Microsoft has released a free beta version of Windows Live OneCare 2.0, its all-in-one security suite for consumers and small businesses.

Microsoft's one-stop toolset for PC security and maintenance, the latest version of OneCare Live delivers a host of enhancements to the software, which received poor reviews in its version 1.5 iteration. The improvements include support for multiple PCs on a local-area network (LAN), home network management and printer-sharing support on LANs.

Now available as free download from Microsoft, OneCare 2.0 also adds options to back up data and protect against malware attacks. In addition, the new beta, which includes firewall, anti-virus (AV), backup and anti-spyware programs, includes functionality to help secure wireless networks and an automated, self-configuring firewall.

Microsoft said it has added more proactive system fixes and end-user configuration suggestions to the service portion of the package. The new version also generates monthly reports on critical PC events and recommended upgrades.

The centralized backup option allows users to configure and monitor automated storage controls for all of the PCs supported via a single OneCare subscription, which can cover up to three PCs.

The OneCare beta software's tune-up process analyzes the configuration of a user's system and corrects problems or recommends modifications to make it perform faster. By removing rarely used applications from the start-up menu, the new version can also improve the PC's boot time.

OneCare has received mixed reaction from users and reviewers since Microsoft first released it in May 2006. One the pro side, the 1.5 version's cost, a $49.95 yearly subscription to manage and protect as many as three PCs, caught the attention of price-sensitive consumers. Microsoft hasn't released pricing nor availability dates for the shipping version of OneCare 2.0 yet.

The earlier version's performance in head-to-head reviews against similar products has been so-so, however. For instance, researchers at AV-Comparatives, an Austria-based organization managed by security expert Andreas Clementi, rated OneCare last in a comparative test with similar products from more than a dozen anti-virus developers. The products were tested in their ability to detect Windows viruses, worms, macros, scripts and other OS threats.

Meanwhile, Microsoft on Thursday said at its Worldwide Partner Conference that its Security Software Advisor (SSA) program, which was launched last July, has more than 4,000 participating partners. SSA provides incentives to reseller partners who recommend or deploy Microsoft's Forefront enterprise-focused security products.

The company also said it is expanding its Security Solutions Competency program for resellers' technical professionals with new specializations, certifications, and program benefits. This will "more closely align the program with how partners sell infrastructure solutions and serve as trusted advisors to their customers," Microsoft said in a prepared statement.

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