The difference between antivirus and antimalware is largely academic, but understanding it can help you understand what protection you’re getting when you buy off-the-shelf security software.
I have to explain it myself pretty frequently, because people will see the words “antimalware” in my employer’s product brochures and they immediately say, “Tell me about your antivirus.”
The difference between antivirus and antimalware
From a software perspective, the difference between antivirus and antimalware software is directly related to the difference between the threats, a virus and malware. Viruses replicate. Malware can replicate but doesn’t need to. Malware simply has bad intentions and is happy to just sit on your system and do bad stuff. So, strictly speaking, viruses are malware, but not all malware is a virus.
Why the difference?
Malware often gets distributed as a ride-along inside other software. The other software may or may not break if you remove the ride-along. Usually the motivation is to generate revenue, by displaying advertising, or gathering information to sell to would-be advertisers.
Years ago, I would fix my then-girlfriend’s computer when it started running slow. Usually it was due to her brother’s file sharing software. After I removed the malware, the computer worked fast again. From her perspective, I fixed it. But her brother couldn’t download illicit MP3s anymore. From his perspective, I broke it.
Antimalware software tends to be more aggressive, but runs a greater risk of breaking something. If you know the inner workings of computers, antimalware software probably won’t scare you. If you don’t enjoy digging into the depths of your computer, it probably will.
That’s why antivirus software tends to limit itself more than antimalware software does.
How to avoid malware
More and more often, free software from small-time publishers comes with strings attached. I used to say to stick with software licensed using one of the industry standard licenses for free or open-source software, but even that guidance doesn’t work very well anymore. File repositories often inject malware into the software people distribute from there.
About all I can say is to download software from publishers you trust, and try to download it straight from them, rather than from random file repositories. Or, as hokey as it sounds, use the Windows Store, which at least is vetted somewhat.