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I’m impressed with Windows 7. After running the beta for months it is everything Windows should be.

Sure there are niggles – but that would be true of any alternative.

I was so impressed I decided to buy the operating system. Imagine my surprise when I discovered Dick Smith lists the Windows 7 Ultimate and Professional upgrades at $499 each.

The price is ridiculous. The same Dick Smith has notebook computers with Windows installed starting at $899. That’s notebook not netbook.

OK. I understand the $899 notebook might not ship with Windows 7 Professional. That’s not the point.

For just $400 more than the cost of a software upgrade I can have a new computer. The cheapest netbook on sale in New Zealand is $425 – just $25 more than the upgrade to Windows Professional.

At Digital Shop I can buy a desktop for just $487.64 with Windows 7 Professional installed.

That’s right. In effect I can pay just $87.64 for a new computer.

So here are my choices:

  1. Buy a new PC with Windows 7 Professional. Throw my existing, perfectly serviceable machine into a landfill. Have a better computer experience but stop sleeping at night because I’m destroying the planet.

  2. Revert to Vista or XP. This costs nothing – but will give me a more annoying computer experience than at present.

  3. Look once again at Linux.

What would you do?

Microsoft Security Essentials is so light on system resources there’s no noticeable effect on performance.

And yet the free application protects systems from malware and attacks.

Lightweight

Security Essentials is lightweight compared with Microsoft’s earlier, paid-for, OneCare security.

It only uses 280k of system memory on the test machine. The download is 8.5Mb. The installed program occupies about 12Mb scattered between the Program Files and Program Data folders on the C: drive. There could be other components stored elsewhere. Getting the full picture about software installations isn’t easy when you run Windows 7.

One week has passed since installing the software. There’s been no  performance hit running Security Essentials. System benchmarks are the same with and without the program installed.

This compares with Norton Internet Security 2010 which slowed the machine by 4 percent at first. It then worsened to the point where it became unusable after ten hours.

Microsoft’s program took seconds to download. Then another five minutes or so to fetch the necessary anti-malware signatures. The system runs Windows 7 beta. It is  up-to-date which meant things were smooth. The Security Essentials installer insists you download and install all the Windows updates first.

Scanning goes on for ever

I ran a full system scan and regretted the decision. Scanning isn’t fast. The software warns users scans may take some time. The first scan was still running some six hours after first installing the software.

It is possible to scan attached drives with the software, but there aren’t enough hours in the day to test this.

To date Security Essentials hasn’t found anything on this computer. To check the software’s effectiveness, I also scanned with Panda Cloud Antivirus and Avast. Neither found anything. Nor did Norton Internet Security 2010 find anything before it was removed.

Google-like interface

Microsoft learnt a thing or two competing with Google in recent years. The user interface on Security Essentials is minimalist. It uses bright red to show problems and is green while everything is safe. There are hardly any controls. Compare this to the user interface on Norton Internet Security 2010 which is like the flight deck of the Star Ship Enterprise. The good news is there are few things to tinker with and break. I didn’t notice anything needing changes.

When a threat appears online, real-time protection mode kicks-in and displays a pop-up message. This appears in the bottom right hand corner of the screen. You can dismiss it with a click or get more information. A lot more information than you’ll ever need.

Evil empire

You can’t argue with Microsoft’s price for Security Essentials. It is free. It looks as if it was part of the operating system from the outset. And it may have been. But Microsoft doesn’t include it as standard with Windows 7 because of anti-trust considerations. There are people who are wary of using security software from Microsoft. Some argue security problems only exist because of flaws in the company’s operating systems. Maybe. But the Macintosh is no longer immune.

Security Essentials competitors

Norton’s paid-for security products are more advanced than Microsoft Security Essentials. The name makes that clear. This software does about 90 percent of the job of protecting your computer from attack.

If you run a home system, have a hardware firewall and keep applications and systems software up to date, Security Essentials should protect you from all but the most serious attacks.

Microsoft Security Essentials is not suitable for business users and not the best choice if your set-up is, let’s say, anarchic. Paid for products may give you better piece of mind.

