Microsoft Security Essentials

5th Oct 2009 | 11:00

Microsoft Security Essentials

Does the free anti-malware app end the need for third party solutions?

TechRadar rating:

4.5 stars

Like:

Small footprint; Runs quietly in background; It actually works; It's free

Dislike:

Not a fully-fledged security suite

Microsoft Security Essentials: Overview

If you thought that anti-virus software was something that got in the way of doing what you wanted to do, then it's time to think again.

Microsoft's long promised free anti-virus tool has finally arrived, and there's no longer any excuse for not protecting your PC. Microsoft Security Essentials is free, unobtrusive, and it works.

When Microsoft closed down its OneCare service, and announced that it was going to be releasing a free security tool, it was easy to make jokes. OneCare hadn't been a success, and its anti-virus component wasn't as effective as many of the free alternatives.

But Microsoft rarely gives up, and it hired several well-respected antivirus researchers to give its security practice a much needed boost – initially for its enterprise ForeFront solution, and then to work on a consumer version, codenamed Morro.

security essentials review

If you've ever driven from Los Angeles to San Francisco up the coast, you'll probably have passed through the little fishing town of Morro Bay.

You certainly won't have missed the Morro, a towering granite pillar at the edge of the harbour. It's an apt codename for a security product, one of the biggest and most solid rocks around.

The Morro has been watching Morro Bay for millions of years – and Microsoft wants MSE to do the same for your PCs.

Microsoft Security Essentials: Performance

The install is quick and easy, with three versions available for download. One is for 32-bit XP systems, the others are separate 32- and 64-bit releases for Vista and Windows 7. Clocking at just over 4MB, it takes less than a minute to download over a broadband connection.

Once installed it will automatically update to new versions as they come out, and then regularly download updated signature files as they become available from Microsoft Update.

When you're up and running, Security Essentials will download the most recent set of signatures and scan your PC for the first time.

security essentials review

SCHEDULE: It's a good idea to change the scan schedule as soon as possible – 2 am on Sunday really doesn't work. We'd recommend a daily quick scan at a time your PC is likely to be on.

MSE's scanner is quite nippy – and it scanned our heavily loaded test PC in under 10 minutes. We're still not sure about the default scan settings, though.

Back when we looked at the beta we said that the default system scan time of 2am on a Sunday morning wasn't suitable for most home PCs, which were likely to be off at that time.

security essentials review

TIPS:Security Essentials works so unobtrusively that it's a good idea to keep an eye on its history, just to see what's been blocked, what's been quarantined, and what you've let into your PC

Yes, MSE does offer real time scanning of files as you open them, and when you download them from the web, but that doesn't stop a zero day exploit getting past MSE.

That's the value of regular system scans, as they catch malware that's infected a PC in the brief window of opportunity before a new signature file arrives.

We'd recommend changing the default scan time to something that's more suitable as soon as possible. It's also a good idea to see if MSE's default actions are what you want.

security essentials review

SCAN:While MSE will update its malware definitions automatically, there's always the option to download the latest files, especially if you're aiming to scan a machine that you don't regularly use

We were happy with the defaults, though the dialog box with "Recommended action" for each of four alert levels isn't as clear as it might be.

You'll need to go online to see that severe and high level alerts mean that malware is automatically deleted, while medium and low level alerts just report on the file that's been detected, leaving you to decide if it can be allowed on your PC.

The real-time scanner is effective. We started a download of a zipped version of the Eicars test virus, and MSE was offering to clean it off our test PC before it had even finished downloading.

security essentials review

HOME:The main MSE screen is easy on the eye, and designed to show you quickly whether you're protected or not.

The warning dialog box is clear and descriptive, with links to additional online information. There's enough information to help even the most naive user decide what to do.

Each copy of MSE isn't on its own, either. They're all part of Microsoft's SpyNet service.

If a new piece of malware appears on the net, and if it's detected by MSE, then it'll report back to Microsoft, and the information used to help build a signature file that can be delivered to every MSE (and every ForeFront) install.

security essentials review

ALERT:You're able to change the default actions for different alert levels. We're pretty happy with the default actions, but click any drop down and you can tune MSE to behave just the way you want

Security Essentials turns every PC that runs it into part of a massive honeypot, making MSE not just an anti-malware tool, but also an early-warning system for all Internet-connected Windows PCs.

We ran MSE on several machines throughout the beta, and hardly noticed it. Once or twice when a PC was turned on after being off for a few days it recommended a manual scan, but that was the total extent of our interactions with the tool.

In fact, if you're using Windows 7, you're unlikely to realise that it's there at all, as the status icon is kept with the rest of the hidden task bar icons.

security essentials review

THREAT:Open up an alert box, and you'll get a good view of just what MSE suggests you should do – and why

security essentials review

DANGER!If you inadvertently download malware, MSE will warn you that you're doing something potentially unsafe, and blocks you from completing the action

Microsoft Security Essentials: Verdict

security essentials review

This really is essential software for your PC, and for anyone who's PC you're supporting. Thanks to MSE there's really no need to think about installing anti-virus software on a Windows PC – it's now just a matter of deciding whether to use MSE or another anti-malware package.

Microsoft really has stepped up to the mark here, providing Windows PCs with the essential security tools they need.

We Liked:

Microsoft Security Essentials is one of the simplest and easiest to use anti-malware tools around. It's quick, unobtrusive and works without slowing your PC down.

Malware is caught quickly, and the default actions work well for most users. It's a small download, and keeps itself up to date, and above all, it's free – with no need to register or re-register.

We Disliked:

There really isn't much to dislike here, as MSE does what it says on the tin, raising the bar for all the other anti-malware vendors out there.

Our one big caveat is the default time for scheduled complete system scans. Once a week at a time a PC is likely to be off is not good enough, by a long way.

Verdict

If you're not running anti-virus software, you really have no excuse. MSE is free, simple to use- and has been tested by independent anti-malware certification bodies.

It may not have all the features of other security suites out there, but that's really not that important – especially when widespread use of MSE should help make it a safer internet for everyone.

Download from: http://www.microsoft.com/Security_essentials/

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