Review: Microsoft Security Essentials 2.0

I gave up on Symantec Anti-virus after the online updates got too big, the scans got too slow and the price went up to $39 per year.  For a free, cloud-based tool, Microsoft Security Essentials gets it about right. No frills and a minimal performance hit on your Windows system. It may not be the fastest scanner in the anti-virus market, but it has a reasonable footprint. Symantec (Norton), McAfee and most of the other AV products are intrusive and get in the way while scanning; Microsoft Security Essentials is quietly unobtrusive, if a little slow…

Under the clean and uncluttered interface, Security Essentials wraps up anti-virus and anti-spyware engines, root-kit protection and real-time detection courtesy of Microsoft SpyNet, the unfortunately-named cloud-based service that anonymously compares file behaviour across computers running various Microsoft operating systems.  If you want the advanced security features, go get an enterprise security suite. Regularly run Windows Update and add MSE, with Windows Defender and Windows Firewall and you have a moderately secure personal computing platform for zero dollars cost in the consumer market. Give that to your mother, or your neighbour or your little nephew, it will look after  and update itself.

Version 2 benefits from a sparse, simple user interface, you can still get to the details if you need them. It still gets good ratings from independent malware labs on a broad range of threats (see next). New features since version 1 include:

  • automatically ensure firewall protection by enabling Windows Firewall if necessary.
  • in Windows Vista and Windows 7, Microsoft Security Essentials’ network inspection system adds specific protection against network-based attacks.
  • Microsoft claims better malware-fighting skills, although independent assessors give a mixed response.
  • Scanning success indicates very few false-positives.
  • installation via a stub-installer and program download over the Internet, proceeded quickly and smoothly.
  • real-time protection system detects active malware. You can get detailed ‘expert-level’ diagnostic and options for removal.
  • it can also detect and remove commercial key-loggers, although it can’t always decide what to do with them.
  • it detects most, but not all, root-kits but can leave some components behind after attempting removal.

It doesn’t allow for customising the type of scan, for example, you can’t choose to scan only for root-kits or heuristics, as you can with other security programs. You can specify USB keys and other external devices for automatic scans. The program also installs a context-menu option for on-the-fly scanning in Windows Explorer.

Like others of this class of program, the Update pane manages the definition file updates. The History pane provides a spreadsheet-style list of all detection items, your Quarantine list and items you’ve Allowed to run. Under Windows 7 and Vista, the Windows Filtering Platform is bolstered by a new network inspection feature.

Under the default settings, Security Essentials will run a scan weekly at 2am, when Microsoft asusmes your system will be idle. New malware signatures are downloaded once per day by default, although you can force an update manually at any time through the Update tab. Attachments and downloaded files will be automatically scanned. This version includes a system restore option (tied to System Restore), to back-up your computer before you remove any detected malware.

You may not get as good protection under Windows XP  (but that’s an XP problem). You may also get mediocre results in real-life malware blocking and malware removal. Whilst the detection rate is good, it’s been recorded leaving some threats running after alleged removal.  Microsoft Security Essentials has been known to miss up to a third of threats,  suggesting that the signature-based detection system isn’t as comprehensive or as flexible as it could be. Nor will it prevent much by way of blocking malware downloads by web-address – MSE doesn’t access a blacklist database the way some other products do.

2010 tests rated it fourth for virus scanning and removal behind the top three A-V products:

  • Norton AntiVirus 2011 ($39.99 direct),
  • Kaspersky Anti-Virus 2011 ($59.95 direct for three licenses),
  • Panda Antivirus Pro 2011 ($50.95 direct for three licenses).

But it failed to rate for XP.

Of the free competitors, Ad-Aware FREE Internet Security 9.0 scores higher in tests against key-loggers. Ad-Aware Pro Internet Security 8.3 ($39.95 direct for three licenses) and Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware top the list for scare-ware and root-kit removal. Nearly everyone scores higher for scanning and removal speed, but at least you can keep working with MSE running in the background.

Microsoft Security Essentials may not do the best job to prevent attacks but is good overall at removal of common threats. It’s’ database appears not to be updated quite so frequently as a lot of its’ competitors. For a free option, this is yet another Microsoft product that is distinctly middle-of-the-road. AJS

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