Microsoft scrubs up well against the free competitors. Without extensive testing Avast looks better. A solid free program from AVG is also good. We experienced problems with these as the free versions are hard to find among the paid-for options at the two sites.

Another alternative is the excellent Panda Cloud Antivirus. This is one of the best kept secrets in the security business. It neither nags nor hides behind a paid alternative. You can read more about Panda and Avast in Alternatives to Norton Internet Security.

Pluses:

  • free
  • downloads and installs in minutes
  • works straight away
  • simple, unobtrusive
  • easy to understand
  • no performance hit

Minuses:

  • slow scanning
  • relatively untried
  • doesn’t offer the best protection

Overall:

A basic security product from a big name at an unrivalled price. Get this if you have no budget and are not confident dealing with other free security applications.

Norton Internet Security has been my main PC protection in recent years. I have a few criticisms, but it has done a good job guarding my desktop, laptop and family laptops. The computers run Windows XP and Vista.

One problem is PC performance drops a few percent while the program is running – which is all the time. A small performance hit doesn’t matter when surfing the web or using Microsoft Word. It is noticeable when there’s heavy-duty video, audio or Photoshop processing.

Earlier this year I switched from Microsoft Windows Vista to Windows 7 RC. The new operating system performs better than Vista. It appears stable enough to for everyday use. It is everything Windows Vista was not, but it doesn’t work with some popular anti-virus packages.

Beta problems with Norton

Symantec Norton Internet Security didn’t work with Windows 7. So I tried a beta version of an updated version for the new operating system.

I promptly ran into problems with the beta version of Symantec Norton Internet Security 2010. There are great features, but the performance overhead is huge.

It’s flaky around the edges. Of course, the software is beta and Symantec made no promises about performance. But the system crashed two or three times a day.

There were also installation problems. Sadly this isn’t a one-off pain, the software repeatedly timed out. Each time this happens you need to download and install a new version. There were times – many times when the older version timed out before a new build was ready and the PC was left vulnerable for days at a time.

The beta appears to be the only version of Norton Internet Security that runs properly on Windows 7, so I needed to find an alternative security package. For details see: Alternatives to Norton Internet Security

Four weeks ago Microsoft released Internet Explorer 8. I’ve used the software just about every day since. Here are my thoughts.

Until now Microsoft Internet Explorer has been a necessity not my browser of choice. Explorer is a necessity because a limited number of sites and online services, including a number from Microsoft, are optimised or in some cases restricted to Explorer.

For the past four years Mozilla Firefox has consistently performed better than Internet Explorer. It was always faster and less bloated. Add-ons give Firefox a flexibility older versions of Internet Explorer simply could not match. And, while Microsoft’s browsers were better integrated with Windows and certain key desktop applications, Firefox was still able to deliver a better all round user experience.

In practice I’ve needed to run the two browsers alongside each other. Explorer has always played second fiddle. Can the upgrade to IE8 change that?

What’s good about Internet Explorer 8?

IE8 is fast

IE8 loads pages considerably faster than Firefox 3.0.8. One heavy-duty Web 2.0 page I frequent is ready in around 28 seconds with IE8. The same page takes 52 seconds with Firefox. The difference isn’t always as pronounced, however I did the anal retentive thing and timed a number of pages to discover they all loaded faster with IE8.

Once Firefox loads into memory, it can restart in seconds. But the first load in a session can run to as long as five minutes. That’s just plain awful. In many cases Firefox takes so long to fire up, I wonder if it is loading at all. I often find my self opening two or more instances. IE8 always fires up in seconds. However, there’s a down side to this as we shall see later.

Fabulous developer tools

Developer tools are geeky, but one of the truly great improvements in IE8. Hit F12 and you can view a page’s source code and CSS. This is great for fixing up problems with your own pages. To get similar features in Firefox you need to install the Firebug extension.

Internet Explorer 8 is cleaner than earlier versions

Explorer is now web-standard compliant, has a tidy user interface and most of the time renders pages beautifully with crisp text.

