Monday, March 15, 2010

Microsoft Security Essentials review: good enough?

When Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE) first launched, I wrote a post about how this could spell doom for security software companies like Norton, but I also expressed my apprehension about free anti-virus software. I mean, Microsoft states it clearly that it is essentials. So is this a good enough anti-malware solution for home users?

I've been using MSE as my sole anti-virus software for three months now on two Windows laptops. One is running Vista business, the other is a netbook with 7 Starter. Before that, I was using Norton products, but when my subscription expired, I figured out that renewing was costly and so decided to give MSE a chance. (By the way, I'm still a big Norton fan.)

So can MSE replace Norton Anti-virus?

If you don't want to read through the rest, the short and simple answer is YES.

MSE indeed lives up to its promise of being a lightweight, hassle-free, top-notch anti-malware software. I don't know if this brings you any assurance, but at least I felt more secure knowing that MSE is based on the same protection technologies as Microsoft Forefront.

Microsoft Security Essentials main console

The installation was fuss-free and quick. Once installed, Windows Defender gets disabled, which is only natural since MSE is a superset of Defender. MSE's user interface is spartan, but extremely clear and well-organised. At one look you'll know if your system is healthy or not. Green means good, red means bad, yellow means at risk... couldn't be more straightforward.

Virus definition updating takes place either within the MSE console, or via Windows Update. You can update manually, or MSE will do it automatically in the background. There are new definitions released daily. It is really unobtrusive - no funny pop-up messages and what not - it just works.

Now the big question on every user's mind: is MSE effective in malware protection?

This I can't speak with authority, because everyone's mileage will vary. But I will say this: if you're a cautious user like me, then MSE is sufficient to keep you protected real-time from all the threats like worms, viruses, spyware, trojans etc.

Of course this gets tricky because 'cautious' is subjective and hard to define. What I mean by cautious includes not surfing dangerous websites, scanning files on download, running only programs you trust, scanning removable media before opening, doing weekly scans and so forth. If you're a careful computer user, and you don't intentionally do stuff that could harm your system, then MSE will keep you safe. But if you purposely visit malicious sites, install suspicious software, then I can't say with certainty MSE will protect you because I haven't been in that situation before.

All I can say is that in the three months, I have had zero virus attacks/infections using MSE as my only anti-virus. So to me, MSE is as good as Norton in protecting me from threats. Just today I plugged my friend's infected thumb drive into my computer, and immediately, MSE alerted me about the trojan before it even opened the contents. So from that one experience I can say real-time protection does work.

But surely MSE isn't perfect. There are areas which I felt could improve. Firstly, the scan times are quite long. I'm used to the super-quick quick scans from Norton products, so in comparison MSE's quick scan is noticeably longer. Also, full system scans may take anywhere between 1-2 hours depending your computer. It's a really long wait.

So to conclude, if you can't afford or don't want to pay for Norton anti-virus or similar products, I can safely recommend MSE to you and I'm sure it will keep your system safe and running. But of course if money is no issue then go get Norton, because Norton does have a few advantages and extra features. The real question is if these extras (like Norton file insight etc) are worth the money. That's only for you to decide. My advice is to first try out MSE, and if it isn't good enough then buy Norton. If it is, and for most people it will be, then keep on using MSE because it never expires!

It's hard to come across such good software. Microsoft has got anti-virus right. It's free, small, light and good. I never thought this day would come.


Don said...

My mcafee was due for renewal at a $60 fee when I came across MSE. I uninstalled Mcafee and loaded MSE.On a full scan 21 trojans were found and named some having been on my system for months WHILE I HAD MCAFEE!!!
I'm sold

Michael said...

Recently I was infected by something nasty while running Norton! Deception programs 'alerting' me to massive infections, browser redirects, and device driver failures. I managed to remove the deceptive programs but the others were still there. Scanning with Norton revealed a couple of trojans, but it couldn't clean them. I tried a multitude of different programs, most detected malware, none could clean them.

Then I tried an MS scan, it detected a trojan called Alureon.H, which I researched. Most on geek security sites said it is a devilishly tricky family of rootkit viruses. Some would try programs that provide for manual scans, but the general consensus was to format your drive and reinstall everything.

One person reported success running the latest Microsoft Security Essentials, but only in safe mode. I tried that and duplicated the experience. First running in standard boot it detected a dozen or so infections and claimed to have cleaned or disinfected them. Reboot and rerun, only the Alureon.H was still there. Reboot in safe mode and run full scan/clean, then reboot in standard mode, clean bill of health! All redirects and other symptoms are gone (except my missing device drivers, those have to be reinstalled).

Kudos to MSE! I'd say from that experience it's better than Norton.

Ian Ho said...

Hi Michael,

that's great to hear :) update your anti virus daily, scan weekly and keep your system safe :)

Poul said...

