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Microsoft's antivirus software sees massive improvement in tests

Recent tests show Security Essentials closing the gap with top performers.

Microsoft Security Essentials antivirus software test
Credit: Shutterstock

For the longest time, Microsoft's antivirus programs have brought up the rear in tests, usually ranking near or in dead last. But recent tests from two respected antivirus testers show Microsoft has greatly improved its antivirus product and in a very short time.

Germany's AV-Test Institute is something like Consumer Reports for antivirus software. It is the gold standard for AV software testing, and a good review from them can make your product a success. And for quite some time, Microsoft Security Essentials has been a laggard. But for the August tests, the scores improved.

AV-Test doesn't just grade on the ability to detect malware. It also grades based on how few false positives there are both in malware and in claiming legitimate apps are malware, as well as performance and whether or not the AV program slows down the system.

So the AV scores are broken down by a maximum of six points in three categories. In order to receive AV-Test certification, the product needs a total of at least 10 points and can't have a zero in any of the three criteria. 

Of the 22 products rated in the month of August, only one, Bitdefender, scored a perfect 18 points. In July, Microsoft scored 9.5 points, so it didn't even make the AV-Test certification cutoff. This time, thanks to improved detection of new malware samples, Microsoft jumped to 14 points.

The improvement wasn't across the board. In the area of zero-day protection, MSE fell from 91% detection in July to 87% detection in August. The industry average was 98%, so in that regard, MSE is still a considerable laggard. But its detection of widespread malware discovered in the last four weeks got better, from 98% in July to 100% in August, putting Microsoft on par with the industry average.

In usability, like false positives and false warnings, Microsoft is equal to or, in the case of false detections of legitimate software as malware, it did better than the industry average.

It's an improvement, but there is still room for growth. The top performers were all in the 17-point range: Avira, BitDefender, F-Secure, McAfee, Kaspersky and Panda Security, the latter of which is a free product. Microsoft is still down with the also-rans, it's just not dead last anymore. So it's good to see MSE getting better, but it still is no replacement for the top AV products.

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