Executive Summary:

Tucked into Microsoft Windows Live OneCare's product group is a free scanning service called Safety Scanner. Internet-based and easy to use, it provides a great second opinion when you're troubleshooting infected computers. You can run a full scan or focus on protection, cleaning registry files, or defragging the hard drive.

 


As ubiquitous as antivirus scanning should be, plenty of computers aren’t running this essential protection. When one of these vulnerable systems crosses your path, you'll be glad to have the following free antivirus scanner in your toolbox—Safety Scanner, part of Windows Live OneCare from Microsoft.

Windows Live OneCare is a PC maintenance and security product that costs $49.95 per year and includes antivirus, antispyware, centralized automatic backups, patch management, printer sharing, and maintenance features to tune up your PC. This product is useful for many small office/home office (SOHO) users as their primary protection and maintenance software. However, the tool I'm going to show you is the free version of this service: Safety Scanner.

Even if you work for a large company and use commercial antivirus software, you'll still find Safety Scanner useful. I keep the URL for Safety Scanner in my toolkit for when I need to scan a computer that might not have antivirus software installed or when I want a second opinion from another scanner. A second opinion isn’t a bad idea if the computer is acting erratically but your primary antivirus software doesn’t find anything, or if the computer has been infected and you want to be sure your primary antivirus software has cleaned it completely. (I don’t recommend this free version of Safety Scanner as your primary antivirus software, however, as it isn’t designed for continuous, real-time protection.) Let's take a closer look at this helpful tool.

Using Safety Scanner
Microsoft offers two versions of Web-based Safety Scanner: a released version for Windows XP and Windows 2000, and a beta/early adopter version for Windows Vista. To access Safety Scanner, go to the OneCare Web site at http://onecare.live.com and click Safety Scanner to launch a welcome page for the scanner, which Figure 1 shows.

At this Web page, you can view a list of current top threats and run a full scan or fix a specific problem. To begin a full scan, simply click Full Service Scan to launch the three OneCare scans: Protection, Clean-Up, and Tune-Up. If you don't want the full scan, you can run each one individually. Clicking the Protection scan button takes you to the Protection Center, which features articles and downloads geared toward computer security. From this page, you can start the protection scan, which scans for viruses, spyware, and other malware as well as lists the open ports on which the computer is listening for connections. Clicking the Clean-Up scan button takes you to the Clean-Up Center, where you can run a scan to eliminate junk such as old registry entries and temporary files, and compress old files to free up drive space. Clicking the Tune-Up button takes you to the Tune-Up Center, where you can check to see if the hard drive needs defragmentation. Each scan takes a different length of time to run, which might affect which one you choose. For example, if you're troubleshooting a computer and want to run Safety Scanner's antivirus scan, just run the protection scan instead of the full service scan.

The first time you select a scan, you must read and accept the service agreement, then click to install the scanner. OneCare supports Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) and is an ActiveX Web-based application that needs permission to run maintenance tasks on your local computer, so you need to grant the Web site a higher level of access than other Web sites you visit. Specifically, the scanner uses pop-up windows, so you must disable any pop-up blockers from the live.com domain. Also, you must agree to install the ActiveX control on the system to use the scanner. If you receive a warning message about this ActiveX control, click the warning banner, then OK, to approve its installation.

Depending on the speed of your computer and Internet connection, it might take a few minutes to download the scanner and its components. When the download is finished, click Launch Scanner to start the wizard that guides you through the scan. Each time you run the scanner, it verifies and downloads any updated modules from live.com, so you must remain connected to the Internet while the scanner runs. Actually this runtime updating is useful as it ensures you’re running the scan with the latest virus definitions. When you run a full scan you can select your preferred scanning options, such as whether to include full or “quick” virus and spyware scans and whether to include a disk defragmentation scan.

After completing the scan, the scanner presents its results and attempts to remediate any findings. Figure 2 shows the results of a protection scan of a system seriously in need of attention.

Other Second, Third, and Fourth Opinions
Several other vendors also offer online scanning services. However, not all scanners include the same features, and each may detect different types of malware. Some of these products support browsers other than IE, too. McAfee provides a free online version of its virus detection program called FreeScan (http://us.mcafee.com/root/catalog.asp?catid=free); Trend Micro offers HouseCall (http://housecall.trendmicro.com); Kaspersky offers Kaspersky Online Scanner (http://www.kaspersky.com/virusscanner); and BitDefender offers BitDefender Online Scanner (http://www.bitdefender.com/scan8/ie.html).

My Diagnosis
I like the one-stop, consistent approach of the Safety Scanner application. I can quickly and easily instruct even a non-techie to visit live.onecare.com, click Safety Scanner, start a Full Service scan, and call me when it’s completed for follow-up activities. Of course, this free version is designed to entice you to subscribe to the more robust Windows Live OneCare service, and at the conclusion of the scan, Microsoft advertises a free trial of OneCare. I also like the accessibility of these maintenance scanners. The free scanning isn’t as robust as that of dedicated programs, but when you’re in the field and need a quick assessment, the Internet-downloadable, free Safety Scanner really comes in handy.