NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, August 2011
Microsoft Security Essentials
By Brian K. Lewis, PhD,
Member, Sarasota PCUG, Florida April 2011 issue, The Monitor
bwsail at yahoo.com (click to email author)

Over the years, ever since my first encounter with a computer virus in 1987, I have used a number of anti-virus applications along with firewall software. As the Internet grew in the late '90s I had to add anti-parasite software and other anti-malware applications to the protection arsenal. Some of this software was free; others were very expensive both to purchase and to maintain. Some used tremendous amounts of computer resources which slowed down the overall operation of the computer. The cost in money and/or resources wasn't necessarily directly related to the usefulness of the application. However such protection was probably a necessary evil to prevent problems on my computer from the “invaders” that existed then and now on the Internet.

Most anti-malware applications seem to be growing in size as each manufacturer tries to “cover all the bases”. Unfortunately with the increase in size and coverage comes an increase in complexity. Now Microsoft has released an improved version of their Security Essentials (MSE) software that is easier for the user to install and operate. This application protects your computer against viruses, spyware, worms, trojans and other malicious software. In addition it is an easy to install FREE download from Microsoft. The only catch is that you must have a legal copy of Windows on your computer. The installation program does a check for Genuine Windows validation. The software runs on XP, Vista and Win 7 operating systems (OS). However, I have only been using it on Win7.

It does sound like it must be a resource hog to be able to carry out all of these functions. But the testing results I have seen show minimal effect on overall computer operation. Yes, there is reduction in the speed of processing web pages, e-mail, etc., when using the real-time protection. But compared to other software carrying out the same functions, the difference in speed is insignificant and really wouldn't by noticed by most users. The only place where MSE seems to fall down is on hard disk scans. There I have seen reports of initial complete scanning taking 8 – 24 hours! I have done both a Quick Scan and a Full scan of my hard drive, about 50 GB of data on a 140 GB partition. The Quick Scan was done in less than 2 minutes. The full scan took about 25 minutes. So from my perspective, on my system, the scanning time is not excessive. I have used other malware checkers that have taken over an hour to accomplish a complete scan on the same drive.

If you want to install this application, the first step is to download MSE from Microsoft's web site (http://www.microsoft.com/security_essentials/?mkt=en-us). This page has the download link for the msi file which can be run automatically after downloading by selecting “Run” instead of “Save”. If you have questions about the installation Microsoft has a video showing all the steps involved. Once the installation is complete the opening screen shows the current status of your protection and the date of the last update for the malware definitions. It also shows you the settings related to scanning your hard drive. From this page you can do a manual scan of your drive. The Update tab on the top of the page takes you to a page where you can manually update the malware definitions. MSE will automatically download updates when you are running Windows and are connected to the Internet. However, it may not occur immediately on connection. So if it has been some time since you connected to the Internet you may want to manually download the definitions.

The settings page, shown in the next figure, is one where you can mostly accept the default values. One you will probably want to change is the timing of the automatic scan. MSE defaults to midnight on one day, Sunday I think. You will probably want to change this to a time when you know that your computer will be turned on. The list on the left of the window shows the additional settings categories for MSE. The “default actions” relate to what should be done with any malware detected. The various categories of default actions run from low threat to severe. In all cases I have set mine to remove the malware. If in doubt as to the effect on your computer you can set the lower threat levels to be quarantined. If you wish to later remove a quarantined item, you can do so from the history page. Select “Quarantined items” and you will then be allowed to remove all or individual items. You can also select to restore an item, but this is not likely to be a good idea. Read the description of the what the malware's actions are carefully before deciding to restore it.

This next figure shows you the protection being provided by MSE. In most cases it is best to leave the default settings so you will get the best protection. You will note the category for behavior monitoring. This allows MSE scan for possible malware that is not in its definitions list. This is referred to as the “heuristic” programming of the software. Any application that seems to be altering the functioning of the operating system, such as a rootkit, should be flagged by this function. This is the only way that any anti-malware application can attempt to stay ahead of the malware writers who are always coming up with new, more complex schemes for infiltrating your computer.

I hope you can see from this quick review of MSE, that it is designed to provide a simple user interface for a complete protection package. Now more tech-savvy computer users might want more control over their anti-malware protection, but for most users, I think this is a good fit and the price is right.

As I mentioned earlier, I have been running MSE under Windows 7. This is Microsoft's best operating system yet. I think this is demonstrated by the fact that the Win7 SP-1 has no really significant changes to the basic OS. Also, Win7 does seem to be more secure than earlier versions. So if you are still running Vista or WinXP, in my opinion, you should be seriously considering a change to Win7. At the very least, whatever OS you are running, be sure to practice “safe computing”.

This article is copyright © 2011 by Brian K. Lewis, PhD. All rights reserved. It is also published as PDF file on the Lewisfamilypubs.net website. Dr. Lewis is a former professor of physiology and has been working with personal computers for over 40 years. He may be contacted at bwsail at yahoo.com.

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