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Microsoft anti-virus fails security check, vows to do better

Microsoft's free anti-virus software, Security Essentials, has failed examinations conducted by AV-Test, for the second time in a row.

Microsoft's free anti-virus software, Security Essentials, has failed tests conducted by AV-Test, a company that provides data to makers of such programs. Security Essentials didn't meet AV-Test's standards for protecting against new and recent malware.

AV-Test found that Microsoft's product didn't catch 28 per cent of the 'zero-day' (ie new and unencountered) malware files it threw at it. SE also failed to spot 9 per cent of malware considered 'recent' -- from the last three months. AV-Test found that the industry average was 8 per cent and 3 per cent respectively.

Microsoft has responded to this slight on its virus-hunting rep, essentially saying it's very difficult to replicate the consumer experience in these tests. When it looked at the files AV-Test used, it found only 0.003 per cent of its customers had encountered any of the zero-day malware, has vowed to reduce that number. As my colleague Seth Rosenblatt points out at CNET News, this is the second such test in a row SE has failed.

I can't pretend I have any expertise in computer viruses -- I can't remember a time a PC of mine has ever had one -- but I've always questioned the value of paid and freemium anti-virus and disliked its nagging for more money. Its resource-hogging, hard-to-use software can be a serious pain in the serial bus. Microsoft has a duty of care to its users, so it provides anti-virus for free, and has every incentive to make it easy to use, unintrusive and effective.

It also has a duty to its shareholders to minimise costs, and no reason to make sure it passes tests like these, which may or may not be relevant to the average Windows user.

Having weighed all that up, I use Microsoft Security Essentials on my home PC. The AV-Test results show that I'm running a risk by doing so -- my computer and all the personal and financial data on it would be more secure if I paid for antivirus. But the risk is relatively small. I'm much more likely to fall for a cleverly worded scam email, or have my credit card details skimmed.

Your mileage may vary -- you may have had terrible experiences with viruses or identity theft, or you may have much more valuable stuff to protect than an impecunious tech hack like me.

Seth Rosenblatt, who writes about these products all the time, disagrees with me, recommending Avast, AVG and Panda Cloud. These are all free versions that will repeatedly ask you for money, so perhaps he's simply a more patient person.

Which anti-virus do you use? Is security more important than a good user experience? Has Microsoft's Security Essentials failed you? Share your tales of woe and best advice in the comments, or on our Fort Knox-like Facebook page.