Microsoft Security Essentials: Free, so what's the catch?

A business version is looming, so our intrepid blogger tests Redmond's latest antivirus app for Windows

Personally, I didn't like Microsoft's Live OneCare security software; every time I worked with it on someone's computer, there was a problem of some sort. Windows Defender, however, as an antispyware tool has gained my trust over the years. But when it came to antivirus protection, I either went with no protection (which isn't a big deal because Windows 7 is so locked down that I don't see anything bypassing my superfast UAC prompt skills), AVG free antivirus protection, or -- for those times when I thought that maybe, possibly, I picked something up -- the online Trend Micro House Call scan. So far the tests have come back clean.

But by living on the edge, it will only be a matter of time before I pick something up -- which is why I was interested in Microsoft's recent release of the second version of OneCare's successor, Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE). MSE provides real-time protection for home PCs, although Microsoft is promising that enterprise support for small business is on the way. (For larger organizations, Microsoft recommends the use of its Forefront products.)

[ For more free Windows tools, see InfoWorld's "Top 10 free Windows tools for IT pros" and "Top free troubleshooting tools for Windows" | Stay up to date on the key developments in Microsoft and Windows technology with InfoWorld's Technology: Microsoft newsletter. ]

Under the hood, MSE uses the Malware Protection Engine, same as the Forefront Client Security product. Virus definitions are shared among all the key products Microsoft provides, including OneCare, Windows Defender, and Forefront. Once you install MSE, Windows Defender will be disabled because you won't need both tools operating; MSE takes over the responsibilities of malware/spyware protection from Defender.

It took me mere minutes to download the 1.0 version of MSE (2.0 is still in beta). It installed just as quickly with one catch, if you can call it that: My Windows OS had to be validated.

A tour of using MSE
The first thing MSE does is update itself with the latest virus and spyware definitions from the Microsoft Update Center. The Update portion to MSE has garnered a bit of controversy, even from within the walls of InfoWorld itself: Woody Leonhard wrote a few months back about the change MSE makes to your Windows Update settings when you install it. If you happen to be one of those folks who turns off updates, the MSE installer will turn automatic updates back on. You can go back and turn it off, but the ostensible damage is done.

(My comments on this: Oh dear! Your system may have been updated! All those security holes may now be patched. How dare Microsoft provide a free tool to protect you from malicious software and then actually allow it to be updated for your best chance at protection?)

In any case, the scanning process looks and feels like that of Windows Defender, so I was comfortable with the tool right from the start. It's easy to use and to understand; I could put this thing on my mother's computer and not worry about support calls in the middle of the night.

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