Sometimes there is something called a free lunch. Here, it's known as Microsoft Security Essentials. This antivirus package promises to deliver much of what paid solutions offer, but for a price of absolutely zero. How does it compare against the rest?
Microsoft Security Essentials - MSE for short - is a free antivirus suite for home users and small businesses with up to 10 PCs. The only catch about the “free” part is that your PC “must run genuine Windows” – and that’s not a problem for most of us.
MSE is designed to protect against viruses, spyware and other malicious software. Like most antivirus suites, including paid solutions, it does not come with a separate firewall component. Rather, it uses Windows’ built-in firewall, and that’s good enough for most purposes.
In and of itself, MSE is an 8 megabyte (MB) download from Microsoft’s website. In reality, though, it turned out to be far larger. It downloaded updates for several minutes after installation. Microsoft recommends that no other antivirus suites be installed alongside MSE. This is for good reason, because multiple security suites can conflict with one another.
Installation takes less than two minutes, but updates can take 10 to 15 minutes, depending on your Internet connection. The installer checks to make sure your copy of Windows is genuine. Additionally, it prompts you to turn on Windows firewall, which we did. (We accept the installation defaults for every antivirus suite we review.)
MSE’s user interface (UI) has hardly changed since the initial release of the suite back in 2009, but that’s not a bad thing. MSE continues to offer one of the simplest UIs. It’s clean and easy on the eyes, and it tells you exactly what you need to know on its main screen. If you see a green checkmark, you’re good to go. When user attention is required, the bar at the top and the monitor icon each change to red.
Navigation is handled by four tabs at the top, but all most people will need to do is check the main screen.
Running a scan is relatively easy. Select quick, full, or custom on the right, and then click the button. MSE does not include anything in the way of “extras”, like vulnerability scanners. Most people don’t use these features anyway.
Overall the UI is quite functional. I am especially appreciative of the fact that there are no advertisements, something which might be expected in free software.
Use and Effectiveness
MSE runs like Microsoft says, quietly and in the background. My computer took slightly longer to start up with MSE installed vs. without any antivirus suite at all. However this is understandable. I have yet to test a suite that brings no slowdown whatsoever.
Another thing I noticed about MSE vs. paid antivirus suites is the lack of frequent updates for MSE. While solutions like Kaspersky AntiVirus 2011 update as frequently as several times per hour, MSE sometimes updates only once per day.
To test the effectiveness of MSE I used several virus files from Eicar.org., an IT security website. The four files provided for download have different extensions --- including .com, .zip, and .txt -- containing viruses. Please see the test description for extensive information on the tests. Antivirus software should detect the files as threats.
MSE did an admirable job of protecting our test computer. It blocked all of the standard downloads. The HTTPS downloads did make it through, but they were detected in a scan shortly afterward. MSE is not quite as proactive as Kaspersky, yet the end result is the same.
We evaluate the performance impact of security software using PCMark05, a full system test suite. It's an older test suite and all modern computers can run it easily, making any performance differences stand out.
Somehow our benchmark numbers were higher with MSE installed!
Time it took to perform a full system scan
MSE took one hour, 38 minutes to scan the 128 gigabytes (GB) of data on our test computer. That is a long time. A time under one hour – such as Kaspersky’s 37 minutes – is considered fast. Between one and 1.5 hours is acceptable. However, MSE also provides a quick scan feature which takes just a few minutes to conduct.
MSE is a great no-cost alternative to paid antivirus suites. Microsoft is surely making a dent in the market share of paid vendors like Kaspersky and Norton. To be fair, MSE does not stack up to the best of the paid solutions in some ways. For example, it does not update often enough and its scan times are about twice as long.
Still, at the end of the day, we highly recommend MSE to anyone who is on the fence in deciding whether or not to use an antivirus suite.
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