Microsoft Security Essentials: EPIC FAIL

Category: Security

Microsoft launched their Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE) antivirus software with great fanfare in 2009, touting it as a 'comprehensive security solution' for Windows. And publicly, they still do. But the head of Microsoft's Malware Protection Center is singing a different tune -- even recommending AGAINST relying on MSE. Here's what you need to know…

What's the Truth About MSE?

Over the past few years, I've written about Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE), the free antivirus software for Windows. Most recently, in Will Microsoft Security Essentials Take Over the World? I noted that MSE was quickly moving to the top of the antivirus market share charts. But I also cautioned that it scored at or near the bottom of the pack in effectiveness tests.

According to Microsoft's own website, “a whole team” of security professionals at their Malware Protection Center is devoted to keeping the MSE product up to date and customers immune from malware. And for over a year, Microsoft has touted MSE as a significant feature of Windows 8, its pride and joy. For the first time, the Windows operating system had built-in antivirus protection.

My hope was that all this enthusiasm from the nice folks in Redmond would serve to make MSE a better product. But the most recent independent testing shows that MSE still performs worse than almost all of its competitors, and is the only one to fail their certification test. And now Microsoft is changing its tune about MSE, if not the lyrics.
MSE: Epic Fail!

Contrary to the advice and glowing praise on Microsoft's own websites, MSE is not and never was intended to be a category leader, says the company. As reported in PC PRO Magazine recently, Holly Stewart, senior program manager of the Microsoft Malware Protection Center, told one independent lab whose test it flunked that the company is simply providing a “baseline” and MSE will "always rank at the bottom" of test scores. She further recommended that users employ additional third-party protection.

Stewart insists that MSE was always intended to provide “baseline protection” upon which third-party developers are expected to improve. Those third-party developers didn’t get the memo, apparently. When MSE debuted, they all cried “foul” at what they perceived as serious and unfair competition. Perhaps that’s because Microsoft touted MSE as such.

"We had an epiphany a few years ago, back in 2011," Ms. Stewart said. "We realized we had a greater calling and that was to protect all Microsoft customers," she said. "But you can’t do that with a monoculture and you can’t do that with a malware-catching ecosystem that is not robust and diverse." Ummm, what?

My translation: “After two years, we realized that we can’t compete with Norton, Kaspersky, Avast!, and a host of other security vendors who aim for something higher than mediocre.” It would have been nice if they told us that back in 2011, instead of continuing to promote MSE as a free "comprehensive security solution" for Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8. (Microsoft Security Essentials is renamed as Windows Defender in Windows 8.)

Here's my epiphany: MSE is not even close to the best, and it appears that it's never going to get better. That's just not Microsoft's goal. I'm disappointed in Microsoft, and I feel that they have misled the public about MSE. Why continue to hype a mediocre product when there are plenty of GOOD, FREE antivirus programs out there? (See my related article Free Anti-Virus Programs for a list with download links.)

Bob and Leo disagree about MSE It's true, my good friend Leo Notenboom and I disagree about whether MSE should be used going forward. You can see us having a friendly discussion about this in the photo here. But I'll concede this: MSE test results show that it's probably "good enough" at detecting the most common malware currently circulating. Where it lacks is in protecting against zero-day malware attacks. MSE scored only 82% there, while AVG, Avast and Norton all scored at 98 or 99%.

But there's one more thing bothering me about this revelation from Microsoft. How can the chief of Microsoft's Malware Protection Center advise people to use MSE as a "first layer of protection" and recommend that it supplemented by an additional, third-party antivirus product? Especially when the Malware Protection Center's website advises otherwise? The Q&A page there says this:

Q: Should I run Microsoft security software at the same time as other security products?
A: It’s not a good idea to run other antivirus or antispyware products at the same time as Microsoft Security Essentials or Windows Defender. Using more than one real-time security product can affect your PC performance. You might also get an error code when you try to update or install.

Bottom line, I can't say that MSE is worthless, but it's certainly not essential. For those who have it installed, it's better than nothing, and it's free. But with so many other excellent free alternatives, my advice is to avoid it or replace it. If you missed the link above, see Free Anti-Virus Programs to find a replacement for MSE.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Microsoft Security Essentials: EPIC FAIL"

(See all 46 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

18 Oct 2013

I like McAfee - been using them from the beginning. Obviously some bad press on them since the fall of the founder ( what is the matter with him anyway! ) but that aside I stay with the product because it has always done a good job for me. Funny how you mention Norton amongst the article but not McAfee. Good article by the way as usual.

