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Posted on September 29th, 2009 by Darien Graham-Smith

Can Microsoft Security Essentials beat Norton?

What do Microsoft and Symantec have in common? The obvious answer is that both are offering a new security package. In Symantec’s case it’s Norton Internet Security 2010, which I looked at a few weeks back. Microsoft, meanwhile, is today due to release Security Essentials, its free replacement for OneCare, formerly codenamed Morro.

They’re also both companies dogged by the sins of products past. The Norton brand is still widely associated with bloated and buggy software, even though NIS has been a slick, lightweight package for several years now.

And Windows is continually ridiculed for its supposed susceptibility to viruses – even though platform security has been enhanced beyond recognition since the bad old days of Windows 98. Only a tiny minority of “in the wild” malware will even run on a fully-patched Windows 7 system.

Malware abounding

That’s not to say malware is dead: earlier this year the Conficker worm infected more than five million Windows PC worldwide. At first glance, that might suggest that Windows’ security is still sub-par. Yet the truth is that when Conficker was released, it spread via a vulnerability that Microsoft had already patched through Windows Update.

And that’s partly the point of Security Essentials. If everyone kept their Windows installation up to date, it would hardly be necessary. But they don’t, and, since Microsoft has a reputation for lax security hanging around its neck, when an epidemic does strike it’s all too easy to point the finger at Redmond – something Apple salespeople in particular do with glee.

So alongside the excellent work the company has done in tightening Windows’ security, it’s now offering a fallback line of defence – a traditional antimalware application, based on an independent database of malware signatures, to intercept any viruses that may stray onto careless users’ PCs.

Yellow scorn

Symantec is well-placed to empathise with Microsoft’s plight; but since the two companies are now rivals, the Norton team has been quick to talk down Security Essentials.

“The security industry has moved on from the product Microsoft is launching,” declared Con Mallon, Symantec’s marketing director, yesterday. “Unique malware and social engineering fly under the radar of the traditional signature based technology employed by free security tools such as Microsoft’s.”

And he does have a point. Signatures aren’t much help against a malicious website that offers each visitor their own personalised Trojan. Nor can they protect you against social engineering, such as phishing attacks that trick you into giving away your credit card details. It’s unarguable that if you rely on Security Essentials you’ll be vulnerable to certain types of attack.

“We believe the false sense of security provided by this tool is almost as dangerous as having no security at all,” cautioned Mallon.

Back to basics

But as the name clearly indicates, “Security Essentials” doesn’t try to protect you against every possible threat. It’s a basic defence against basic malware – the stuff that’s prominent enough to succumb to signature identification. And personally I think that limited ambition is a smart move on Microsoft’s part.

Because, unlike Symantec’s software, Security Essentials isn’t a money-making venture: that’s clear from the free, perpetual licence. As I hinted above, to me it looks more like an attempt to shake off Windows’ reputation as a virus-ridden platform.

And to an extent, it helps that effort simply by existing: no longer can it be said that Windows needs third-party software to protect it from malware.

But the real success would be if it could forestall future epidemics like Conficker.

Less is more

And that’s the crux of the matter. To make that sort of difference, it’s not enough for Security Essentials to compete with other suites: somehow it needs to get onto the millions of PCs out there that currently have no malware protection.

That could be achieved by pushing it out via Windows Update (and setting the malware database to update automatically thereafter). In light of the recent furore over browser bundling, though, that might be a risky approach.

So Microsoft is wooing users who don’t use full-featured security software by offering them something easier, lighter and less intrusive: a security client stripped down to the basics, with a so-simple-it-hurts interface. With no nagging and free updates for life it’s a pretty compelling proposition.

Next week, when I’m back in the office, I’ll investigate whether Security Essentials really is lighter than established suites. But in the grand scheme of things that’s not actually the important issue. It’s the perception of simplicity that could help the software reach machines that would otherwise be unprotected.

If it does, every Windows user will benefit. Microsoft will come away looking very clever indeed, while Mr Mallon may have to eat his words.

But then who can blame Symantec, or any commercial security developer, for dismissing Security Essentials? Their industry is founded on the imperative of offering ever more comprehensive protection. It will be quite an upset if the most effective security package on Windows turns out, in fact, to be the one that does the least.

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21 Responses to “ Can Microsoft Security Essentials beat Norton? ”

  1. TJ Says:
    September 29th, 2009 at 8:21 am

    I’ve never been much of a fan of Microsoft products. But I have to say that when it comes to it’s anti-spyware and antivirus products, I do appreciate the fact that they’re very simple to use and – most importantly – almost never report false positives.

    In the past four years, 100% of the detections on my systems (by other top rated anti-malware products) have turned out to be false positives.

    After a top rated product detected 55 false positives with in months of installation, I became skeptical about all anti-malware detections. Since then, I’ve reported every single detection as a false positive to the vendor in question. And in each case, the vendor confirmed that the detection was in fact a false positive.

    My motto is: Trust nothing – verify everything.

  2. Steve Cassidy Says:
    September 29th, 2009 at 9:32 am

    No english compny would call anything “one care”. My memory goes right back to the rather unfortunate support slogan adopted by US Word Processing company Wang – “Wang Cares”. Apparently there were even some vans painted with it before the penny dropped.

