Microsoft Security Essentials
– free and worthwhile if
you really must run Windows
Alan Zisman (c)
2010 First published in Columbia
by Alan Zisman
In these columns and other places, I've often been critical of
Microsoft, for the company's often bullying dominance of the personal
computer industry and for the security issues that continue to plague
Windows users. The latest thing for Windows-users to watch out for:
scareware – bogus antivirus applications that install themselves when
you click on a flashing notice claiming your system is infected. If
your system wasn't infected when the faux-notice popped up, it will be
if you click on the notice, and you'll be asked to pay $50 or so to
remove the so-called security software.
I've recommended that users look towards alternatives, whether from
Apple or the any of the various free Linux operating system and suite
of applications varieties such as Ubuntu. Both Apple's Mac and Ubuntu
and the other Linux varients remain safe from the plague of
Windows-only security perils.
But you haven't listened. A Google Analytics report on visitors to
columbiajournal.ca during the month of November, shows that 80% were
running some version of Windows, about 17% used Macs, and about 3% were
on Linux. There HAS been a move away from Microsoft's Internet Explorer
– only 48% of columbiajournal.ca visitors used that browser, with
Mozilla Firefox (available for Windows, Mac, and Linux) a strong second
place with 37%.
But I have to report that recently, Microsoft did something right.
No, I'm not talking about the recent release of Windows 7. That
replacement for the poorly received Windows Vista is OK – all in all,
it cleans up many of the things that people didn't like about Vista: it
starts up quicker and seems perkier overall, and nags less about
In general, I think that Vista users should find Windows 7 a worthy
upgrade, but that XP users will find it too difficult to upgrade their
current systems. For those users: wait until it's time to buy a new
A few weeks prior to the Windows 7 release, however, Microsoft quietly
released software that may be more worthwhile for many XP users – as
well as many running Vista and even the new Windows 7 – to consider.
The newly-released Microsoft Security Essentials is free for home – and
(a nice touch): home business – use, promising 'real-time' protection
from virus, spyware, rootkits, and other assorted malware. While the
installation checks that you're running a legitimate copy of Windows,
no registration or renewal is required. It's not a trial version and
unlike some other free security products there are no attempts to move
users on to a paid version with more features.
Most Windows computers sold to the consumer market include a trial
version of antivirus or other security software; often, however, users
let the trial period run out without purchasing the full version. The
result: millions of vulnerable and unprotected PCs. While some users
have opted for one of several free antivirus programs, but often these
– unlike Microsoft's new release - offer no protection from spyware and
other sorts of infestations, and in some cases lack real-time
protection, only checking for infection during scheduled scans.
Microsoft estimates that between 50-60% of Windows users are running
without up to date security protection – these are the users Microsoft
hopes will move to Security Essentials.
Security Essentials is built on the same technology as Microsoft's
business-focussed Forefront Client Security, minus that product's
network management and reporting features. It does a good job of
running quietly behind the scenes, with a minimum of unnecessary
pop-ups and nagging. For example, the program keeps itself updated
without any fuss, without notifying the user unless a problem arises.
Another plus: it uses a relatively low amount of system resources,
resulting in minimal impact on computer performance.
For a free product, Security Essentials does a fairly good job of
detection and removal of malware. Microsoft has been releasing new
definitions as often as several times a day. Security Essentials uses
the company's new Dynamic Signature Services (DSS) feature, which will
be included in the next release of its business-level Forefront
security product. DSS responds to suspicious behaviours such as
unexpected network connections or changes to core system settings and
files to deal with malware that is not included in the
currently-installed virus definitions.
My biggest concern: At one time, the company offered an antivirus
program as part of MS-DOS; it quickly lost interest, leaving behind
users who thought they were protected while their security software was
no longer being updated. More recently, Microsoft offered and then
dropped a free OneCare security product. Hopefully the company will
remain interested in Security Essentials for the long term.
If you're among the 50% of Windows without an up to date license for a
paid security suite you should check out Microsoft Security
Essentials. It can be downloaded from microsoft.com/security_essentials
Note the separate downloads for 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Vista or
Windows 7 and for Windows XP.
Better still, however, would be to break the Windows habit entirely and
move to Linux or the Mac. Ubuntu Vancouver, for instance, is running a
series of (free) sessions where Ubuntu users will help you try out or
install that Linux version onto a computer that is currently running
Windows. Check meetup.com/ubuntuvancouver