 scored better than that baseline. Avira, Bitdefender, Kaspersky, and Norton managed a perfect 18 point score.

ThreatTrack Vipre and Chinese antivirus Quick Heal didn’t beat the baseline, though. Comodo, G Data, and K7 scored the same as Microsoft, no better.

Raising the BarIn the latest results report from AV-Test, things look quite different. Microsoft scored a very decent 15.5 of 18 possible points. This time only 9 of the 20 products beat the baseline. Avira, Bitdefender, and Kaspersky stayed at the top, with 18 points, but Norton dropped to 17.

Vipre and Quick Heal also stayed the same—below the baseline. They’re joined by AhnLab, Comodo, ESET, and Panda. Four others merely matched the baseline, F-Secure, G Data, K7, and MicroWorld eScan.

So, antivirus vendors, you’re on notice. Microsoft is raising the bar. This current success and other triumphs like a AAA rating from Dennis Labs mean that third-party antivirus products must up their game, or be left in that dismal spot below the baseline.

Image (modified) courtesy of Flickr User Alexander Mueller.