Two great security tools get free updates

Fred langa By Fred Langa

Two outstanding security apps, Microsoft Security Essentials 2.0 and Secunia Personal Software Inspector 2.0, are now available.

The original versions of these programs were great, but the new versions are even better; they’re must-have software — and they’re still free!

Beefing up Microsoft Security Essentials

In December, after a four-month beta test, Microsoft quietly released a major revision of its impressive and free Security Essentials anti-malware tool. The new version is slowly being rolled out via Windows Update, but you can — and I think you should — grab it right away.

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MSE 2.0 is a nearly total rewrite of Microsoft’s security tool. Although there are some visual changes in the software (more on that in a moment), the most significant enhancements are under the covers.

The most important change: MSE 2.0 now uses heuristic malware detection in addition to the same definitions-based malware detection methods employed by MSE 1.0. Heuristic technology has been around for years and is designed to detect new malware based on behavior, thus protecting you against threats that aren’t yet in the definitions database. MSE2 calls this feature behavior monitoring. (See Figure 1.)

MSE adds heuristic and network monitoring
Figure 1. Microsoft Security Essentials 2.0 broadens its protections with the addition of behavior-based heuristic malware detection and network-traffic filtering.

Another major change, also shown in Figure 1, is network inspection, which monitors network traffic, looking for suspicious activity and network-based attacks. It works by hooking into the Windows Filtering Platform (WFP) that’s part of Win7 and Vista. (You can read more about Windows Filtering Platform at an MSDN site.)

XP lacks the built-in WFP services, so unfortunately, MSE 2.0′s network inspection is not available on that OS.

These two new features alone make MSE 2.0 a worthwhile upgrade, but 2.0 also offers some additional, less significant improvements.

Better integration with Windows components

On all versions of Windows, including XP, MSE 2.0 integrates better with the operating system and other security components. For example, the new software checks to ensure that a firewall is present and active; it offers to turn on and configure the Windows firewall if no other firewall is found.

Also, you can now limit how much CPU time MSE consumes during a scheduled scan. The default is a maximum of 50% CPU utilization. But you can set it as low as 10% (should you want the scan to have minimal impact on other tasks) or as high as 100% (if you want the scan to complete as quickly as possible). (See Figure 2.)

MSE cpu limit
Figure 2. MSE 2.0 lets you control how much CPU time the software can consume during scheduled scans.

Using the Advanced settings, you now can force the quarantine folder to empty itself after a set amount of time, from days to months (as shown in Figure 3).

MSE time-based quarantine limits
Figure 3. If you wish, you can set the quarantine folder to clean itself out periodically.

You’ll notice in Figure 4 that MSE 2.0′s new visual design (top) has not strayed far from the original (bottom). This freshening is mostly decorative — and that’s good, because MSE remains extremely easy to use; there’s nearly nothing new to learn.

MSE interface, v1.0 and v2.0
Figure 4. MSE 2.0′s interface (top) looks a bit more graphically sophisticated than 1.0′s (bottom) but retains the original’s functional simplicity.

Multiple paths to installing MSE 2.0

In the past, Microsoft has used both MSE’s built-in update mechanism and Windows Update to roll out updates (see Microsoft Knowledge Base article 975959), and it’s a safe bet that this upgrade will use the same mechanisms. But as of this writing, none of my PCs had been offered version 2.0 — neither automatically nor by any other means.

Wait for MSE 2.0 to be offered if you wish, but I recommend grabbing it right away. It’s available either from the MSE home site or Microsoft’s MS Download Center. It’s the same software in either case.

MSE 2.0 will run on 32- and 64-bit versions of Vista or Win7 and on 32-bit XP. It’s the same MSE 2.0 setup whether you’re installing it new or upgrading from MSE version 1.0.

A nice touch: If you’re already running MSE 1.0, you don’t have to uninstall it first. Just download and run the 2.0 setup — it will handle the uninstallation of the earlier version for you.

Another nice touch: The 1.0 uninstall is complete. Everything, including version 1.0′s original /Program Files/Microsoft Security Essentials folder, is deleted. In its place, MSE 2.0 installs a wholly new folder called /Program Files/Microsoft Security Client.

If you’re running any antivirus tool other than MSE 1.0, you should uninstall it before installing MSE 2.0. (This is standard procedure; in general, you should never have two security tools trying to do the same job at the same time.)

The safest way to handle the transition between security tools is to download the MSE 2.0 setup file and then disconnect your PC from the network. You can do this by turning off or disabling the connection in software or by physically unplugging the network cable.

Exit all nonessential software; ideally, you want nothing but the operating system and your current antivirus tool to be active. Then, with your PC safely isolated from the network, uninstall your old antivirus tool. Reboot when you’re done.

After the reboot, start the MSE 2.0 setup program and let it run to completion. When it’s up and running, you then can reconnect to the network and resume using your PC normally.

Once installed, MSE 2.0 immediately updates itself with the latest definitions and offers to do an initial scan of your PC. Let it do its thing; once it’s set up, MSE is one of the least obtrusive security tools you can use.

MSE 1.0 was a winner, but I personally think Version 2 is the best free AV tool, period. Highly recommended!

The best way to manage multiple app updates

Secunia’s free-for-personal-use Secunia Personal Software Inspector (PSI) Version 1 was already in my must-have security software collection. Version 2 is even better, with a new look (see Figure 5) and enhanced updating tools.

Like the original, PSI 2.0 scans your installed software and builds a database of application version numbers. It then compares what it found on your system to Secunia’s central database of latest-available version numbers. (The central database contains version information on a huge range of software.)

PSI v2 interface
Figure 5. Secunia Personal Software Inspector 2.0 sports an entirely new look and feel. But more important, it now can completely automate the process of keeping almost all your software up-to-date.

When PSI detects that you’re running an out-of-date version, it alerts you: it tells you the risk of using the older version and gives you a ready-made link to download the latest software patch, upgrade, or update from the software’s publisher (as shown in Figure 6).

PSI v2 updates score
Figure 6. PSI 2.0 gives you a detailed assessment of whether your software is current.

But PSI version 2 adds a new wrinkle: If you allow it (see Figure 7), PSI automatically downloads and installs the latest versions of your apps for you — fully automatically or by first giving you a chance to review what’s going to be updated.

PSI v2 updates score
Figure 7. Secunia Personal Software Inspector (PSI) 2.0 automatic-update option.

I heartily recommend PSI 2.0 because it eliminates the need to have lots of small, separate, auto-update programs running — you know, the Apple updater, the Adobe updater, the Java updater, and so on. Instead, this one tool makes keeping your key software up-to-date a nearly effortless task.

You’ll find the download link for PSI 2.0 on its info page. Installation is easy; just follow the prompts. If you have the original PSI version installed, the 2.0′s setup will automatically uninstall it for you.

Start the new year right, and get all your software updated today!

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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.