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Review: Windows OneCare Live

Live from Redmond, it's Microsoft's new security, optimization, and backup suite--and it's looking good.

If you’ve been seeking a one-stop solution for PC health, security, and backup, you’ve probably eyed Norton SystemWorks or a similar suite. Microsoft, for its part, has steered clear of the utilities market over the years, but that’s about to change.




OneCare will make sure you update and back up your system.
Click to Enlarge

Windows OneCare Live, currently in beta, promises not only protection against hackers, viruses, and spyware, but also system optimization and backup. I tested the latest version and came away impressed, though there’s work still to be done — and questions to be answered.

The three-step, browser-based installation was quick and painless, though it did require a reboot. Thankfully, OneCare updates itself automatically and in the background — I didn’t have to deal with seemingly endless manual updates and restarts, as I did upon installing past versions of Norton Internet Security.

The OneCare window is a model of simplicity, with all functions divided into three at-a-glance sections: Protection Plus, Performance Plus, and Backup and Restore. Protection Plus contains anti-virus, firewall, and auto-update monitors; anti-spyware functionality hadn’t been added yet, though it’s safe to say it should look and act a lot like Microsoft’s current Windows AntiSpyware product.

Get A Tune-Up
Performance Plus is home to OneCare’s Tune-up option, which can be run manually or at scheduled intervals. Tune-up removes unnecessary files, defragments your hard drive, checks for viruses, updates your backup (if you’ve configured one — see below), and looks for missing system updates from Microsoft. Alas, if it discovers any, it merely directs you to Microsoft’s Windows Update site instead of downloading and applying them automatically.

As for the defrag utility, it’s definitely still beta. According to Microsoft, it’s designed to spend no more than 15 minutes defragging your drive during each Tune-up, so as not to tie up your system for too long, but eventually getting the job done. In tests, however, it spent about five minutes on the drive during its first pass, then only about 30 seconds during subsequent Tune-ups — after which Windows' Disk Defragmenter still showed 19 percent fragmentation

OneCare’s backup feature supports CD and DVD media, and external hard drives. If you choose the latter, the software can make ongoing, automatic backups — a nice option for users who have trouble remembering this vital chore. However, this isn’t a full-system safety net; Backup is designed expressly for data. The wizard collects files in eight categories, including video, music, and pictures; Outlook and Outlook Express files; and Internet Explorer favorites. After you choose which of those categories you want to back up, you then have the option of adding individual files and folders. That makes this an effective (if simplistic) utility for protecting vital data.

Firewall Protection
More robust protection comes in the form of OneCare’s firewall, which improves on Windows XP SP 2’s one-way firewall by offering two-way protection. In addition to protecting your PC from outside attacks, it prevents stealth programs from hijacking the system and sending out information. In other words, your system can’t be turned into an unwitting zombie or spambot. In tests, the firewall automatically approved Internet access for most of my installed apps, including AIM and Sonic Update Manager, but didn’t recognize Microsoft’s own MSN Screen Saver. I had to manually approve its access. No doubt Microsoft will increase the size of the approved-apps list as OneCare development continues.

Speaking of which, I’ll reserve final judgment until the service goes gold, which Microsoft says will happen sometime in 2006. That’s also when they'll announce OneCare’s price, which at press time had yet to be determined. Given that Microsoft designates it a service, not software, expect some kind of annual subscription plan.

So far, I like what we’ve seen of Windows OneCare Live. It’s a snap to use, and it feels less intrusive than other security suites I’ve tested — more like something that just sits quietly in the background and keeps the system running smoothly. That’s not what I expected from a Microsoft product.


Windows OneCare Live
Microsoft Corp.
www.microsoft.com
Price: TBD
Summary: Though not quite ready for prime time, the beta of Windows OneCare Live offers a good mix of security and optimization features, all wrapped in a refreshingly simple interface.

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