Checking out Microsoft Security Essentials BETA

As you all know, Microsoft released a beta of its free antivirus and antispyware utility today once code named ‘Morro’. Microsoft Security Essentials is a free product for Windows 7, Vista and XP customers. Back in 2006 Microsoft introduced its security service suite Windows Live OneCare. Microsoft recently decided that they would discontinue Live OneCare in June 2009 and replace it with Security Essentials. Based on Microsoft’s own Forefront 2.2 enterprise security technologies, the aim of Security Essentials is to provide an economically friendly way to encourage protecting your Windows PC. A lot of computer users who buy a new PC often get a free trial period version of popular security utilities. When they expire, the user tends to not purchase a full license but continue using the expired software. There are persons who out right consciously decide they are not going to purchase additional security software. For users like that, Microsoft has an answer, its called Security Essentials.

So, its free, but there are other free Antivirus products out there such as Free AVG and countless others? Microsoft does not have a problem with that, they are not competing with either commercial or free Antivirus products. The focus of Security Essentials is for those persons who do not have any security software installed on their Windows systems at all or don’t keep security software updated.

Installing Microsoft Security Essentials (click image to enlarge)

Installation

Quick and easy is how I would describe the installation process. I was very surprised at how small the setup file is too. For persons on a slow Internet Connection, downloading Security Essentials will be a breeze. The 3.7 MB executable for Windows Vista and 7 x64 is the smallest out of all the platforms its available for, which range from 4.7 to 7 MBs. The install wizard requires that you have a genuine installation of Windows before you can install the software. Security Essentials encourages that you remove any currently installed Antivirus and AntiSpyware products before installing it as this can result in conflicts and performance issues. I already had Kaspersky beta for Windows 7 installed. I was still allowed to install MSE and I was able to remove Kaspersky after installation. MSE also disables the bundled Windows Defender AntiSpyware utility that comes with Windows 7 and Vista. After completing the installation, you can immediately download signature updates and scan your PC for malicious software.

Microsoft Security Essentials user interface

Anything special

Just like most Antivirus utilities, Microsoft Security Essentials scans your PC’s hard disk, other storage devices and main memory to detect viruses and spyware and also deletes or quarantines them. It scans disk drives for signature characteristics strings by known viruses. Security Essentials also looks for suspicious behavior, such as attempts to erase or alter areas of your system. The interface is a very slick presentation that provides a cohesive tabbed layout of activities, history and settings, which is quite similar to Windows Defender if you have ever used it. I was hoping that the software though would display information like how old the Antivirus and AntiSpyware signatures were since they were last updated although the software indicated clearly that it needed an update based on a orange banner and computer display icon. I was also informed by Action Center in Windows 7 that the program is out of date.

Checking for virus and spyware definitions

Microsoft Security Essentials indicating its Updated

I noticed that Security Essentials refused to give me access to both History and Settings area of the utility. I suspect this is to prevent malicious programs from infiltrating the program and disabling it. Once I successfully updated MSE, I was granted access to those areas of the utility. Updating MSE is clearly emphasized with tips about why it is important to do so. For a new computer user, this definitely takes the complexity out of using security software with well explained information. Concerning updating, I hope Microsoft provides an online repository similar to Symantecs SARC where I can manually download the latest definition files and apply them on PC’s that might not have reliable Internet access with MSE installed, especially for persons who might be on slower connections, this will be a handy convenience.

Running a Scan, a screenshot of MSE’s memory usage in Task Manager (right)
(Click image to enlarge)

Microsoft should add a tab specifically for scanning, I notice the Scan execution is not well thought out and might trigger some sense of confusion. I would like a Custom Scan area with Scan tab that allows me to select the drives that I want to scan, instead of me clicking Custom, click Scan and it brings up a separate dialog. I notice when I select ‘Full Scan’ and click ‘Scan’ it scans the system partition first. I am currently running Windows 7 on a logical partition, I would prefer if MSE scans that first or ask me, would you like to scan these drives too.

