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Answers to more of your Microsoft Security Essentials questions

The state of computing security in Windows is anything but clear for a lot of home users. So I guess I should not have have been surprised that one column and blog posts at the start and end of this month did not suffice to explain Microsoft's new, free Microsoft Security Essentials program.

Read on for answers to some of the questions I've received most often about "MSE," a free download for Windows XP, Vista and 7:

I can't get MSE to install. What should I do next?

Try booting the computer into Safe Mode: Hold down F8 as the machine starts up to run Windows in a stripped-down configuration, then give MSE's setup routine another try. If that doesn't work, I'd have to think your PC has some preexisting condition -- maybe a virus, maybe some other form of "bit rot" that's corrupted the system -- and in that case it's time to look at reinstalling Windows. (Sorry. This kind of thing just seems to happen in Windows sometimes.)

Do I have to remove my existing anti-virus program?

It's possible to install MSE on top of another program, contrary to Microsoft's advice. I have also installed other anti-virus tools on top of MSE. But that's a bad idea overall: At best, you're going to experience twice the slowdown that any one anti-virus tool can inflict; at worst, you'll render the computer unbootable.

Why didn't you compare MSE to [my favorite anti-virus tool]?

I only had so much time and so many computers. But I can assure you that I haven't seen much difference in the accuracy of anti-virus programs in all the other reviews I've done. (One post-review anecdote in MSE's favor: It correctly identified a new trojan disguised as a Facebook password-reset utility this morning after downloading the latest updates, while the free Avira program missed it after fetching its most recent threat definitions.)

If MSE doesn't control cookies, what should I use instead for that job?

Your browser's own settings; both Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox, like all modern browsers, offer a variety of options in this department. But I'll repeat my earlier advice: Worrying about cookies -- little, inert, text files saved to your hard drive by Web sites and Web advertising networks -- is a complete waste of time on security grounds, as they can't do anything. It's often a waste of time on privacy grounds as well, considering the more effective ways that advertisers can learn about you on and off the Web. (Put another way: If cookies really worked to help advertisers target online users, the newspaper industry might not be in such a horrific state.)

If MSE disables Windows Defender, should I uninstall that older Microsoft program on my own?

I'd say go ahead -- except that in Windows 7, Windows Defender doesn't appear in the usual add/remove programs list after an MSE install, even though it still holds down its usual spot in the Start menu. It's as if this program has entered some zombified existence, no longer alive but not dead either. In the one XP system I checked this morning, however, Windows Defender was gone already. (I need to scrounge up a Vista system to see what happens to Defender after an MSE installation in that version of Windows.)

You're wrong to say that Windows Defender alone will do the job. You need multiple lines of defense.

Set aside the performance and reliability issues I mentioned earlier -- no matter how many anti-virus programs you gum up your PC with, you'll still face a risk from a brand-new threat that isn't in anybody's database. But here's a more basic point: If you think you need to crouch behind three or four different security programs every time you go online, that's just not right. The Internet isn't that bad, on average -- something else has to be amiss. Maybe you're going to all the wrong Internet sites; maybe you're not exercising nearly enough skepticism about strange downloads, e-mail attachments and pop-up alerts; maybe you're just so unlucky and snakebit in Windows that you need to switch to Linux or Mac OS X.

Why should I trust Microsoft to protect my computer after their history?

If you feel that way about a free Microsoft program, why did you pay good money for the company's operating system?

Any other questions? Post them in the comments and I'll try to address them there.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  October 27, 2009; 4:08 PM ET
Categories:  Feedback , Security , Windows  
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Can MSE be installed on computers at a University?

Posted by: Ali2 | October 27, 2009 5:58 PM | Report abuse

Excellent points here, Rob.
I am very impressed with the program, and I trust it more than other free offerings. I don't tempt fate by surfing risky sites... but I feel safer than I felt a month ago.
I've been installing Security Essentials on customers' PCs since the day it came out. So far, it does a far better job than whatever they were running. One customer had the UAC rootkit trojan for six months, unreported by his paid-for McAfee, and the Microsoft program found it & killed it (although it required two reboots).

Posted by: williehorton | October 27, 2009 8:51 PM | Report abuse

I currently have a subscription to MS OneCare that expires in December 2009. Should I let it expire before installing MSE? Advantages/Disadvantages of change? Thanks.

Posted by: Papa_in_PA | October 28, 2009 8:28 AM | Report abuse

I'm running windows XP SP3 and windows defender is still installed and runnable from start menu after MSE has been installed (windows update has even downloaded and installed signature updates since). The automatic windows defender scan, however, appears to be turned off.

On another matter, it is good that MS is doing this (even tho AV competitors and antitrust warriors will scream bloody murder). It has always seemed to me mildly ironic that the world screams at MS for its security exposures on the one hand while on the other relying on third parties to provide the utilities to detect and fix them. To do a good malware protection job, you have to hook in to the OS at a fairly low level. MS is best equipped to do this. Every new operating environment release has experienced post release instabilities due to poor 3rd party AV integration. We have been squabbling for more than 20 years now as to what should and should not be part of the operating environment envelope provided by purveyors such as MS. MSE is something that should definitley be on the inside.

Posted by: eboyhan | October 28, 2009 8:31 AM | Report abuse

Not a question but a comment regarding Windows Defender:
It can still be started after installing essentials either using the Run command in XP or using the search box in Vista. You'll see a dialog box telling you that Defender is off and asking if you want to start it. The reason you might want to do this is to use the "Software explorer" function in Defender to manage your startup programs. Defender was very useful for that.

Posted by: frank_s3 | October 28, 2009 10:22 AM | Report abuse

Building on frank_s3's experience, I have found that whenever I reboot my Vista (32-bit Home Premium) PC, Windows Defender needs to be restarted manually. Can't see an option to make that nuisance go away. (I suppose I could see what happens if I put it in my Startup group.) I use a corporate AV product from my employer due to VPN.

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | October 28, 2009 2:22 PM | Report abuse

The Windows Secrets newsletter claimed MSE "zaps" Windows Defender. Rob says MSE "disables" Defender. These words are inaccurate at best.

I run Windows XP Pro SP3 completely up to date. All icons for Defender are still there in the right places. The icon in the SysTray nags me to let Defender do a scan. I just did, from my limited account. So far as I can tell it works just fine, just as before.

Please explain what you "experts" mean by "disable" or "zap". What features of Defender have been turned off? (if any)


Posted by: SoloOwl | October 28, 2009 10:01 PM | Report abuse

If you want to speed up you computer, delete old temporary files. Learn more at

Posted by: osiuerer | October 29, 2009 9:43 PM | Report abuse

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