  3. David Wright Says:
    September 29th, 2009 at 9:34 am

    I’m looking forward to seeing how this performs. Having jumped around between Symantec, Kaspersky, GData, F-Secure and BitDefender in recent years, all of which have suffered increasing bloat, having a light and simple package for the essentials will be a good thing for the industry.

    If MS can keep that light and simple, maybe the rest of the security indsutry can work on light, complimentary products that fill in the gaps.

  4. Alyn Sparkes Says:
    September 29th, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    I’d rather have a company with a vested interest in making it’s O/S secure producing security software, then one with a vested interest in that O/S not being secure.

  5. Bill Bannister Says:
    September 29th, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    But how does it compare to other freebies. I’ve relied on Avast and Malawarebites for several years and encountered no problems.

  6. efee Says:
    September 30th, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    So where does MSE leave Windows Defender?

    If MSE protects against Viruses, malware and spyware is need Windows Defender not required on your system anymore?

    I suppose for all the good Defender is anyway, it probably doesn’t matter.

  7. cverrier Says:
    October 1st, 2009 at 8:22 am


    MSE takes over the tasks of Defender – so disables it during the MSE install process.

    I always found Defender to be excellent – much simpler and more effective than things like AdAware.

  8. JC Nieukoop Says:
    October 1st, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    Used anti-virus for 15 years and all I ever got was one or two false positives. When upgrading to Visa I decided not to bother anymore. No problems so far but there remains some uncertainty/doubt. Maybe this is the light weight AV that I can live with.
    Installed it on three systems and it looks good. No noticeble delays even during a full scan on a virtual XP machine while also running a full scan on the host. Will try to do some big installs this evening.

  9. JC Nieukoop Says:
    October 1st, 2009 at 11:01 pm

    Installing Office is in a virtal machine while running a full scan on both the virtual machine and the host, doesn’t seem to be any slower.
    The full scan on the uniprocessor virtual machine uses 100% CPU. Start up Word and the CPU usage actually goes down to 80-90%. MSE probably throttles down so much when it notices system usage that it overcompensates.
    Looks good.

  10. stokegabriel Says:
    October 6th, 2009 at 11:52 am

    maybe this is exactly the product to plug the security hole that users running virtual XP on win7 need.

  11. Philip Tattershall Says:
    October 18th, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    I have fond memories of the excellent original Norton Utilities DOS product and wonder what Peter Norton must think of his name being attached to some of Symantec’s offerings in recent years.

    I’ve recently been asked to fix a laptop that was ‘protected’ by Norton 360. It was unusably slow due to 100% CPU utilisation and I found it riddled with trojans and root-kits. Thanks to a combination of Microsoft Security Essentials, SuperAntiSpyware and Malwarebytes AntiMalware, the machine now works beautifully again.

    I leave you to draw your own conclusions as to the value of certain paid-for security products.

  12. passingby Says:
    November 19th, 2009 at 6:39 am

    i consider Norton as a virus by the way it use my computer memory, and how hard to completely remove it from my system.

    it was the main reason of slowing down my computer. that why i remove it for good an go for smaller, faster one like what windows offer.

  13. MSE Says:
    January 14th, 2010 at 4:42 am

    Peter Norton may not like what SYMC is producing, but he loves the millions that he collects from the use of his name. SYMC has tried for years to drop his name but his name has higher recognition and value to the public than SYMC so they continue to use it. I had Norton on my box, old install but new sigs, and got infected. Dumped it, got Forefront and it cleaned up what SYMC missed.

  14. Mick Says:
    March 27th, 2010 at 9:05 pm

    Dumped Norton 360 after running for less than a week. The usual stuff, memory hog, annoying pop ups you can’t turn off. The new Norton looks like the old Norton to me. Switched to MSE and haven’t looked back. First scan picked up two trojans that Norton and the previous McAfee install had missed. Come up with an intergrated firewall for MSE and the “pay” AV programs may be in trouble. Just my opinion.

  15. Mike Says:
    March 30th, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    MS Security Essentuals is absolutely awesome! By far the best free solution on the market, as well as the best mid-range solution on the market!

    Norton and AVG are horrible!

    I hope all the premium Virus companies go the way of the Dodo! Why? Becuase, they are responsible for most of the virus on the market today!

    5 Stars for Microsoft creating are free and reliable option!

  16. Wholesale Laser Says:
    July 30th, 2010 at 11:05 am

    Start up Word and the CPU usage actually goes down to 80-90%. MSE probably throttles down so much when it notices system usage that it overcompensates.
    Looks nice!

  17. PLsteez Says:
    December 7th, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    Had nav 360 that crashed a pc because of a boot virus and corrupted the os. reinstalled on another hdd and when i tried to format it mse found the hidden boot virus even though I had only one half of a striped raid. To make a story short mse stepped up and removed it now problem free and bloat free.

  18. geek12 Says:
    December 26th, 2010 at 7:19 pm

    mse better than nrton and avast

  19. Gary M Fraklin Sr Says:
    December 29th, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    Effectiveness of Microsft Security Essentials COMPARED TO PROYECTION of Norton 360.2

  20. Gary M Fraklin Sr Says:
    December 29th, 2010 at 7:06 pm

    Sorry for the mispelling of PROTECTION

  21. Dennis S. Says:
    August 10th, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    Why is Norton Internet Security saying Microsoft Security Essentials is a security threat?


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