When Vista was still tightly under wraps -- before it was even "Vista" and it was still just "Longhorn" -- Microsoft let word slip that it was working on an integrated system-care solution for Windows. A highly stripped-down version of the same would ship with Vista, and the full version would be available for a yearly subscription fee. The product has since been released as Windows Live OneCare, now at revision 1.5.
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Since a large and growing number of system security and maintenance products already exist for Windows, some examination of how OneCare stands up next to its many competitors is probably worth the effort. In this article, I'm going to do exactly that, comparing many of OneCare's features with those offered by competing vendors.
The security and performance basics
Most, if not all, consumer security products on the market have a free trial version of their products -- usually one that runs from 15 to 30 days and then requires a license purchase to continue running. OneCare's free trial is exceptionally long -- 90 days -- which provides a great deal of time to evaluate the product.
OneCare's main selling point is that it's highly self-managing; you really only need to bother with it if something goes wrong, and it requires little tuning to work well. On the down side, it's highly monolithic -- it doesn't allow you to selectively use another firewall or antivirus solution in conjunction with it. Finally, it's quite limited compared to other solutions on the market.
Because it's difficult for an end user to determine just how effective a given antivirus solution is, I turned to testing authorities to find out how effective OneCare is compared to other antivirus solutions. What I found was pretty heartening. ICSA Labs, one of the pre-eminent antivirus evaluation and certification authorities, gave OneCare a certification under the Anti-Virus Cleaning Criteria, version 4.0 -- a criterion that has been awarded to many competing products, like McAfee Inc.'s VirusScan, Symantec Corp.'s Norton AntiVirus 2007 and Trend Micro Inc.'s PC-cillin. In terms of detection and removal, OneCare seems to stack up nicely against the competition.
You can use free antispyware applications -- including some very good ones, like SpyBot - Search & Destroy. Vista's own Windows Defender also does a fairly decent job. On Vista systems, OneCare replaces Defender entirely -- or, more precisely, it disables Defender and runs several OneCare components in its place, since Defender itself cannot be uninstalled, only disabled. ICSA also has an antispyware certification program, but neither Defender nor OneCare itself are certified in this program (yet), so it's a little difficult to judge how much better OneCare's protection is than its competitors.
OneCare's antiphishing system consists of little more than the antiphishing system that is built into Internet Explorer 7. While it's quite well-designed and traps phishing sites very consistently, that's about the limit of what it's intended to do. Other products (McAfee; PC-cillin) go further by attempting to block the sending of personal information to unauthorized parties. To be scrupulously fair, though, that's a feature that needs to be configured by the user to be effective. Microsoft's approach is just to warn the user pre-emptively about any site that may be suspicious, whether or not any data is submitted.
OneCare doesn't replace the existing Windows Firewall but wraps it in a new interface. If you go to the Windows Firewall entry in Control Panel, you'll find that it now sports a warning: "For your security, some settings are controlled by Group Policy."
The system maintenance functions in OneCare are essentially a repackaging of a number of other functions within the program and throughout Windows: cleaning up unwanted files, defragmenting the hard disk, performing a system scan, looking for files that need to be backed up and checking for any high-priority security updates. In short, it's less of a discrete system maintenance tool than it is a way to do most of the things OneCare offers in one swoop.
Windows XP's backup tool, NTBACKUP, is difficult for a non-technical user to work with, and Windows Vista has no native backup tool unless you elect to install Vista Ultimate. It is possible to now download the legacy NTBACKUP tool and use it in Vista or XP if you don't already have a backup tool, but that may not be the best solution for everyone.
OneCare gives the user a backup and restore tool that can save and restore common user files, in addition to arbitrarily-specified files or directories. The backup application also detects new and changed files and backs them up incrementally as needed. Plus, its user interface is less cryptic than NTBACKUP. No full-system backup is possible, however; that's a feature that would require a third-party program or Vista Ultimate's backup tool. (One third-party program I've used with great success to perform full-system backup and restore is the freeware/shareware tool Image for DOS, despite its relative lack of flexibility.)
Most of the price tag for OneCare seems to go toward antivirus protection, and since it covers up to three computers for one year, that makes it a reasonably good choice if a beginner or less demanding user doesn't need more than basic integrated protection. But the other features of the program are little more than wrappers or extensions for existing functions, so advanced users may have a harder time justifying OneCare's price tag if they need more than the basics.
About the author:Serdar Yegulalp is editor of the Windows Power Users Newsletter. Check it out for the latest advice and musings on the world of Windows network administrators -- and please share your thoughts as well!