NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, August 2010
Microsoft Security Essentials -
Free Anti-Malware Protection

By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host
(click to email author)


I recently encountered a situation where one of my computers was unable to load a new beta (pre-release) version of one of the popular security software suites that I was beta testing. The purpose of beta testing is to find serious bugs and other problems before the software is officially released. I have been a beta tester for dozens of titles over the years, and am fully cognizant of the problems and risks of beta testing. While the software publisher's beta support team has not yet resolved my issue, which was repeatable, this particular computer was now lacking any security software, and was at risk while performing normal online and offline tasks. I could have reinstalled my previous security suite, which has proven itself as reliable and effective, but I decided that this would be a good opportunity to try something new. There are a lot of security utilities available, both commercial and free, so I decided to try one of the few free products that I had not tried on one of my personal computers. I decided to try Microsoft's Security Essentials.

Microsoft had sold online and through retail channels its previous security product, Windows Live OneCare, which was met with mixed reviews regarding its level of protection and performance. In late 2008 Microsoft announced that it would discontinue Windows Live OneCare on June 30, 2009, and replace it with a new offering code named "Morro". "Morro" was released in its final version in 2009 for free distribution and download as Microsoft Security Essentials. This product is available for download directly from Microsoft at http://www.microsoft.com/Security_Essentials. As is common with almost all other Microsoft services, Microsoft will digitally determine the validity of the Windows installed on the computer before allowing the download; this process only takes a few seconds. Security Essentials will run on almost any Windows computer with a genuine copy of XP (Service Pack 2 or SP3), Vista (Service Pack 1 of SP2), or Windows 7. Versions are available for either 32 bit or 64 bit operating systems. Since Security Essentials is an integrated anti-malware product that protects from both viruses and spyware, it will disable Windows Defender (Microsoft's dedicated anti-spyware utility) if Defender is already installed on the computer. Unlike other competitive security suites, Security Essentials does not include a firewall, but instead activates Window's integral firewall, and works with it. Also, since this is an "Essentials" utility that only provides malware protection, it does not include most of the other enhancements incorporated into the commercial products, such as anti-spam, website protection, and other tools. Security Essentials is ICSA Labs certified, and has been awarded the VB 100 Virus label, meaning that it detected 100% of the threats in a standardized testing environment. This is important as it indicates that Security Essentials does an acceptable job in protecting systems from malware.

Downloading Security Essentials directly from Microsoft was very fast, the 64 bit version only being about 7mb in size. Installing it was simple, but it did recognize that I had some other security software on the computer, and directed me to uninstall the other software before installing it. Once I uninstalled the other security software that it identified, Security Essentials installed very quickly, and did not present any complicated configuration questions. After installing the program, it asked to perform an update, and then completed a quick scan of my hard drive. The scan was very fast, among the quickest that I have experienced, a plus for Security Essentials.

The interface for Security Essentials is clean, with few options available. The "Home" screen shows if the real-time protection is on, and if the signature files are up to date. Also on the Home screen are buttons for a quick, full or custom scan. The "Update" screen shows the date and time that the definitions were created, as well as virus definition and spyware definition version numbers. The "History" screen shows threats that were detected, quarantined, or allowed. Under the "Settings" tab, the screen shows the scheduled scans, file exclusions, some simple "Advanced" settings, and an ominous selection "Microsoft SpyNet". Microsoft SpyNet is an online community that helps the user respond to threats. By default, Security Essentials sends basic information to Microsoft about any possible malware that was detected. One interesting statement on the SpyNet setting says, "In some instances, personal information might unintentionally be sent to Microsoft. Microsoft will not use this information to identify you or to contact you." The "Advanced membership" is basically the same, but sends additional software information to Microsoft.

One setting that is missing in Security Essentials that is on almost all other security products, is some type of setting to determine how often the software should "phone home" to check for updates. Microsoft says that it automatically updates, but does not indicate any standardized frequency of updates. My former security suite by default checked for updates every hour, and another product that I have used "pushes" almost continuous updates to the user, keeping them reasonable up to date. By contrast, Security Essentials has an apparently unpredictable update pattern, such that today I received a warning on the task bar icon, which flashed red; clicking on the icon told me that my definition files (virus signature files) may be out of date. Looking at the "Update" tab on the program showed that my files were two days out of date, so I manually updated the software by clicking on the "update" button. The update was quickly downloaded and installed, but it was interesting to note that the time stamp on the latest update was about six hours old. As I type this, the "Update" screen shows that my definitions are over 10 hours old, so I just clicked on the update button again; Security essentials duly checked for an update, and reported that my software is up to date, but still shows the 10 hour old definitions as being the latest. Several years ago, daily updates were the industry norm, but today, with thousands of new threats appearing daily, infrequent updates may indicate a potential weakness in system defenses, as competitive software would have already been updated several times today.

One very pleasant surprise with Security Essentials is how fast it loads at boot, and how little it degrades system performance. I use a software utility called Soluto to monitor and control my boot process; using my prior security suite, boot time was about 100 seconds, but with Security Essentials, my computer is booting in about 50 seconds, or twice as fast! Likewise, programs seem to load much faster with Security Essentials than my previous product, and browser performance is greatly improved as well, with web pages loading much faster. This may be explained by the fact that since Security Essentials is precisely what its name implies, only the basic essentials load; other overhead is not loading and running like the more comprehensive competitive security suites.

It is up to the user to decide if the minimal but adequate protection provided by the free Microsoft Security Essentials is worth the significant improvements in performance that it allows. Since my personal choice is to have increased protection, even at the cost of some performance degradation, I will go back to my favorite comprehensive commercial suite as soon as the beta issues are resolved, or the final version is released. Still, in the meantime, I will stay with Microsoft Security Essentials until that time.

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