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Microsoft Security Essentials

CNET Editors' review

The bottom line: Microsoft Security Essentials 2 will protect you, and it will generally do it well. However, its impact on system performance could be improved, and it's still a bit light in the tool belt.

Review:
Now in its second iteration, Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE) debuted as the lightweight, cloud-based successor to the paid security suite Live OneCare in 2009. Version 2 introduces deeper hooks into Internet Explorer and the default firewall in Vista and Windows 7. Security Essentials has begun to mature, although it's still rough at the edges.

Installation
It takes very little effort to get going with MSE. Microsoft politely does not opt you in to the program's customer experience improvement program; you must choose to opt in or stay out of it before you can finish the installation. It also lets you choose whether to run the Windows Defender firewall, and whether to run a scan once installation is complete, although both of those are opt-out.

Overall, the installation time ran around 4 minutes on our test computer. That's not as blazing fast as some of the paid suites, which can complete installation in less than 60 seconds, but it is respectable for a free program.

Interface
MSE 2's interface adopts a different color scheme than the previous version, going for various shades of gray to replace the vibrant blue and white look. It doesn't pop as much, but it also looks far less like a Windows XP relic.

For those unfamiliar with the design, MSE has four tabs across the top. The Home tab contains your security status and scan options, and you can run a Quick Scan, Full Scan, or Custom Scan. A link at the bottom of the pane lets you change the scheduled scan.

The second version of Microsoft Security Essentials changes its plumage to gray, and adds better heuristic detections and deeper hooks into the Windows firewall.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Update is where you manually get new virus definition files and program upgrades, History logs only detected threats, and Settings is where you go for advanced tweaking. The program looks simple, but don't be deceived: there are quite a few advanced options in Settings--just not as many as many competitors offer. Security Essentials uses labels imported from OneCare: green for all good, yellow for warning, and red for an at-risk situation.

Features and support
Under the clean and uncluttered interface, Security Essentials wraps up antivirus and antispyware engines, rootkit protection, and real-time detection courtesy of Microsoft SpyNet, the unfortunately named cloud-based service that anonymously compares file behavior across computers running various Microsoft operating systems.

SpyNet was introduced in Windows Vista and extended to Windows 7, but Microsoft Security Essentials is the only way to access the network in Windows XP. Unlike other security vendors that allow customers to take advantage of the benefits of their behavioral detection engines while opting out of submitting information, there's no way to do that with SpyNet.

Well, it's mostly anonymous. You can choose between two SpyNet memberships. The basic membership submits to Microsoft the detected software's origins, your response to it, and whether that action was successful, and the advanced membership submits all that plus the location on your hard drive of the software in question, how it operates, and how it has affected your computer. Both basic and advanced versions warn users that personal data might be "accidentally" sent to Microsoft, although they promise to neither identify nor contact you. New in version 2 is the option to opt out of contributing to SpyNet while still receiving the benefits of crowd-sourced security.

When you install MSE 2, it will automatically run a scan unless you opt out. Note that it will not consider your computer secure until that first quick scan has completed.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Microsoft Security Essentials 2 uses both definition-file and real-time defenses against viruses and spyware, and also offers rootkit protection. Along with the quick scan and the full scan, there's a Custom scan option that lets users select specific folders or drives to scan. It doesn't allow for customizing the type of scan used. For example, you're not going to be able to choose to scan only for rootkits or heuristics, as you can with other security programs. However, you can set USB keys and other external devices to automatically get scanned. The program installs a context-menu option for on-the-fly scanning in Windows Explorer, too.

The Update pane manages the definition file updates, with a large action button, and History provides access to a spreadsheet-style list of All detection items, your Quarantine, and items you've Allowed to run. Although it's a basic layout, this no-frills approach to security has proven appealing to people who are overwhelmed by more detailed security choices.

New in version 2 is integration with Internet Explorer so that downloads get scanned, and Windows firewall hooks so that your personal security net is tighter. For Windows 7 and Vista users, the Windows Filtering Platform that those two operating systems come with gets a boost from a new network inspection feature.

