Sunday, September 18, 2011

Are "viruses" and "malware" the same thing?

Updated September 18, 2011
Technically, no. But the difference is mostly Geek Jargon. Here's a brief background to help you understand the differences, and how they affect your choices in security software...

First, there were "Viruses". These programs self-replicated and spread without assistance. They did nasty things ranging from erasing your hard drive, to turning your screen upside down. Then came "Trojans". These programs were secretly installed by non-replicating means, and compromised the security on your computer to allow hackers direct (but hidden) access.

Next came "Spyware" and "Adware". Initially, these programs installed by sneaky-but-legal methods, but quickly devolved into more viral-like, illegal infections. Unlike viruses, these programs are not designed harm your computer. They secretly collect and report information about your browsing and purchasing habits, and/or generate those pop-ups advertisements we all know and hate. However, they DO often slow down your PC, and sometimes damage your system software while installing.

From these basic classifications sprung hundreds of variations and combinations, with two or three jargon terms for each of them. They were grouped into classifications by the burgeoning security software industry, which (of course) made absolutely no attempt to standardize them. A few people (myself included) started promoting the term "malware" as a general term for all MALicious softWARE. But the industry hijacked the term to apply specifically to the Spyware-Adware type of infections.

End result: The differences between "Viruses" and "Malware" are vague an confusing. However, for practical purposes, you can think of the difference primarily as legal. A "Virus" is malicious software that clearly installs itself illegally and/or for illegal purposes. "Malware" is malicious software that installs using sneaky-but-legal methods, and does not perform clearly illegal functions. Another term for this kind of software is PUP ...Potentially Unwanted Programs.

PUPs quickly became such a nuisance that a whole new industry for protection software sprung up around them. Their names usually incorporate the words "spy" or "malware".  Of course, they promoted themselves as an essential element to work alongside Anti-Virus software. However, both Malware and Viruses are detected in basically the same way, and these methods consume a lot of your computer's "horsepower".  Consequently, adding an Anti-Malware program to your computer may significantly reduce it's speed.

Today, most top-line Anti-Virus programs can now detect both Viruses and Malware. Conversely, few Anti-Malware programs also detect Viruses.  Also, the Anti-Malware companies have much less experience with Anti-Virus defense -- which is more difficult than defending against much simpler Malware.

The final difference is that "Anti-Virus" applications only delete the "viral" components of the infection.  They don't "mop-up" the leftover components.  While the leftovers do not pose a large threat for re-infection, most people (including me) are not comfortable leaving them there.

Summary:  Malware-plus-AV products (IMO) do not perform nearly as efficiently as venerable Anti-Virus products that also protect against Malware.  However, anti-malware products can perform better "mop-up" cleaning after an infection occurs, than anti-virus programs do.

On a final note, there are a number of popular, excellent, and free Anti-Malware removal programs. These are often recommended as "security" applications that can be installed alongside any anti-virus Program without impacting performance. This claim is somewhat incorrect. In their free versions these programs do not BLOCK Malware.  ...They will only REMOVE Malware AFTER it is already installed on the computer. Only the paid versions of these programs will BLOCK Malware.  Some of these programs DO include small, passive features that assist in blocking malware, but they do not actively scan files for malicious code the way that an Anti-Virus does.


  1. I appreciate this explanation. It is very educational to me. I have heard these terms for years, but it was not clear how it all fit together. Thanks for taking the time to write this. Bill Gibson

  2. this was a very helpful artice.. thank you..

  3. this was a very helpful artice.. thank you..

  4. im soo grateful for the clarification given by yiu... thanx a ton :) :)

  5. Awesome, I think I know now why my computer has been running so slow. Thanks!


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