Friday, July 24, 2009

CodeName Morro

Microsoft is set to release the beta version of the successor to its anti-virus & malware program Windows Live OneCare, named Microsoft Security Essentials, on Tuesday, June 23rd in a limited release. Code named Morro, it includes a new interface, some new features, and a price tag of free. Microsoft says it expects to release the final version by the end of 2009 and it hopes that everyone will make use of it to provide basic worldwide protection from viruses and malware.

Codename Morro has been in development since November 2008 and Microsoft will be officially calling it Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE) from here-on-out. It will be totally free to all genuine (and yes, the installer checks) Windows XP/Vista/7 users in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions, but only 32-bit for Win XP. There have been many rumors surrounding Morro and this review will hopefully clear some of them up. For example, it has been said on other tech-related sites that Morro will be a "cloud computing anti-virus" solution, but this is surely not the case as this idea doesn't really make any sense. Secondly, MSE is mostly just OneCare's framework without any of the added extras, like managing firewalls, networked computers, and file backup capabilities. However, MSE is very light-weight and is speedy and works effectively without being in your face and keeps your computer virus-free at the same time.

Microsoft has said that their goal with MSE is to make a global and broad solution for providing basic protection against viruses and malware without any cost to the user. Many users are familiar with those "trial" antivirus suites that comes with new computers and once they expire, an enormous amount of users don't renew or purchase a full version of any anti-virus software. Other reasons for this free software is the fact that those "big-name" security suites from companies like McAfee or Symantec are simply too bloated with features that confuses average computer users and can be extremely pricey. This is also geared towards emerging markets where users don't want to pay for security software for their PCs. MSE is a way to reach a very broad audience and make basic protection available without any hoops or caveats.

To install MSE, you just have to download the installer file, which is only around 4MB and install it onto your PC. Before you do so, you'll want to uninstall any anti-virus related security software from your PC because having more than one usually causes conflicts. Also, when you install MSE, it will connect to Microsoft's Genuine Validation system, which checks your installation of Windows to make sure it is valid. The install process took only about a minute on our test machine running the Windows 7 Release Candidate. Once it's done, it will run a quick scan of your system if you choose to not skip it and once it starts this, you can minimize the window and forget about it.

he installation wizard is very easy and straightforward to install and once you do, it will prompt you to do a quick scan of your system.

The application interface itself is very simple to use and understand. There are four tabs across the top labeled Home, Update, History, and Settings. If you're familiar in any way with Windows Defender, the anti-malware program that comes with Windows, you'll be familiar with MSE's interface. It also installs a tray icon that lives in your Windows task bar and is hidden in Windows 7 by default. MSE also integrates nicely into the Windows shell by allowing the scanning of a file or folder by right-clicking it and choosing "Scan with Microsoft Security Essentials."

MSE's interface is very easy to use without overbearing the user with a multitude of complicated settings and bloat.

Along the top of the MSE window you'll either see a red bar, meaning there's an issue that needs your attention, a yellow bar indicating there is a potential issue, or a green bar that means you're fully protected. A "yellow warning" typically is something minor like your anti-virus definitions are out of date and a "red warning" is when something has gone wrong and requires immediate attention.

The various tabs in the interface include the following features and options:

Home: This is the default screen where you can start a scan, see the status or change the settings of your scheduled scan, the status of your real-time protection and definition updates.

Update: Here is where you can see detailed information about your current anti-virus and spyware definition files, including their creation date and version numbers. You can also press "update" to manually update your definitions. We should also say that MSE will automatically check for new definitions periodically on its own and install them silently.

You can manually download updates of MSE's detection definitions as well.

History: We believe a better title for this tab could have been "Scan History" or "Detected Items" because "History" seems a little misleading. What it does is show you all of the detected items that MSE has found on your computer from previous scans. You can choose to view all questioned items, quarantined items, and allowed items that the user has allows to be run on the system. When a potentially threatening file is shown here, MSE will show the "alert level" of the file, date detected, and what you choose to do as a user (such as delete it, quarantine it, skip it, etc.).

Settings: This tab allows you to control many aspects of MSE and how it runs on your system. You can alter the settings for scheduled scanning, which sets up a time to run a scan of your system automatically. The default actions setting lets you choose what to do when a possible dangerous file with a specific MSE assigned threat level is located on your system. For example, for a "medium alert level", you can leave the recommended action selected or choose quarantine, remove, or allow.

The settings windows in MSE allow you to customize every aspect of how the software runs and detects threats on your PC.

You can also adjust the real-time protection settings here too. MSE has this turned on by default and also has settings to monitor file and program behavior (typically called heuristics scanning) and to scan all downloaded files & attachments. Both of these settings are also turned on by default.

There's also settings for setting excluded files and folder locations, specific file types, and even processes as well. The advanced tab lets you choose to scan archived files (.zip, .cab, etc.), removable drives (USB flash drives, etc.), and creating system restore points before dealing with potential threats.

The last option in the list is Microsoft SpyNet, which according to MSE "is the online community that helps you choose how to respond to potential threats. The community also helps stop the spread of new malicious software infections." The two options are either basic or advanced membership. With basic membership, MSE will send basic information back to Microsoft to help in the development of future anti-virus/spyware definitions. They also explicitly state that some personal information might be unintentionally sent, but it will not be used to identify or contact the user. Advanced membership sends more specific information about detected threats, like file names and locations on the computer. It also sends how the infected file operates and behaves and how it impacted the performance and operation of the computer. The same privacy warning is also stated for this option.

My impressions of MSE are quite good as I have experienced no stability or compatibility issues with it. The program itself is extremely light-weight and no performance hit has been observed during its use. Even while it scans the computer is still more than usable. The program runs completely silent as well without popping up any annoying windows about things that I don't need to know about like some other security programs (and OneCare) do. I believe that anyone that is running a genuine copy of Windows, especially Vista or 7, should get this when Microsoft releases it. MSE is a very good anti-virus/spyware solution that works effortlessly and won't cost you a dime...ever. Keep in mind too that the coming release is the beta version, so there may be small glitches and bugs yet, but I have yet to encounter any. However, install at your own risk should go without saying.

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