The Settings window allows you to further customize the program by scheduling scans, toggling default actions to take against threats, adjusting real-time protection settings, creating whitelists of excluded files, file types, and processes, and choosing from the aforementioned SpyNet options. There's also an Advanced option that is still fairly basic: here you can set Security Essentials to scan archives and removable drives, create a system restore point, and expand user rights to allow all users to view the History tab.

A nice feature in the scheduler forces MSE 2 to be respectful of your computer's processor usage.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Security Essentials comes preconfigured to run a scan weekly at 2 a.m., when Microsoft thinks your system is likely to be idle. New malware signatures are downloaded once per day by default, although you can manually instigate a definition file update through the update tab. Attachments and downloaded files will be automatically scanned by Security Essentials.

Help is only available in the form of the standard offline Help manual that comes with all Microsoft programs. There's nothing fancy here.

MSE abandons the additional heft of a firewall, performance tuning, and backup and restore options to focus on core security. However, the new version does include a system restore option, to back up your computer before you remove any detected malware. Most of the changes in MSE 2 are under the hood, but it's still a worthwhile program in terms of features, especially on lower-powered Netbooks.

Performance
Microsoft Security Essentials occupies a slightly different space than the rest of the security programs because it's the only one published by Microsoft, and, remarkably to some, it doesn't suck. Benchmarks by independent third-party efficacy testers and CNET Labs discovered that the program has uneven performance. (Read more on how CNET Labs benchmarks security software.)

Security program Boot time Shutdown time Scan time MS Office performance iTunes decoding Media multitasking Cinebench
Unprotected system 42.5 11.28 n/a 917 180 780 4,795
Microsoft Security Essentials 2 54 18 1,560 1,038 201 800 4,790

*All tests measured in seconds, except for Cinebench. On the Cinebench test, the higher number is better.

AV-Test.org certified MSE 1 during one test this year, and then refused to certify it during a test several months later. When tested on Windows 7 in the second quarter of 2010, MSE 1 earned certification with a 15 out of 18 score. It achieved 4 out of 6 in the Protection category, 4.5 out of 6 in Repair, and 5.5 out of 6 in Usability, where the minimum required for certification was 12. However, when tested on Windows XP in the third quarter of 2010, AV-Test.org did not pass MSE 1. The program earned 3 out of 6 in both Protection and Repair, and 5.5 out of 6 in Usability. Given the more advanced native security in Windows Vista and Windows 7, this could indicate that Microsoft's own security program is unsuitable for its older operating systems.

On the other hand, AV-Comparatives.org awarded MSE 1 an Advanced+ certification in November 2010 for its retrospective/proactive test, finding the program to have very few false positives.

Those results don't come cheaply, as far as system performance is concerned. CNET Labs' benchmarks put MSE 2 at the far slower end of the scale, with a bigger impact on system performance in general than most other security options. System start-up was 11.5 seconds slower than on an unprotected PC, and system shutdown was more than 6 seconds slower whereas most suites affected the system by 2 to 4 seconds.

MSE 2's impact on the MS Office, iTunes decoding, media multitasking, and Cinebench tests was generally unimpressive. The program did very well in the Cinebench test, but in others its results were more middle-of-the-road.

Virus scan times were also slow compared with the competition. MSE 2 took 26 minutes to finish a full scan, and nearly 2 hours on a real-world computer. The 2-hour time is slow, although not the slowest out there. The first quick scan performed at installation took 4 minutes, which is a competitive time for that type of scan.

Conclusion
Security Essentials is basically a good set-it-and-forget-it security program, but if you want more options and better results from a lightweight security option, Panda Cloud Antivirus Free Edition 1.3 is the safer bet.

Microsoft Security Essentials beta:

Publisher's Description

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All User Reviews
  • All versions:

    4.0 stars

    out of 655 votes

    • 5 star: 370
    • 4 star: 120
    • 3 star: 42
    • 2 star: 47
    • 1 star: 76
  • Current version:

    3.3 stars

    out of 14 votes

    • 5 star: 6
    • 4 star: 2
    • 3 star: 1
    • 2 star: 0
    • 1 star: 5
  • My rating:

    0 stars

    Write review

Results 1-10 of 14

  • 1.0 stars

    "False Sense of Security"

    April 18, 2014  |   By Krupotkin

    Version: Microsoft Security Essentials 4.3.216

    Pros

    None, really.