Hey Ian, great write-up. I can provide some more in-field experience as I have been utilizing MSE a lot at my job. We receive on a daily basis anything between 2-10 infected computers a day which we are payed to clean. MSE has been a wonderful help in cleaning already infected machines - and from personal experience the proactive defense is also great. The only downside that I see is Microsoft is behind it, people tend to be VERY biased with anything regarding Microsoft - people who hate Microsoft will automatically not trust MSE, and people who love Microsoft will use it without much testing or thought. I come from a very neutral position, and have tested/used many different products in production and at home, and I must say that MSE really impresses me. It just works, that's all there is too it - nothing less nothing more ^^

Ian Ho said...

@Poul: exactly my sentiments.. i feel some people are cynical simply because its free and its coming from microsoft, as opposed to big names like norton. it's indeed minimal in terms of functionality, but incredible when it comes to protection.

Rational 1 said...

Would be interested in knowing what anyone can tell me about MSE protecting email.

Other reviews state that it doesn't whereas Norton does.

It is Microsoft Security ESSENTIALS, so I don't feel this lack is deceptive, but rather a concern.

Are there any other functions 'missing' that Norton, McAfee have been providing that might be missed?

Ian Ho said...

Yes, MSE offers no form of email protection/spam detection.. you'll have to look elsewhere if you need that.. but if you're using webmail like hotmail/yahoo/gmail these email systems themselves have their own spam detection which offers you some sort of security at least.

Thomas said...

I recently read some reviews on a different site in which people with MSE's were also installing other protection such as Malewarebytes. Is this necessary?
Thanks for your advice in advance.

Ian Ho said...

No, to my knowledge this isn't necessary, and is in fact discouraged because multiple security software could conflict and duplicate functionality. same goes for norton and other antivirus.. not just MSE.

Jasmina said...

For the past 2 and a half years sinceI bought my laptop Windows
Vista, I went through the paid ver
sions of McAfee,Norton and ESET
Smart Security. McAfee and Norton
failed during the 30 day trial pe-
riod. ESET performed pretty well.
I was due for renewal with ESET -
45$.With the tough economy and my
business down I decided to give
CISION EVER!MSE performs better than any paid anti-virus without
fanfare, silently and efficiently.
Their installation was the easiest
ever. I would recommend it to every
one who runs a Windows operating
God bless the pros from Microsoft!

Javier said...

I just removed the latest AVG from my laptop (ver 11, paid version). My laptop was just grinding down! The hard disk was constantly thrashing, and well things looked very sluggish. Turns out the fine folks at AVG decided to include somekind of utility that constantly accesses the harddisk (a cache of some sort), to the detriment of the program. Too bad, AVG used to be pretty good.

I've now installed MSE and my laptop is running back to normal speeds. BTW MSE also detected a virus that AVG missed!!!!

Imagine that, MS comes up with a killer AV! : )

I'm recommending MSE to all my friends now.

Len said...

I've worked in the field for years and have never seen this program stop anything but minor malware. I have however seen it block or disable certain basic computer functionality. I tell my customers to not install it.

It is unreal that you tell people not to install Malwarebytes or other companion scanners. To rely solely on Security Essentials is foolish. I believe that is giving people a false sense of security.

Does anyone realize that that Microsoft writes its OS with security holes that Security Essentials is supposed help with? MS should stick to writing a better OS free from constant holes and security patches.

As for other protection, AVG will grind your computer to a halt and Norton will eventually crash your computer. Everything else has its pros and cons.

Bruce said...

I respectfully disagree with Len - and I'm not sure it matters how many years of experience anyone has with the product as the official MSE v2 has only been around a few months. V2 has a new heuristics engine that looks for behavior - which is what you would need on zero day vulnerabilities. I have seen MSE catch and stop root kits, malware, virus, etc. This is not a toy. Scans are a bit slow but that is the price you pay for lightweight. I like that I can throttle the CPU usage and memory usage is very low - that is a great benefit that I wish Trend, Norton and McAfee had.
Is it really necessary to hog close to 200MB of RAM all day long? Sometimes these "commercial" products load down a machine so much the cure is almost worse than the infection.

Apparently, others like MSE too. Wikipedia cites these awards:

On 7 January 2010, Microsoft Security Essentials won the PC Advisor's Best Free Software award.[39] Later, in December 2010, awarded Microsoft Security Essentials v1.0 the Bronze award for proactive detection of 55% of new/unknown malware, the Silver award for low false-positives (six) and the Bronze award for overall performance. Microsoft Security Essentials v2.0 was released shortly thereafter.[40]

lanechanger7 said...

I agree with Bruce' comments. My experience with Norton is that it has always been a resource hog even though it does give decent protection if kept up to date. If you have a netboook with Windows 7 Starter (as I'm using now) then MSE is the best way to protect (in my slightly humble opinion) because Norton uses too much memory and CPU time. Anyway that's my experience.

jagini kotesh said...

Microsoft Security is fantastic and i am very happy to read this article
Download Microsoft Security Essentials