Posted by:

18 Oct 2013

I've been using MSE for a couple years, but took Bob's article as an excuse to replace it with Avast, which I'd been using and had always been my favorite.

A full scan by Avast revealed a single infection. (Previously, 3rd party online scans had always come up clean.) MSE hasn't been an epic fail for me.

Posted by:

18 Oct 2013

The problem with league tables is that suppliers focus too much on passing the required tests which means less focus on those areas not tested. This doesn't mean theirs is a better product.

Posted by:

Paul, Upstate New York
18 Oct 2013

This is about the dumbest thing I've ever heard of outside the rarefied realm of school administration. Why bother to make a product at all if you're not intending to make it the best product that you can?

Posted by:

18 Oct 2013

Add me to the loyal opposition. I've never considered Microsoft's "complete solution" hype credible, but the uniform advice from recommendation sources has always been "use it as your antivirus and supplement it with specialty stuff like MBAM, WinPatrol, SuperAntiSpybot, etc. - with all of which MSE plays nicely and has never let me down. OTOH on my new Win7 computer I decided not to activate MSE and try the McAfee for the 90 days instead. Bad idea. Before 60 days were up a nasty piece of ransomeware blew right by it; it took me eight hours to grab back control, dump McAfee (which did not go quietly) and install MSE,
On my old XP laptop I used Avira for years before they started playing games on updates. I put in Comodo for several months but it is simultaneously uncommunicative and aggressive so I turfed it last week and put in Avast, which first didn't install properly (their email support is very fast and responsive, pity they don't know English). When I figured enough out about what they were trying to suggest I did it and Avast installed fine and worked well through the first boot. It froze the computer on the second. Once I get it thawed I'll make decisions from there. I'm sure there must be some antivirus that's free and works.

Posted by:

19 Oct 2013

I got Bit Defender as it was so called "top rated" but I find it is very hard to configure, doesn't seem to keep it's settings, the "wallet" nag screen can't be made to go away and it eats my system resources down to the nub. I very much wish I hadn't gone with it!

Posted by:

20 Oct 2013

WOW! This article came as a huge shock to me. For years, I've been led to believe MSE was one of the most effective defenses against malware and malicious software I could use. I mean, it's developed by Microsoft. If anyone wanted to protect their operating systems the most, it would be them...right?

I can't really say I have any complaints though. It runs continually on my machine and I scan regularly with other products like MBAM, CCleasner, SpyBot, etc. I rarely have any issues whatsoever. The occasional false positive from programs that have left some rouge files behind after installation.

I keep Windows updates running and make sure all my drivers and software are updated, as well.

Well, this has certainly opened my eyes. I'll start shopping for another solution right away. Thank you Microsoft for deluding your loyal customers once again.

So what have we decided is the best free solution now?

Posted by:

20 Oct 2013

really confusing, i have always depended on security
essentials , now i can't, microsoft has really dropped the ball on this one.i also notice that their internet exployer has problems opening web pages..thank goodness for your site, i always check it every day for its valued info//

Posted by:

Don Shenton
21 Oct 2013

What an eye-opener. I was depending on MSE and recommending others do so also.

Thanks, Bob, for being up-front about this.


Posted by:

21 Oct 2013

I have been using the free version of AVG after reading reviews about it from some of the PC magazines. I have been using it for a few years now.

Posted by:

21 Oct 2013

A bit like Fred, I too have stayed with MSE for the same reasons. Have tried most of the other freebies including paid versions of McAfee and Norton and found that MSE to be the most consistent and least troublesome/annoying/resource hungry. Have read what both Leo and Bob have said and taking into consideration the way I use my computer, I will be sticking with MSE for the time being!

Posted by:

21 Oct 2013

The use of the term, "Epic Fail" to describe MSE is really irresponsible. I'm not arguing that there are not better alternatives, but to label it as one of the worst failures ever is going way too far.

