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Microsoft Security Essentials strikes out on questionable AV test

Microsoft Security Essentials has just posted another failing grade in a comparative test, though the results this time around might be worth scrutinizing. This latest failure wasn’t reported by AV-Test Labs — the outfit that has watched MSE bomb multiple tests since 2011. The findings this time come from Dennis Technology Labs, an offshoot of UK magazine titan Dennis Publishing.

Back in 2009, the folks behind Avast! did some digging of their own and discovered that DTL might not be the best source for reliable test data. Back then, the lab had just opened for business and published a comparative that lauded Symantec’s antivirus protection above all others and downplayed its faults. The sponsor of that test? Symantec, of course. CEO Vince Steckler (a former Symantec man) told me that ever since he blogged about these concerns on the company website, Avast has been shut out of DTL’s testing. It’s a curious omission considering Avast! is in use on nearly 200 million computers worldwide.

This time the story is a little different. DTL’s documentation notes that this particular test wasn’t sponsored, but the setup seems to have put MSE at a disadvantage. Security Essentials was designed to work in concert with Windows’ own built-in security measures. It works best on more current releases like Windows 7 and Windows 8, but the DTL test used systems running Windows XP Pro with Service Pack 3 and Internet Explorer 7. No additional updates were pushed to the systems. Microsoft has, of course, pushed loads of updates since Sp3 was released — back in May of 2008.

Windows XP currently has less than half the market share of Windows 7. Is using Windows XP in a malware showdown really the best way to get an accurate representation of real world conditions at this point? To make matters worse, Internet Explorer 7 was in use on somewhere between 1 and 3% of computers as of last September. That hardly seems like a solid choice for the test, either.

Then there’s this little gem at the back of the report: “Partner vendors contribute financially to the test in return for a preview of the results, an opportunity to challenge results before publication and the right to use award logos in marketing material.” That doesn’t count as outright sponsorship, but it certainly sounds like something that could skew the findings.

While the Dennis Labs report is certainly good for generating sensational headlines, it’s probably best to sit tight and see what folks like AV-Test have to say in the coming months. And even if you’re running MSE you probably don’t have to panic. Chances are good that you’re at least running Windows 7 and a much newer (and infinitely more secure) version of Internet Explorer, and both do a much better job at keeping you out of trouble than the unpatched bits DTL tested.

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