Before we explain the difference, it is important to understand what malware is:
Viruses is a broad term to describe malicious pieces of software that once on a computer are often able to infect it in many different ways. A computer virus is similar to a virus that affects humans. When you are sick, you often display a set of symptoms. In the case of a computer, when it gets "sick", there are symptoms as well (popups, programs stop working properly, redirection to unknown sites, etc...). As some human viruses seek out cells to infect , some computer viruses infect your computer by attacking legitimate files. Some viruses can spread from one computer to another, infecting files as they go along as seen in human viruses like the cold virus which can move from one host to another. Once your computer is infected you need to have the system cleaned by AntiVirus software, which will “disinfect” your computer, making it "healthy" again, in most cases. Unfortunately, at times, the damage done is so severe that the only recourse left is to reformat and reinstall.
Spyware are malicious applications that record your personal information, then send it back to the spyware author who is then able to share that information with others. There are also applications called Rogue AntiSpyware that attempt to trick you into thinking that they are legitimate programs that are there to help protect you. However, their main purpose is to infect your computer and convince you to buy them, in order to make your system “healthy” again.
Today it is very hard to distinguish what is a virus from spyware, so we use a general term called, Malware:
Malware is a term that stands for malicious software. It is used to describe anything that tries to either harm your computer such as viruses and spyware or installs itself without your permission with the purpose of selling you something like Adware. Once just a major annoyance to the user, malware has evolved into a major concern for every computer user whether they be you and me, big Companies or Government agencies. Today, Identity theft counts for the loss of billions of dollars worldwide. It is now a major tool used in industrial spying and a threat to the National Security of all nations.
For those of you wishing to find out more about the differences between the different types of malware, I strongly recommend the following article which comes from the Kaspersky site: Viruslist.com - Malicious Programs Descriptions
So now to get to the difference between what an Antivirus progam does versus the role of an Antimalware program:
If the above explanation still leaves the waters slightly muddied for you, you are not alone. "Spyware" and "Virus" are words that are commonly used in an interchangeable manner. It is often difficult to easily tell the difference between an antivirus and an antispyware program these days because all these different tools that were once very specific as far as the types of "Malware" they detected now often overlap each other as far as coverage is concerned. The general consensus today is that the best protective measures against all that “scumware” out there require the use of both a good AntiVirus and a good AntiSpyware program providing Real-time monitoring.
Here is a list of free AntiVirus software (only choose one, having more then one AntiVirus on your computer at one time is dangerous)
Here is a full list of free security software that we recommend:
As previously mentioned, it is also advisable to install an Anti-Malware tool such as Malwarebytes' AntiMalware to complement these excellent Antivirus softwares.
For more information on how to better protect your computer, please read our How did I get infected in the first place? and Preventing Malware and Safe Computing topics.