    Cons

    Microsoft Security Essentials offers only a false sense of security. It has been flunking independent tests for the past year. Rather than fix the problems, Microsoft has made excuses. First, it was: "These tests don't measure protection against realistic threats." Then, it was: "People don't seem to understand. Microsoft only provides baseline protection." Bottom line, in a recent test, this service finished dead last of those tested, missing 41% of threats. I just ran AVG Free and found that there were two Trojan Horses that MSE scans have been missing for God knows how long.

    Summary

    Get good third-party protection if you value your computer.

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  • 5.0 stars

    "PAYING FOR ANTIVIRUS SOFTWARE IS LIKE BURNING MONEY"

    April 5, 2014  |   By eon17

    Version: Microsoft Security Essentials 4.3.216

    Pros

    It provides a decent security blanket over human error. The only software that tops this is malwarebytes. This is nice however because its FREE and does not practice in the arts of fear mongering like ALL of the paid for antivirus.

    Cons

    None. Honestly. It does what anti male-ware software is supposed to do. It provides a real time security blanket to assist you while your educating your self on how to not use the internet like a complete idiot. There is not one, and when i say one I literately mean there is not a single antivirus that you can pay for that will run better.

    Summary

    HEED MY ADVISE. THE PEOPLE WHO COMPLAIN ABOUT THIS SOFTWARE TITLE ARE THE SAME IDIOTS WHO FEEL ENTITLED TO ACT COMPLETELY RECKLESS ON THE INTERNET BECAUSE THEY JUST INSTALLED AN "ANTI-VIRUS" SOFTWARE TITLE. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS "ANTI-VIRUS". IT IS 100% FEAR MONGERING MARKETING GENIUS BY THOSE WHO RELEASE THE PAID FOR TITLES. TO GIVE EVIDENCE LOOK UP THE REVIEWS ON ANY OF THE PAID FOR TITLES. THEY WILL BE EVEN WORSE THAN SOME OF THESE REVIEWS FOR A FREE... COMPLETELY FREE... WORKING... EFFECTIVE TITLE... WHEN PEOPLE BUY SOMETHING THAT IS MARKETED AS AN "ELECTRONIC DEFENSE BARRIER" THEY FEEL LIKE THEY ARE FREE TO ACT HOWEVER BIG OF A FOOL AS THEY WANT. THEN THEY REALIZE THAT THE SOFTWARE THEY PAID FOR IS COMPLETE GARBAGE. SO THEY GO BUY ANOTHER TITLE. RINSE AND REPEAT. FUN FACT FOR ANYONE WHO CARES. THE ONLY ANTIVIRUS... TRUE ANTIVIRUS.... IS EDUCATING YOURSELF BEYOND THE BASICS. IF THE PROSPECT OF NOT RUNNING ANTIVIRUS PROTECTION TO GUARD YOU ON THE JOURNEY TO YOU FAVORITE FACEBOOK GAME SENDS PEE RUNNING DOWN YOUR LEG YOU ARE DOING NOTHING BUT MAKING YOURSELF STUPID. YOUR STAYING NAIVE. ALL OF WHICH IS IN COMPLETE VAIN. LIKE I SAID, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS ANTI-VIRUS. IF THERE WAS, THERE WOULD NOT BE 20 TITLES TO CHOOSE FROM AT YOUR LOCAL OVERPRICED RETAIL TECH BIG BOX STORE. DO YOUR SELF A FAVOR AND WAKE THE HELL UP. EDUCATE YOURSELF. EVOLVE. THIS COMPUTER STUFF.. ITS NOTHING TO BE SCARED OF. SHOW SOME DIGNITY. LEARN FROM YOUR TRIALS AND ERRORS. STOP BEING SUCH CONSUMERS IN A MARKET YOUR NO NOTHING ABOUT. YOUR GOING TO GET BURNED AND YOU WONT EVEN KNOW ITS HAPPENING.

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  • 1.0 stars

    "going out of business"

    April 1, 2014  |   By njbrit

    Version: Microsoft Security Essentials 4.3.216

    Pros

    was useful, fairly, in the past, I think

    Cons

    i got a notice that in the next two weeks the program would be deactivated for windows XP but if I spent approximately $800 on upgrades to my apps I could keep it. Oh boy, does that sound like a bargain

    Summary

    even mcafee is cheaper!

