Too many times I’ve opened up a computer to find so many things wrong with the way people look after them today. Dust build-up, smoke ruination, insect nests, multiple instances of those stupid Internet Explorer toolbars and a lack of a decent anti-virus. While I can jide my customers, friends and family for doing most of these things, it’s the last one that really gets my goat. I say decent, though, because many people buy a one-year license expecting great things – depending on your chosen suite though, you may find yourself wanting. But there’s a perfectly good alternative out there in the form of free anti-virus suites, and chances are they might even be better than your paid-for bloatware.

In my search for a better, free alternative I was drawn into a world with vastly different approaches to security. Many of the free versions do a lot of hand-holding for new users and it helps that they often teach noobs more about their computers in the process. Some suites were clearly for experienced users (Avira), while others like Avast and AVG cater to a much wider range of users and attempt to provide the best possible value for a free package.

In fact, AVG and Avast are so hugely feature-packed that I used both for several years. I have family members that let me install AVG for them over a year ago – I’ve had nary a pip from them. Things are always updated, scans always run on time and there are a lot of extra security options. Unfortunately though, both come with a cost to the performance of your machine – AVG ranks as one of the most bloated free suites out there and Avast doesn’t play ball with all machines, in my experience. That’s when I started experimenting with Microsoft’s Security Essentials.

 

 

Installation is quick and painless. The executables for both 32 and 64-bit versions is under 10MB, and updates don’t eat a lot of cap either – those are run at a low priority, with a variable bitrate depending on the current state of the internet connection. There’s very little in the way of options for the power user, but it’s still a very clean install. What I liked most about it is the fact that there are no options to bundle something like Chrome or any other shareware that are usually hidden in other free suites. I have enough headaches dealing with those things on other computers; I don’t need it on mine. Once the install is done a quick system scan is performed and updates are immediately run.

 

 

 

The quick scan runs through quite fast, but it’s important that its run first. Like other competing scanning software, MSE uses the quick scan as the base for its persistent cache. When doing subsequent quick scans and full-drive cleans, it uses the persistent cache to make things go by faster. If the file still looks the same to MSE, it doesn’t waste much time going over it.

Scans take a while longer to finish than on competing software because MSE is designed for use in the consumer environment. Scans are set to a low priority and are designed to use as little CPU resources as possible. This is evident in the task manager screenshots where only 20% of available CPU power is being allocated. Note also that my pagefile never reaches anything over 1.2GB – at idle its usually 1.01GB, so MSE uses the pagefile for comparing files of the same type while scanning, using those files in the pagefile as reference. Scans running while I was playing games were never intrusive, and performance remained adequate with a minimal impact, even on Crysis 2. MSE is multi-threaded, so the impact it has on multi-core systems drops as more cores are added into the equation.

Full load scan

MSE at idle

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going into the menu options, there’s a lot to like here. There’s the regular scanning and default action setups, and an extra page that specifies what MSE must watch in real-time. The file monitor can be turned off, saving resources when MSE checks through all files that are being copied, moved, pasted and downloaded. I was particularly taken to the excluded process page – all my games, Steam, Firefox and regularly used apps are on this list, excluding them from being watched and speeding things up in those areas.

 

 

 

What’s left? There’s something I also like, called Microsoft Spynet. Now, a lot of anti-virus suites ask to send off suspicious files and examples of viruses as they are discovered and located on your PC, but they don’t specify what’s actually being sent. MSE gives you three options: don’t send, send basic info, and send detailed info. The detailed or Advanced Membership option sends things like file location, what impact the file made to your PC, and how it operates and what behavior is typical of the virus. Microsoft uses all this information to make MSE smarter in future. Network Admins might pipe up and ask where all this info is going? Well, Microsoft uses all the info from MSE to improve both MSE and their premium product, Microsoft Forefront Security. A free AV that uses crowdsourcing to keep things running smoothly for everyone? We might have a winner here.

All in all, I recommend Microsoft Security Essentials to any user of a Windows PC in a non-corporate environment who needs a solution that is stable, has a minimal impact on system resources and is functional. While boasting a small footprint and minimalistic design, the advanced configuration options in the menu leave the power user with enough sliders and buttons to play with and ensure that it can be set up to your liking.

Download it: 32-bit (7.7MB), 64-bit (9.7MB)

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