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

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Easy interface

Most of the time, that's all the interaction you'll have with Security Essentials -- there's very little need to open the program for any other reason. However, if you do open it to, for example, customize its actions in some way, you'll find a very simple interface that to a certain extent mimics the look of Windows Defender.

There are four tabs: Home, Update, History and Settings. Home shows you the status of the software and your system and lets you perform a scan; Update shows you the status of definition updates and lets you update them manually; History shows you a history of the actions the software has taken.

Settings lets you change most aspects of how the program works, including when to perform scans, the type of scan to perform (quick or full), what actions to take when an infection is detected, and the ability to exclude files, locations and processes from scans. There's actually little reason to change any of the defaults, although it's nice to know you can.

When customizing, keep in mind that a full scan takes significantly longer than a quick scan. On my system, a quick scan took under 10 minutes; a full scan took more than an hour.

There are anti-malware applications that offer far more customization than does Microsoft Security Essentials. Avast, for example, lets you finely tune the sensitivity of its scans so that you can make them more or less aggressive; you can't do that with Security Essentials. Most people won't miss it, but security tweakers may not be satisfied with the level of customization available.

How safe does it keep you?

Until Security Essentials is put through its paces by antivirus labs, there's no definitive way to know how it stacks up against other applications. However, it shares the same engine and signatures as other Microsoft anti-malware products, including OneCare, the enterprise-focused Forefront and the monthly Microsoft Malicious Software Removal Tool. Therefore, looking at how OneCare compares should give some kind of guidance.

Microsoft Security Essentials

The History tab leads to a listing of any actions that Microsoft Security Essentials has had to take against malware.

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In its earliest days, OneCare did not perform impressively in anti-malware tests, but over time that has changed. It now ranks near the top of security software, according to the independent AV-Comparatives Web site. The site regularly tests antivirus tools, and in its latest test of 16 applications, done in May, OneCare was one of only three tools given the top Advanced+ designation (the other two were Kaspersky and ESET NOD32). It also tied for second place for its proactive detection of new malware and was the only software rated as giving very few false alarms.

The bottom line

In its reviewer's guide, Microsoft says that "a surprising number of consumer PCs remain unprotected" against malware, although it offers no numbers. There are several reasons why consumers don't protect themselves, according to Microsoft. They are confused by the trial offers that come preinstalled on their PCs and by annual subscription fees. Heavy security suites slow down PCs, and so people don't want to use them. Finally, some people simply aren't willing to pay for security.

Microsoft also notes that in "emerging markets," credit isn't always easy to come by, and so people can't pay for annual subscriptions using credit cards the way they do in countries such as the United States.

Given those goals, Microsoft Security Essentials -- even in beta form -- is a clear success. It's exceedingly simple to use, takes up few system resources and doesn't cost anything. Those who want fuller-featured security suites that do backups and other functions, or who want to be able to tweak their protection levels in more detail, will look elsewhere.

But apart from that, there's no reason not to download and use Microsoft Security Essentials (if you can -- apparently, Microsoft is limiting the number of downloads available). It does the job simply and for free.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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