The History tab provides a centralized location for managing malicious threats

Users can also take advantage of options such as contextual scan menu in Windows Explorer shell for on the fly scanning of folders and drives. I notice that MSE’s Help Menu features an option to upgrade the program which suggest that the latest version of the utility can be easily kept updated and easy to install all from within the program.

Settings area for Security Essentials

Maintenance and Configuration

MSE integrates nicely with Windows 7’s Action Center Security area, providing centralized links to quickly update the program without having to do so through the utility itself. Security Essentials Settings are organized into a well thought out list of options and settings that allows the user to easily customize the the utilities functionality. A list view of options include the following:

Scheduled scan: Here you schedule when you would like MSE to scan your PC for threats in addition to checking for virus and spyware definitions.

Default actions: Lets you decide how to handle detected threats, by letting you define the default action for each alert level such as Severe, High, Medium, or Low.

Real-time protection: Alerts you when viruses, spyware or other potentially unwanted software attempts to install itself or run your computer.

Excluded files and locations: When you run a scan or use real-time protection, you can exclude certain files and locations.

Excluded file types: You can exclude certain file types. Excluding certain file types can help speed up the scan, but may leave your computer less protected.

Excluded processes: Allows you to exclude certain processes that run on your PC, examples include .cmd, .bat, .pif, .scf, .exe, .com or .scr.

Advanced: Provides a wide grouping of options for scanning archived files such as .ZIP and .CAB. You can optionally choose to scan removable drives (unchecked by default). Apply a system restore point before applying actions to detected items and allow users with limited privileges on the PC to view Detected items in the History tab.

Microsoft SpyNet: Just like Windows Defender, MSE includes support for Microsoft’s online community for responding to potential threats.

Once installed Security Essentials will disable Windows Defender if its installed

Scanning Experience

Scanning your computer is probably a very mundane task. As with Security Essentials, there is no glitz or glamour, its quite reminiscent of using Windows Defender. I notice that when I started scanning a 2 GB USB Thumb drive, the system started feeling sluggish. Although I understand that this is still a beta, it was quite noticeable and I started hearing my computer fan spinning up loudly. I checked Task Manager to see how much memory MSE was consuming and I was quite surprised by how little it was, a total of 4 MBs. The scanning process took approximately 11 mins to complete. I went ahead and did a scan of my local disk which took approximately 40 mins (20 GBs). Overall its good and the memory usage is quite impressive.

Conclusion

What I like most about Microsoft Security Essentials apart from being free is the focus on simplicity with substance. The interface features a clean, well organized design that’s easy to work with and maintain. Integration with Windows technologies like Security Center in XP/Vista and Action Center in Windows 7 will provide the cohesive experience that users expect from security utilities such as this. When combined with Windows 7’s rich suite of security technologies already built in such as UAC, DEP, Patch Guard, Safe Unlinking and ASLR, users will certainly enjoy an even more complete security experience. Its early days yet, but Microsoft is doing something I believe that’s right for both Windows and its user base. Personally, I wouldn’t mind if Windows came with a program like Security Essentials already built in. With a strong brand identity behind it and I am sure strong marketing, this will encourage users to ensure that their Windows PC is protected.

Availability

Microsoft is providing Security Essentials as a limited beta open to 75,000 potential testers in the following countries: United States, United Kingdom, Israel (English only), People’s Republic of China (Simplified Chinese only) and Brazil (Brazilian Portuguese only).

Related

Download Microsoft Security Essentials Link should be live at 12 ET
Introducing ‘Microsoft Security Essentials’
Microsoft Windows Defender Beta 2 Preview

Resources

Security Changes to AutoRun in Windows 7
Windows Security Blog: Windows 7 Security: Helping Enable the Mobile Workforce
Windows Team Blog: Windows 7: A New Approach to Securing Today’s Enterprise
Enhanced Security features in Windows 7

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