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  • 3.0 stars

    "Pretty good software."

    March 30, 2014  |   By Sue Geek

    Version: Microsoft Security Essentials 4.3.216

    Pros

    It's free, works, and doesn't contain Malware, Crapware, or Bloat ware.

    Cons

    None that I know of.....Yet!

    Summary

    While waiting for AVG to get its act together and clean up the big steaming pile of horse manure that is AVG 2013-2014, I was using MSE as a stand-in antivirus program. A colleague of mine who does hardware said that MSE had out-performed the more expensive rivals such as Norton, detecting viruses more quickly and accurately.
    The problem is that you never know if an antivirus program is working until you actually need it. All I can say is that I am very surprised at its efficiency because of the fact that Microsoft usually is a bit slow to react to some security gaps. All I can say is: so far, so good.

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  • 5.0 stars

    "Really good FREE Antivirus!!"

    February 26, 2014  |   By BlackBox_Hacker

    Version: Microsoft Security Essentials 4.3.216

    Pros

    Great known threat Protection and looks ok.

    Cons

    This program has no Zero-day Protection or HIPS

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  • 5.0 stars

    "Still the best for me!"

    January 17, 2014  |   By Batchoy2

    Version: Microsoft Security Essentials 4.3.216

    Pros

    Always a freeware
    Easy to use
    Light on resources
    Effective
    Works fine with other third party firewalls like Comodo Free Firewall and Privatefirewall

    Cons

    During the initial installation, only takes longer doing the updates.

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  • 1.0 stars

    "Not something I recommend in terms of a antivirus."

    November 23, 2013  |   By shayne255

    Version: Microsoft Security Essentials 4.3.216

    Pros

    Not something I recommend this antivirus has let numerous viruses and other nasty stuff on my pc. The fact that Microsoft makes this antivirus is not intriguing. I thought that with version 4.4 there would be some nice memory changes and better security definition updates but I was wrong. As soon as I updated to 4.4 after a day I got 5 trojans that infected my computer. I recommend Avira their antivirus is a lot more nicer with better security definition updates along with the face it is a lot more lighter. I do not recommend MSE at all and the face that Microsoft's antivirus has not gotten a certification at all in the past so many months it just is not wroth it anymore sadly.

    Cons

    Plenty of cons just read my pro summary.

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  • 1.0 stars

    "Allowed to much malware onto PC"

    November 14, 2013  |   By Johnny_S

    Version: Microsoft Security Essentials 4.3.216

    Pros

    Free is all I can think of

    Cons

    Allows too much malware onto PC

    Slow scan

    Summary

    Don't count on this to catch much. My wife who is very much a safe web surfer got 10 pieces of malware on her Windows 7 PC and MSE caught none of it. Not even with a scan. 9 of the malware were Trojans that were not recent creations so MSE should have had definitions to catch them. I finally used Malwarebytes which detected them and deleted them. Very disappointed in Microsoft created such a lousy product. I'll bet plenty of people have malware and rootkits on their PC and don't even know it. Don't trust MSE, scan with another AV product. If Microsoft cannot do any better then this they need to stop giving users a false sense of security with MSE.

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  • 4.0 stars

    "I like it and recommend it"

    November 12, 2013  |   By jackpol

    Version: Microsoft Security Essentials 4.3.216

    Pros

    It found and removed Trojan Downloader , after I had spent hours trying to chase down different error messages (solutions), but the virus didn't let me apply any of the so-called solutions. Operations were really slow with this virus.

    Cons

    It seemed to work only after several scans.

    Summary

    It works and I didn't really notice any slowdown due to security essentials.

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  • 5.0 stars

    "Best Free Antivirus Ever For Windows!!!"

    October 5, 2013  |   By BlackBox246

    Version: Microsoft Security Essentials 4.3.216

    Pros

    Very good detection the same as paid AV Vendors, Looks nice and uses less RAM and CPU also works great with Privatefirewall 7.0 New Release with Code Detection! This basically means no Zero-day will bypass security!!! I like the embedded MSE in Windows 8 Pro called Windows Defender...

    Cons

    I can't find any!

    Summary

    I really like this Antivirus!

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Results 1-10 of 14

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