Security Essentials test drive — month 6

Fred langa By Fred Langa

After half a year of real-life testing, Microsoft’s Security Essentials anti-malware application is batting 1.000.

All nine test computers — a mix of Windows 7, Vista and XP systems (including two portables with 20,000 miles of travel) — remain malware- and virus-free.

Looking for a better antivirus/security package

Conrad Ware asks a question that’s not only worthwhile on its own but also lets me give you a six-month update on my real-life test drive of Microsoft Security Essentials.
  • “Over the past 20 years, I have used all the big-brand virus and Internet security software: McAfee, Norton, Kaspersky, etc. All of them did a great job doing what they were designed for — and all slowed my computers down to a crawl.

    “I am presently using Windows XP, but I plan to purchase a new laptop with Windows 7 Home Edition and want to use MS Security Essentials on it.

    “Tell me what you can about MS Security Essentials and if it’s OK to use as primary protection.”
Yes it is, Conrad.

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Earlier this year, when Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE) was still new, I decided to put it to an extensive real-life test by making it the only full-time security solution on my daily-use and portable PCs. I then reported my initial results in the May 6 Top Story, “The 120-day Microsoft security suite test drive.” I also promised future updates.

So here it is: after six months of full-time use on nine different systems, MSE looks like a solid winner.

For my tests, I used Windows’ built-in firewall (on XP, Vista, and Win7) and a copy of Microsoft Security Essentials, which I allowed to run with its default settings. Over the past six months, my main PCs have been online 24/7 and my two portables have logged over 20,000 miles (32,000 kilometers) of use in hotels, coffee shops, cars, planes, ships, and other assorted public venues.

All the machines have remained clean. They’ve suffered no malware or virus infections whatsoever.

Microsoft security essentials
Figure 1. Microsoft Security Essentials kept nine PCs malware-free under wide-ranging real-world conditions.

Initially, I checked each PC’s health and security every few days, using a variety of on-demand AV scanners from vendors such as McAfee (Freescan), Trendmicro (HouseCall), and Symantec (Security Check). The scans never found anything.

Over time, as it became clear that MSE was doing exactly what it was supposed to, I reduced the frequency of these just in case backup scans to once or twice a month. (That’s good practice with any security tool. As the saying goes, “Trust, but verify.”)

I also scan my portables after trips. For example, I just got back from Canada, where I used my netbook for about a week in a wide-open, unsecured hotel hotspot. Once I got home, I scanned my netbook with the third-party scanners, and they found nothing. MSE kept the machine clean, even in potentially hostile public environments.

MSE is free and is available for every version of Windows (download/info). It’s small and fast and consumes very little by way of system resources. I can detect no MSE-induced slowdowns on any of my PCs — even the low-horsepower netbook.

Very simply, it works.

So I highly recommend MSE. Combine it with a firewall (such as the one built into Windows), and verify it with periodic just-in-case scans with free third-party software (as listed earlier), and you’ll have a free, efficient and self-maintaining security solution.

A dual-boot to no-boot problem fix using Bootrec

Tom Hughes is disgusted:
  • “I have had it. I had a dual-boot system with Windows and Linux — first Ubuntu and later Linux Mint 7, 8, and then 9. Currently I have just Vista and LM9. Several times, Vista deleted the boot entry to Linux. Then on Saturday, it forced a chkdsk and somehow deleted the LM9 and the Vista boot managers. Now, I cannot boot into either. Only Vista shows up, and it goes in circles trying to boot. Even using the Vista Recovery CD, it says either that it fixed itself or that it cannot find an issue.

    “Running (not installing) Ubuntu Live from CD, I can access all of my data. I have copied my documents, my most recent Firefox bookmarks, etc., and program files to a working 500 GB extension drive.

    “Can you help me fix the Vista boot loader? I tried manually rebuilding the boot manager, but to no avail. I have tried several recovery CDs, and they do not show a Windows installation, even though I know that it is there.”
Sounds like you already tried the Vista and Windows 7 Startup Repair tool. But as you probably found out, it’s pretty basic. (All it can really do is replace missing or damaged system software components. See Microsoft’s official Startup Repair FAQ.)