EDITOR'S NOTE: It's not just MSE that I see as a failure, it's the way Microsoft hid the news that MSE really wasn't intended to be anything better than "baseline." Go look at the AV-TEST scores and you'll see that MSE scores last in almost every test.

Posted by:

Rodney Green
22 Oct 2013

One option is to use a cloud-based AV application like Panda Cloud Antivirus along with MSE.

Posted by:

20 Nov 2013

I was introduced some five years ago to SuperAntiSpyware when all of the other'recognized' companies had failed to remove a very persistent trojan. From then on it has worked beautifully in conjunction with MBAM.

Spybot's latest design completely throws me - just cannot understand it yet its predecessor was wonderful.

AVG was fine until this year's update which completely crashed my pc - left me unable to enter Safe Mode and with a useless AVG Rescue CD. You can Google AVG's problems if you do not believe me.

Posted by:

John S
13 Jan 2014

The false sense of security with any "free" version of Anti Virus protection is scary. People typically think using one security suite will protect them and its very miss guided in assuming one suite will be 100% effective. Microsoft has over stated MSE effectiveness for so long, they finally realized that users were being infected because they thought MSE was a total solution. I cannot tell you how many times I have found Trojans and other malware that slipped by MSE with another security scan suite. The ideal of MSE or for that matter Defender on Windows 8 is a total solution and effective is not doing justice to the end user. Microsoft should either stop providing anything or improve its security applications. I read that when XP support stops so will updates for MSE on XP. This is just another example of bad security management by Microsoft. What would be the problem providing malware definitions to MSE on XP? My advise to anyone, is stop using MSE or Defender and find a more effective solution then the barely getting by solution from Microsoft.

Posted by:

02 Feb 2014

First of all, this article should have a date on it. There is so much information on the Web that it is important to know what is current and what is not. Anyone who checks anti-virus reviews knows that the ratings change every year.

I check the ratings every year, and McAfee is always at the bottom of the list. Norton was always at the bottom too except for 2013. Just because it is a recognized brand does not mean that it is good.

I used AVG for years until they started "breaking" it by releasing updates that would slow it down considerably. The next update would fix that, only to be "broken" again in the next update. I finally gave up on it. I have been using Avast! for several years now. I turn on the "gaming mode" to avoid the constant pop-ups, which is my only complaint.

Check for reviews on the free anti-virus programs each year to see who is still on top.

Posted by:

02 Feb 2014

I forgot to mention that I use Avast! with MalwareBytes Pro. After my wife got "nailed" with malware while using Facebook and it took me 4 hours to fix it (and I do this for a living!), then she got nailed again the very next day, I got the Pro (real-time) version. I have never seen any anti-virus program handle malware. They are two different problems.

I suggest installing MalwareBytes, then make sure it is using the latest definitions, and run a full scan. If you find a lot of infections, you may want to buy the Pro version (for a one-time $24.95 fee), especially if you use social media a lot. I had a customer buy a new computer for a Winery tasting room and he got over 100 files infected in 3 days before we got MalwareBytes installed.

Posted by:

09 Apr 2014

Been using MSE for 2 years now on my home computer. Being an older machine, it's nice to have an AV program running that does not bring it to it's knees, which with other AV programs seems to happen right when you need to use the computer (very aggravating). I had Avast, and for a while it was a great program, but then the annoying advertising pop-ups starting appearing more and more frequently. That's when I went with MSE and it's been great ever since. I run ccleaner and Malwarebytes Anti-Malware regularly, haven't had any problems (yet). I backup all my valuable data anyway, just in case the worst happens. If it were a "mission critical" computer, I would probably go with a highly-rated paid AV program, and cross my fingers.

Posted by:

25 Apr 2014

I use MSE with Emsisoft anti-malware Pro and run it real-time (paid version). They work together with NO slowing down and both catch all the bad things. When running additional malware security use 'Exceptions' in MSE and Ems AntiMare so both won't scan each other or notice each other. The Windows 7 firewall beat out Comodo's firewall and other popular firewalls in different test and MSE has several layers of protection, SmartScreen, User Account Control, Webpage filtering..etc. Been doing this for years, you will be safe.

Posted by:

04 Sep 2014

When you talk about MSE, what about Windows Defender(It is the same), I have had very little trouble in the last year. I am on Windows 8.1

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