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Microsoft Security Essentials review


Far from a comprehensive security suite, but it's free, simple, light - and impressively effective

Review Date: 13 Oct 2009

Reviewed By: Darien Graham-Smith

Price when reviewed: Free

Overall Rating
5 stars out of 6

Features & Design
3 stars out of 6

Value for Money
6 stars out of 6

Ease of Use
5 stars out of 6

It's called Microsoft Security Essentials - and it really means bare essentials. Not that we expected the moon on a stick, considering the package and updates are completely free, but next to commercial security suites the feature set looks laughably thin. There's no firewall, no web protection, no email scanner and precious few user settings.

But although malware can arrive from many directions, it almost invariably works by dropping a malicious executable onto your PC, and that's where Security Essentials focuses. It examines files on access to intercept malware before it can launch, and for extra security it will also run more extensive scans to a user-defined schedule.

It's the oldest approach in the book, but it should cut off most attacks so long as the malware database is up to scratch. And, happily, in our tests Security Essentials picked up 96% of our sample malware, putting it on a par with respectable commercial packages such as F-Secure Internet Security 2010.

Thanks to Security Essentials' limited remit it's very simple to use, presenting only a clean four-tabbed window and a system tray icon. And it has relatively little impact on your system resources. Installing it on our Vista test system increased idle RAM usage from 499MB up to just 583MB - 3MB below our A-Listed Avira Premium Security Suite.

Boot time was entirely unaffected by the software, and we saw a mere extra seven seconds of CPU activity after the desktop appeared. This was considerably less than the 15 seconds incurred by Avira, though of course Avira has many more components to initialise.

We have some nagging doubts about Security Essentials' ability to cope with the newest and most aggressive threats. It remains to be seen how the package will cope with rootkit-type exploits that run parts of the OS in a virtual environment.

And automatic signature updates are rolled into scheduled scans, so if you scan infrequently your malware definitions can get quite out of date. During extended testing we saw the software at one point go for three days without an update. That looks slack compared to the likes of F-Secure and Trend Micro, whose "in the cloud" databases can be updated within seconds of new malware being identified.

For these reasons we hesitate to recommend you abandon a paid-for security suite in favour of Security Essentials. But, if you have a machine that's currently without security software - whether for reasons of performance or price - installing Security Essentials should be a no-brainer. Indeed, there's no longer any excuse for running an unprotected machine, and that alone should make Security Essentials a huge success.

Author: Darien Graham-Smith

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User comments

Its sits there and appears to do nothing - which in my opinion is good in that it doesn't get in the way - having said that should I feel amazed if it finds something suspicious or should I be afraid? I have ran thorough scans and quick scans - and it always finds nothing - maybe I'm just lucky or maybe I'm just a safe surfer - or maybe nobody sends me viruses - either way - truth be told AVG sits next to it and also reports nothing of interest - I know 2 packages for safety - but if you've got 4 gigs then use them!

By nicomo on 13 Oct 2009

Only one AV!

You shouldn't install two AV products on one PC, they will conflict quite badly and hit performance and produce false-positive virus alerts.

As for never finding anything, I have only had one virus in the past ten years and that was my own fault for opening an EXE I downloaded via P2P file-sharing.

By anthona on 13 Oct 2009

Typical PC Pro

"There's no firewall, no web protection, no email scanner and precious few user settings."

Yes yes well done PC Pro - another typical biased review.

You could actually point out that whilst it is missing things like a firewall, they do already supply one built into windows. A very good one in fact which does the job. Oh and they include Anti-spyware free of charge. Have you actually used any other product like McCrappie, Slymantics and other big players? If you want to kill your system, with their huge footprint, pointless graphical prettiness and rather appalling detection rates, then fine use them.

Yet again Microsoft are doing something nice - providing a free product that (if you actually check your facts) has an extremely good 'unknown malware' detetcion rates - have a look at AV Comparitives. The only negative review is their 'known' virus detection which falls behind the big players purely because the older companies have bigger definition databases.

Give them a break PC Pro, for the few million people who dont go to dodgy sites or use file sharing, it's perfect.

The AV world is about to get a very big wake up call.

By metalmonkey on 13 Oct 2009

Some valid points

Some valid points made there. Next we'll be hearing about how the EU or Congress is fining Microsoft for being anti-competitive; or force them to have an anti-virus ballot at time of installation.

Lets all do some Bill-Bashing...

By anthona on 13 Oct 2009

I was at a Microsoft event yesterday were one of the presenters (Dave Northey) was using his personal laptop with MSE installed.

During the tea break they were getting setup for their next presentation but still had the screens showing his laptop, only for MSE to pop up stating it had detected a virus!

Whether it was setup or not I don't know, but he certainly had few chuckles about it.

By a_byrne22 on 14 Oct 2009

OneCare, which I am still running, came with a firewall that improved on the one built into windows and I wish this did the same. I won't be switching until they retire it in 6 months.

By simbr on 14 Oct 2009


The firewall included in XP was bad - hense their need to include one with onecare. But the Vista (and now Win7) firewall is perfectly adequate for most users needs so to include a firewall with MSE seems pointless. But again, I just want to point out MSE is great for people who keep the the narrow line of internet and computer use. Those who wander off, should invest in a paid-for version.

By metalmonkey on 14 Oct 2009

windows defender is very good, e.g. it not the very poor virgin isp security suite spotted i was trying to download the eicar test files. ms clearly want to protect the lazy (and therefore themselves indirectly) but not compete with those offering a premium service

By equityguru on 15 Oct 2009

Steve K.

MSE wouldn't install in Windows 7 RC1 but I'll try again when the retail W7 pack arrives. I'm using AVG in the meantime.

By SteveJKirby on 15 Oct 2009

You don't have to wait weeks for new virus definitions. It updates automatically quite frequently; I don't know how often it checks but my definitions are never more than a day old.

By gerry_mc on 15 Oct 2009

I am using atm & some inaccuracies in thei report

It installs fine on Win7 RTM & is good. It actaully does replace windows defender and updates far more often, checking every couple f hours. It's extremly lightweight on resources and as the firewall in win7 is perfectly adequate for most people especially if behind a router its a good solution.

By pcrosland on 15 Oct 2009

ah - I'm still on XP; not much experience of the Vista/W7 firewall.

By simbr on 20 Oct 2009

Malwarebytes ?

I am surprised no one has noticed how similar this is to the above a/v software. Even the file download has a similar name for both products! Only difference is you pay for the full Malwarebytes package.

By russv1 on 11 Jun 2010

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