Microsoft Security Essentials Review

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  • Pros

    • Free
    • Quick threat response
    • Minimal performance impact
  • Cons

    • Feature-light
    • Full scans not fast
    • Requires Windows Genuine Advantage

Microsoft’s Security Essentials antivirus suite recently came out of beta and is free for anyone running a genuine copy of Windows. How does it stack up to other antivirus suites? Read on for our analysis.

Product Overview

Microsoft Security Essentials is a free antivirus suite for anyone that runs a genuine copy of Windows. The company claims it guards against viruses, spyware, and other malicious software. It is also advertised to have a minimal performance impact and stay out of the way in the background.

Installation and Activation

Security Essentials is a mere 4MB download from Microsoft. The install is short and simple — four clicks are required after starting the installer. After accepting the license agreement, users must validate their copy of Windows. Once validated, clicking Install finishes off the process. The entire install process took less than two minutes, which is impressive. It is on par with Norton AntiVirus 2010, a major competitor.

Program Interface

Microsoft Security Essentials interface

Security Essentials has a clean and organized interface. The navigation is tab-based with four categories at the top: Home, Update, History, and Settings.

Most users are likely to only look at the Home tab; fortunately it displays all the necessary information, including overall security status, update status, and scanning options. Microsoft’s tagline for Security Essentials is “when you’re green, you’re good.” Most other antivirus suites employ the same method of color coding for security status since it is very effective at getting a user’s attention. Security Essentials looks like the following when at risk:

Microsoft Security Essentials At Risk warning

The software actually fixed itself without my intervention by turning on real-time protection and automatically updating.

Microsoft Security Essentials Update

The Update tab has only one button: Update. The software updates itself automatically so there is little point in doing it manually.

Microsoft Security Essentials Settings

The Settings tab allows users to change scan schedules, alter how the software deals with threats, and ignore certain items. It also has Microsoft SpyNet controls.

Microsoft Security Essentials SpyNet

SpyNet is Microsoft’s online security community; anytime a Security Essentials user runs across suspicious software, it sends information on it back to Microsoft. There is no way to turn off SpyNet; your option is simply to select between Basic and Advanced memberships. Basic membership sends threat data to Microsoft. Advanced membership reports information about the threat and sends Microsoft anonymized data about your computer.

In Use and Effectiveness

Microsoft Security Essentials ran quietly in the background without interrupting daily tasks such as surfing the Internet or running office productivity apps. The software does not have any annoying pop-ups or information messages. Security Essentials also did not interfere with gaming (though it did not prevent me from getting pwned all the time).

To test the effectiveness of Security Essentials, I used several virus files from Eicar.org, an IT security website. The four files provided for download, which have different extensions including .com, .zip, and .txt, contain viruses. Please see the test description for extensive information on the tests. Antivirus software should detect the files as threats.

Microsoft Security Essentials Alert

What we are looking for here is responsiveness and effectiveness; Security Essentials excels in both areas. It detected all four files instantly upon download and notified the user with the message above. Clicking “Clean computer” neutralized and removed the files

Microsoft Security Essentials Threat Fixed Alert

Users can see a history of what happened and details on threats in the History tab of the program interface.

Microsoft Security Essentials History

Security Essentials categorizes threats and provides a description and a recommendation; this is very convenient.

Performance Impact

We evaluate the performance impact of antivirus software in three ways:

1.    Overall system performance measured before and after antivirus installation using PCMark

2.    Memory footprint

3.    Full system scan time

Our test system is an HP Pavilion dv5t:

  • Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 (2.26GHz/3MB L2/1066MHz FSB)
  • 4GB RAM
  • 500GB 5400RPM hard drive
  • Windows Vista Home Premium x86

Overall System Performance Impact Measured with PCMark Vantage

Prior to installing Security Essentials the notebook had the following numbers:

Microsoft Security Essentials preinstall benchmark

After installing the software I ran the benchmark again:

Microsoft Security Essentials postinstall benchmark

With an unnoticeable four percent impact on system performance, Security Essentials shows it is gentle on system resources.

Memory Footprint

Microsoft Security Essentials memory footprint

Using only about 4MB of memory, Security Essentials is indeed very efficient.

Time it took to perform a full system scan

A full scan of our test system’s hard drive containing 122GB of data took one hour and seven minutes. This is where Microsoft is slightly behind other industry players such as Norton and NOD32, whose software suites did the same scan in 45 minutes or less. Processor usage was not as high as the others while running the scan however, so there are some upsides.

Conclusion

Microsoft hit the nail on the head with Security Essentials — this antivirus suite is simple to use, proactive, and best of all, free of charge for genuine Windows users. It is also extremely efficient with system resources. Security Essentials is not as fully-featured as other players’ antivirus suites including Norton and ESET, but it provides as the name implies — essential protection. I personally would not have a problem paying for this software if Microsoft charged for it.

To those looking for an antivirus suite or want to upgrade their existing, we highly recommend investing two minutes to download and install Microsoft Security Essentials.

Pros:

  • Free
  • Quick threat response
  • Minimal performance impact

Cons:

  • Feature-light
  • Full scans not fast
  • Requires Windows Genuine Advantage


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