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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Protecting your PC for FREE

peter-norton-antivirus-symantecI remember years ago when I first ventured on to the internet with my PC, there seemed to be two choices of software to keep you safe while online, Norton or McAfee.  For me, and nearly everyone I knew Norton was the tool of choice, easy to use and did the job.  Then it seemed the big guns got lazy, their software became less user friendly, had some annoying failings and worst of all became resource hungry bloatware.  Personally I stuck with Norton for a long time, I liked the tools it had along with the Antivirus and Firewall protection, in particular I found its password manager and anti-spam software very useful.

But as I say, McAfee and Norton became lazy. Email providers got better at filtering spam at source, while as the world (including myself) became more internet savvy we started to discover cheaper and better alternatives.  I don’t remember exactly when I switched, but I’d heard good things about AVG and ZoneAlarm as free alternatives to the likes of McAfee and Norton, so as my subscription came to an end, decided to give them a go.

I have to say I never looked back, I mean why pay for something when there is an equally good if not better free alternative. ZoneAlarm and AVG provided with a free unbloated alternative, and along with a few different malware/spyware programs have formed the backbone of my PC security for what must be seven or so years.

In the last couple of years I have felt that some of these great free alternative have started to make the same mistakes that the likes of McAfee and Norton did years ago.  It seems they settled in to a comfort zone assuming people would just stick with what they know.  The first piece of software I ditched was AdAware which got slower and more cumbersome with each update.  It may have improved in the last couple of years, but I haven’t gone back as I found other more lightweight alternatives such as MalwareBytes.

From what I have read (and experienced when providing IT support for my technophobe mother), the most recent version of Norton is much improved using far less resources than before, I even contemplated switching back from AVG/ZoneAlarm to Norton I was that impressed. Things certainly seem to have gone full circle, with ZoneAlarm and AVG having more effect on system performance to the paid alternative.  But in the last couple of months I have also been hearing very good things about Microsoft’s latest foray in to PC security, Microsoft Security Essentials or MSE.

So this week I’ve taken the plunge, and uninstalled AVG and ZoneAlarm and switched to Microsoft's free alternative. (N.B. If you try doing the same you may need to download the AVG removal tool from their website to fully remove it from your system before installing another AV program.)  Its still very early days, but so far so good.  The first thing I noticed was my PC now boots and shuts down much faster.  With AVG/ZoneAlarm I may have had to wait a minute after logging in to Windows before starting to run programs, with MSE its a few seconds.  This is perhaps the biggest difference for me.  Although improvements over the last few months seem to have improved AVG/ZoneAlarm (and I think it was the latter that slowed things the most) in this area, such a noticeable difference with MSE shows they still have plenty of room for improvement.


The MSE interface is unfussy and straightforward for even the most computer illiterate people to understand.  The ‘Home’ tab shows you if everything is up to date and working, while also giving you the option start a scan;  ‘Update’ does what its says on the tin while ‘History’ shows you a, well history of anything MSE has detected.  More detailed options are available under ‘Settings’, though perhaps the one that will interest most is the ability to set up a scheduled scan.

In terms of scanning, it seems on par with AVG regarding times from the scans I have done so far and reports I have read suggest MSE does a better job of detecting malware. So far I certainly have no regrets in making the switch.

In an ideal world Microsoft would be allowed to bundle this software with Windows as standard, but the powers that be seem to think giving consumers the choice is more important than having a safe and secure operating system.  How about this, if choice is that much of a deal, let MS bundle MSE with Windows, BUT during setup, give users the choice to accept the default option or choose an alternative.  After all, OEMs can always do deals with the likes of Symantec or McAfee and set their software as the default security option instead of MSE.  In some respect, an Apple boom and ChromeOS could be the best thing to happen to Microsoft, they may actually have the reigns loosened and be allow to innovate without restriction. Then again the EU think telling us how straight a banana must be is a productive use of their time and our money, so I doubt we’ll see a change to their anti-Microsoft attitude any time soon.

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