I also like:

  • Colour-coded tabs Open a new tab and its colour will match that of the parent page.
  • Tab grouping Tabs are grouped with their parent tab.
  • Smart address bar Similar to the Firefox’s new address bar, it remembers where you’ve been and your most visited sites.
  • Useful new tabs Open a new tab and you get links to the sites you’re most likely to want to visit.
  • Tab view A quick tab feature allows you to see thumbnails of all open tabs.
  • RSS Internet Explorer does a better job of handling feeds than Firefox.
  • Search bar Sure Firefox has the same feature, but I like the way the IE8 search bar works and I especially like the way it can be used to search the current page as well as the entire Internet.
  • Smooth integration Microsoft gets nervous when people talk about the way its products integrate, but IE8 works smoothly with Windows and Office.  The software also downloads and installs without a hitch.
  • Security See the anti-phishing feature kick in for the first time is impressive.

Bad things about Internet Explorer 8

Within hours of installing and running Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 on my Windows Vista Ultimate system I quickly discovered some negatives. Let’s look at them one by one:

1. Key features simply don’t work or are erratic

There are two pre-installed items on the favorites bar: Suggested Sites and Get More Add-ons. Neither of them work. Clicking either opens a windows that says “Internet Explorer cannot display the webpage” and there’s a button labeled Diagnose Connection Problems. This doesn’t happen all the time, just most of the time.

Some basic things simply don’t work at all on some sites. For example I tried joining Chi.mp using IE8, but the Captcha feature didn’t show up making it impossible to use. I had to switch to Firefox to enroll.

While we’re on the subject, Microsoft hasn’t bothered to localize spellings. Outside of North America the word is favourite, not favorite.

2. Crashing

After one month of use I experienced three major Internet Explorer 8 crashes. In each case I’ve had to reboot the machine and lost work because of the crashes. I’m not certain what causes the problems, but there’s something weird happening. I’m running IE8 on a Windows Vista Ultimate system with 2GB of Ram. Firefox has its problems, but it never crashes in such a spectacular and worrying fashion. I’ve also experienced a number of less serious crashes which can be fixed by closing and reopening IE8. Frankly this instability is the biggest barrier to my switching from Firefox to Internet Explorer. Presumably Microsoft will fix up the bugs over the coming weeks, but this does not fill me with confidence.

3. A lot of pages look strange

Internet Explorer 8 may be standards compliant, but it won’t display all the pages you throw at it. Ironically the biggest problem come when you view a page designed for IE7 or IE6. There’s a compatibility button in the address bar to ‘fix’ odd-looking pages by reverting the browser to IE7 mode. Nevertheless some pages still struggle. And curiously the button doesn’t always appear when you need it.

There are other anomalies. For example, if I visit the dashboard at WordPress.com, IE 8 frequently struggles to display the stats graph, even though it shows up perfectly well in Firefox.

4. Unable to automatically reload settings on start-up

One Firefox feature I love is the way it opens up with all the tabs exactly as they were left when you closed down. IE8 doesn’t do this. Apparently it was designed this way.

5. Active X is still a pain in the bum

Sorry Microsoft, I know Active X is your baby, but there’s a good reason everyone whinges about it. Here’s a simple explanation of why it is so awful for non-technical readers.

6. Spell-checking missing in action

Yes I know I’m supposed to be a professional writer and I shouldn’t need a spell checker. Generally I don’t. A spell checker is a way of a avoiding red faces.

And the ugly?

Despite the headline, there’s nothing ugly. I claim poetic licence. Internet Explorer 8 is a good all-round browser. It will meet most people’s needs most of the time. It comes close to meeting mine. I’m certain the majority of users will happily browse away using IE8 without giving the technology a second thought.

However, Internet Explorer’s shortcomings mean, at least until the next iteration or service pack arrives IE8 remains on my machine by necessity for those IE only sites rather than because it is the best browser. If it was more reliable, this decision could change. This is a pity because there is much to love about IE8 – and that’s not something I would ever have said about IE7.