Your problem isn’t missing system files, it’s mangled boot data. That’s a less common problem, and the tool that Windows provides for that repair is buried a bit deeper.

The tool is called Bootrec.exe, and it’s part of the Windows Recovery Environment in Vista and Win7. It can fix just about any boot problem. Bootrec.exe has four options, or switches:
  • /ScanOS locates a valid Windows installation on your drive
  • /FixBoot fixes (rewrites) the Boot Sector
  • /FixMBR writes a fresh Master Boot Record
  • /RebuildBcd creates a new Boot Configuration Data store
You can find complete how-to information for Vista and Win7′s Bootrec in MS Support article 927392.

(XP has its own version of Bootrec accessible through the XP Recovery Console. See MS Support article 307654 for complete information.)

With all the necessary boot data refreshed, you should be able to successfully start Windows.

Once Windows is running, you can then reinstall Linux. The Apcmag.com article, “How to dual-boot Vista with Linux (Vista installed first),” offers a step-by-step guide with screenshots.

And with that, you should be good to go!

Best updated-driver source for brand-name PCs

Gerald Greenberg wants to update his hardware drivers.
  • “My computer is an HP Pavilion zd8000 that I purchased in 2005. I would like to update my drivers. Can you recommend a good program that will accomplish this task?”
HP, like most system vendors, offers free click-and-run update software for drivers. For instance, a general Web search with the term HP Pavilion zd8000 will quickly take you to an HP drivers-and-software page, where you can download the latest self-installing drivers available for your system. Piece o’ cake!

Because every major hardware vendor offers similar downloads, it’s normally quite easy to keep your systems up-to-date.

If you need or prefer an automated update method, search with the term automatic driver update — you’ll find plenty of options. But try the direct, free, update-from-the-vendor method first. You just may discover that it’s all you really need!

Resized XP recycle bin still way too large

Mike Lampton can’t get his Recycle Bin any smaller than 1.45GB.
  • “In your August 12 Top Story, “Preparing Windows XP for the long haul,” you mentioned reducing the size of the Recycle Bin.

    “When I go into the XP Recycle Bin properties, it looks like the only option I have is to reduce it (using the slider) to 1% of the disk capacity — or 1.45GB. I did a search to see if I could find out how to reduce it to something a lot less than what it is but couldn’t find any solution. Is there a way I can manually specify the size?”
The Recycle Bin size-selection slider is the only direct way I know of to change the bin capacity in XP. (That rather annoying oversight is corrected in Vista and Win7, which let you either use a slider or manually type in the exact size you wish.)

But there’s an indirect way in XP, and that’s to control the size of your partitions.

With a single large partition (yours is 145GB), system maintenance — disk checks, defrags, virus scans, and such — will proceed much more slowly than on smaller partitions.

And as you found out, large partitions can also lead to wasted disk space when built-in system components use simple (and inflexible) percentages to set aside memory they might need.

You might do better by manually dividing your hard drive into several smaller partitions. This will speed disk maintenance, give you more storage flexibility, and also make your Recycle Bin less wasteful and more manageable.

There are many different tools available for the job. XP’s built-in Disk Management tool is basic but still can slice and dice an existing drive as needed. MS Support article 309000 shows you how.

A more feature-rich version of the Windows Disk Management tool is built into Vista and Win7. See the MS Help & How-to article, “Can I repartition my hard disk?” for more information.

You can also find a boatload of third-party partition tools with a quick spin of your favorite search engine. Some sites even specialize in freeware and free trials of partitioning tools. For example, check out TheFreeCountry.com and FreeDownloadsCenter.com.

Of course, altering your partitions isn’t a trivial thing. You should always refresh your backups before making any serious system change.

But with common care and sense, Windows’ built-in or third-party tools can make creating and resizing partitions a breeze!

Have more info on this subject? Post your tip in the WS Columns forum.

Fred Langa is a senior editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He was formerly editor of Byte Magazine (1987–91), editorial director of CMP Media (1991–97), and editor of the LangaList e-mail newsletter from its origin in 1997 until its merger with Windows Secrets in November 2006.
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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.