Microsoft has been working hard to improve and add features to OneCare since its public beta last year. What was a buggy and incomplete security suite has morphed into a serious contender, although it still has a way to go before it reaches the level of such industry leaders as Norton and Kaspersky.
OneCare's best features are simplicity, a broad feature set that includes system maintenance and backup as well as security tasks, and a relatively low subscription price of $49.95 per year for three PCs. For that fee, a family or small business gets virus/spyware scanning, a two-way firewall, automatic backup, and a multitude of handy system tools such as a disk defragmenter and a startup application manager.
Installation and Setup
Microsoft warns you to uninstall other antivirus suites before installing OneCare, since they will likely conflict with it. (Standalone malware checkers that don't run in the background are fine, though.) Otherwise it installs easily in a few minutes from the OneCare Web site. The interface is clean and simple, with your current security status and buttons to start scans all shown in one handy panel. Clicking on Settings brings up a tabbed window with preferences for each function, such as the firewall and backup features.
As with the standard Vista firewall, OneCare will suspend file sharing and other private activities automatically when connected to a public network--a great feature for connecting securely at Wi-Fi hotspots. If you need to turn the firewall off temporarily (such as for a major software install), OneCare lets you set it to turn on automatically again so you can't forget--although it will remind you with pop-ups from the system tray. But since firewalls are critical, that's probably a good thing. The firewall comes with a long list of known programs that ease initial training, and it can be configured to pass through certain ports and protocols as needed.
Backups are limited to the documents on your drive, rather than full-disk backups, but are very easy to configure, and you can set up scheduled backups for all your PCs from one hub computer to a central drive, such as a NAS drive. An optional automatic photo backup service gives you 50GB of online storage space for all three PCs for $50 per year, and backs up new photos every 6 hours. This can be a boon for travelers who take lots of pictures and want to be protected against laptop loss.
Internet Explorer 7 includes a phishing filter that OneCare can activate across all PCs in the OneCare circle, but it does not integrate with Firefox or other third-party browsers. You can schedule malware scans only as part of a full tune-up process that includes defragmentation, backup, and other tasks. We'd like to be able to set different schedules for each.
The start-time optimizer simply lets you identify and turn off startup apps to speed up system performance and reduce boot time--something you can already do, but OneCare just puts them all in a convenient list with buttons to turn them on or off. The suite also offers useful proactive fixes and recommendations for Windows housekeeping tasks, like turning on Windows Updates and configuring printer sharing for the covered PCs.
Virus and spyware scanning took an average amount of time compared with the other suites we reviewed, and we didn't notice any significant performance drop while surfing or checking e-mail. OneCare's virus-detection performance is very good but not great. Virus Bulletin gives OneCare an average score for malware/spyware detection, while AV-Test.org shows Microsoft issuing definition updates a few times a day, compared with several times per hour for Norton, which had the best malware detection score among the suites we reviewed.
For some reason, the defragmentation tool kept reporting that it could not finish the job when we ran the tune-up. Another peeve is that as soon as you have even one new or changed file to backup, the status indicator changes from green (Good) to yellow (Fair). This status should change only if your backup is overdue; otherwise you could be operating in yellow mode almost all the time.
OneCare is a good suite for nontechnical users who want a simple, low-cost, do-it-all solution. Still, it's missing some important features, such as spam filtering and parental-control capabilities (though Windows Vista and XP SP2 users can download the separate Family Safety Web management tool from fss.live.com). At $49.95 for three computers, it's one of the more affordable security suites, you can try it free for 90 days, and it works with both XP and Vista. But for $20 more, you can get greater peace of mind and ease of use with Norton Internet Security 2009.