I have championed Windows Live OneCare since its release in November 2005. It arrived when Norton and Mcafee were disgracing themselves with increasingly poor security suites and took over chores that are critically important but easily overlooked. Antivirus protection, adware/spyware protection, firewall protection, security updates and patches, and system maintenance (including disk defragging), reduced to a single icon, with clear explanations of what to do if some task had to be performed. It was (and largely still is) a brilliant product well-suited for many people.

No other vendor has anything close to it. I’m going to list a number of criticisms of the OneCare upgrade and I hope you understand how disheartened I am – but there is nothing better out there. Some Norton and Mcafee products are slightly improved this year but they continue to be buggy messes, with ill-chosen services, difficult configuration and intrusive dialogs, and system-crushing loads on a computer’s resources.

It is possible to get individual products in each category that have arguable advantages over OneCare. TrendMicro and AVG have good reputations for antivirus protection. Microsoft Windows Defender is sufficient adware/spyware protection for most people. The built-in Windows XP firewall is adequate. Backups can be handled in many ways. If you are technically knowledgeable, or if you are prepared to pay attention, then individual programs can be wonderful things.

The difficulty lies with splitting these chores among multiple programs. Each program will have its quirks and require its own learning curve, each will occasionally need attention or put up messages or demand updates, and each one potentially will have bugs or conflict with other programs. Many people want their computers to be maintained and kept secure without thinking about it. OneCare comes close to delivering that.

This “upgrade” to version 2.0 has mucked things up. It’s not fatal, just a frustrating misstep.

  • There was insufficient warning for each person before the upgrade was installed, and the explanations of the new features after the upgrade are unsatisfying. I have been prepared to help but the upgrade is being staggered over several months on an unpredictable schedule. I wrote this coverage a month ago, but that’s long forgotten by people who confronted the upgrade unexpectedly this morning.
  • Too many upgrades have ended in failure, with OneCare in various failed states that are difficult to diagnose and cure. If there’s going to be a stealth upgrade, you’d better make sure it’s successful!
  • The questions asked after the upgrade cannot be answered without a deep understanding of the new program features and they introduce a level of complexity that undercuts the program’s compelling simplicity. Some people will benefit from a “hub PC,” for example, but it absolutely should not be a choice that has to be made consciously with no notice by every OneCare user!
  • The backup program has been “simplified” in the wrong way. The OneCare designers have removed the ability to designate folders that will be backed up in their entirety. Why? That mattered deeply to many people who wanted the assurance that something important was included that might not be caught by OneCare’s default choices. The new features are valuable – centralized backup and additional options for storage of backup files – but every single OneCare user is having to consider those options after the upgrade, which is annoying some and confusing others.
  • By default, OneCare turns on a modified version of printer sharing and messages appear with no warning on other computers sharing the OneCare subscription. One of OneCare’s advantages was a minimum of unexpected messages in our faces; this is yet another incremental way to undercut that advantage.

The upgrade problems have spilled over into the media – not the first time OneCare’s team has dropped the ball and gotten scolded in the press and online.

I want to like OneCare. I think it keeps people safe. But I’ve spent way too much time in the last few weeks fixing it or helping confused people and I don’t like that a bit.

Having said all that, let’s get some perspective.

If you’re a OneCare user, don’t change. It still works.

If you’re running Windows XP and choosing a program, I still suggest OneCare – but with slightly less of a cheerleader attitude.

And if you’re running Windows Vista, you have an option that does not apply to Windows XP. The security and maintenance built into Vista is good. Really good. Vista’s firewall is the equal of OneCare’s firewall. Vista’s backup program is essentially identical. Vista’s built-in adware/spyware protection is adequate. Vista maintains itself and keeps programs up to date quite nicely.

Vista can be run with a simple antivirus program and no additional security or maintenance products. You’ll be roughly as safe and secure and up to date with or without OneCare – as long as you remember to set up Vista’s backup so it’s done automatically.

Good luck! Keep me posted!

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