First Look: Microsoft Security Essentials beta offers free protection against malware

Microsoft's latest anti-malware application uses the same engine as OneCare but is smaller, faster and more efficient than its predecessor

The just-released beta of Microsoft Security Essentials is a solid, free tool that protects against malware while taking up few system resources and staying out of your way as much as possible.

This is set-it-and-forget-it software that handles the basic dangers but doesn't try to compete with big-boy security suites such as those built by Symantec, McAfee or Panda. So you won't find extras such as a firewall, identity protection, or antiphishing and antispam technology. Instead, Security Essentials focuses on protecting you against viruses, spyware, rootkits and similar dangers, and does a very good job of it.

Those who have wrestled unhappily with the software's predecessor, Microsoft Live OneCare, will be pleased to know that Security Essentials suffers from none of the software bloat and slow performance that bedeviled OneCare. Unlike OneCare, Security Essentials doesn't do performance tune-ups, back up your PC, take up too much of your system resources -- or cost a penny.

Installation and setup

Security Essentials comes in versions for XP and Vista (the Vista version will also work with Windows 7). Both are light downloads: The 32-bit Vista download weighs in at 4.8MB, the 64-bit Vista version at 3.8MB and the XP version (there's only a 32-bit version) comes in at 7.6MB.

Installation of the 32-bit Vista version on my machine took less than five minutes and was about as simple as an installation can be. There is one caveat, though: You need to have a validated copy of Windows. Not surprisingly, Microsoft's software won't work with pirated or nonvalidated versions.

Once installation is complete, the application downloads the latest anti-malware definitions. It then launches a quick system scan that took under 10 minutes on my system.

Microsoft Security Essentials

Microsoft Security Essentials' main interface is simple and easy to navigate.

Security Essentials uses a new feature called the Dynamic Signature Service, which employs a variety of techniques to check for malware even before that malware's specific signature has been identified. Microsoft says Security Essentials emulates the behavior of programs before they run, and uses the signature created during the process to look for any suspicious behavior or patterns of suspicious behavior, such as starting an unexpected network connection or trying to modify certain protected sections of Windows. The Dynamic Signature Service then determines what action to take against the potential malware.

Once the software has scanned your system, you don't need to do anything else, unless it finds malware that it wants to kill or quarantine. New anti-malware signatures are automatically downloaded daily, using the Windows Update engine; you can also have the software check for the latest definitions manually. Security Essentials also provides real-time protection, so it watches your system as you use it and warns you if you're downloading malware or if your system has been infected. The software also scans your system once a week by default. You can manually override the defaults and set up specific days and times to perform the scans; more about this later.

Microsoft Security Essentials in action

Most of the time, you'll only know that Microsoft Security Essentials is running because you see its icon in the System Tray. Other than that, it leaves you alone unless it finds a problem. It uses very little RAM or system resources, and I noticed no performance hit on my machine, except when it performed a scan. When it started the scan, my PC slowed down for the first several minutes of the scan, but then it ran fine, with the scan working in the background.

Scans and updates are scheduled to run when your PC is idle, although you can run a scan manually. They are given a low priority by the operating system, further reducing their impact on your PC. In addition, CPU throttling is used to ensure that the software doesn't use more than 50% of your CPU.

When Security Essentials finds an infection on your system, you can have it immediately take action against the threat, or you can click Show Details, at which point you'll be shown as much information as the software has about the threat.

When you click on the Clean Computer option, Security Essentials will either delete the file or quarantine it, depending on the nature of the threat.

Microsoft Security Essentials

If Microsoft Security Essentials has detected a potential security threat, you can get details about the specific problem.

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