Later this year, Microsoft will ship a major upgrade to its Windows Live OneCare PC health and safety subscription product. Dubbed OneCare 2.0, the new version adds significant new functionality and capabilities to what was already a unique and full-featured product. The best news is that it's available to one and all, right now, as part of a public beta program.

In this preview, I'll highlight all of the new features so you can determine whether you might want to evaluate the public beta. When OneCare 2.0 is released in final form by the end of 2007, I'll provide a more thorough review that examines how well this new functionality performs and how the product compares to competitors such as Norton 360. (Note that I've already written a comparison of the current, shipping version of OneCare (1.6) and Norton 360 if you're interested in such things.)

A short history of OneCare

The origins of Windows Live OneCare begin about a half decade ago, when Microsoft began planning its subscription-based anti-virus service, which would be made available alongside other similar third-party services through a plug-in feature in Windows Vista (then called Longhorn). Those plans were essentially scrapped, but Microsoft expanded on this notion by adding other PC health and security features and creating the MSN OneCare product. With the migration to the Windows Live services in 2005, OneCare was moved into that product line and the first version shipped to the public in early 2006 (see my review). That version was compatible only with mainstream 32-bit versions of Windows XP, which was still the current version at the time.

Microsoft updated OneCare 1.x a few times during 2006, and version 1.5 arrived in January 2007, sporting compatibility with Windows Vista (though, again, only 32-bit versions were supported). OneCare 1.6 shipped in late May 2007, adding just minor changes.

OneCare functionality and its effect on the industry

Windows Live OneCare is a subscription service that retails for about $49, though you can often find it for a lot less if you shop around. (Try volume retailers like Costco for the best deals in the US; I once saw it on sale for just $11.) For this yearly fee, you can protect up to three PCs in your home with integrated anti-virus and anti-spyware (the latter through integration with Microsoft's free Windows Defender tool), a two-way firewall that is more powerful than the one in Windows XP with Service Pack 2 (SP2) or Vista, integration with Windows Update and Automatic Updates to ensure your PC is up-to-date, PC tune-up functionality like auto-disk defrag, and a nice backup and restore feature.

When Microsoft first announced this product, it caused waves of fear throughout the client security market: Companies like McAfee and Symantec were used to selling expensive, resource-intensive security suites, but OneCare was inexpensive and went well beyond the standard PC security feature set. As soon as Microsoft announced OneCare, these companies began working on their own OneCare-like products. The first, Norton 360, shipped earlier this year, and McAfee is currently beta-testing its own OneCare-like offering.

Symantec and McAfee were also concerned about the antitrust ramifications of OneCare: Microsoft, they said, should not be able to profit off the vulnerabilities in Windows by creating its own technologies to fix them and then sell them back to consumers. I actually sort of agree with that, and have argued that OneCare should simply be part of Windows. But looked at a different way, Symantec, McAfee and others have had a free ride for years, making billions off the back of the popularity of Windows, which is what really draws the hackers in the first place. Certainly, Microsoft should be allowed to compete in that market as well. And if Microsoft had, as I suggested, added OneCare to Windows, security companies would have levied antitrust charges at the company.

Since OneCare first shipped, then, Symantec, McAfee, and others have turned their attention to actually competing with the product, and there have been some spurious charges about OneCare's ineffectiveness against malware. These charges are complete tripe: OneCare is certified by some of the most well-respected and authoritative testers of security products, including ICSA Labs, Virus Bulletin, and West Coast Labs. And in my own admittedly unscientific testing--I only have so many PCs, after all--OneCare has proven effective in keeping malware off my systems.

In the end, OneCare's effect on the market has been positive: Competitors have either shipped or will soon ship products that are suspiciously OneCare-like, so Microsoft has really changed the way that consumers and security companies alike think about these products. Now, the notion of PC security is more holistic and has expanded into related services like PC maintenance and performance, backup, and overall PC care. Even if you end up using a competing product, it's quite likely that whatever solution you do use will have been influenced by OneCare's feature set.

Enter 2.0: What to expect

Later this year, Microsoft will ship the next major upgrade to Windows Live OneCare, which received the 2.0 moniker. OneCare 2.0 builds off of previous versions, and thus includes all of the functionality you've come to expect. But it also adds a host of new features, many of which are quite valuable. Here, I will highlight the new features in Windows Live OneCare 2.0.

Enhanced functionality on Windows XP

I'm calling this one out first, because I think it's an important point to make, and one that could affect many XP users: In general, Windows Vista is more secure than Windows XP, because of deep architectural changes to the system. However, certain OneCare features balance things out a bit, because they improve on features that appear in both XP and Vista. In currently shipping OneCare versions, the firewall is a good example, and it's been updated again in 2.0: The OneCare firewall is safer and more malleable than the firewall that Microsoft ships in XP or Vista. And in OneCare 2.0, Microsoft even brings a few Vista security features down level to XP, which is exciting news. A good example of this is the Wi-Fi connection security functionality, which we'll discuss below: On Vista, this feature builds off of functionality that is present in Windows Vista. But since XP does not include this functionality, OneCare adds it to XP. Nice.

As always, OneCare also integrates deeply with other Windows security features to ensure that your system is always configured in the most secure possible fashion. For example, OneCare monitors the Internet Explorer (IE) 7 phishing filter and Microsoft Update to ensure you're safe and up-to-date. In OneCare 2.0, OneCare integrates with the printer sharing mechanism in Windows (see below) to ensure that any configured printers are automatically shared with other users on the network.

Multi-PC management

Previous versions of OneCare could be installed on multiple PCs in your home, a handy feature given the percentage of consumers in multi-PC households these days. In OneCare 2.0, Microsoft turns it up a notch by providing centralized multi-PC management. It does this by introducing a few new concepts to the OneCare world. First, a group of related OneCare-protected PCs on a home or small business network is now referred to as a circle. You manage your circle of PCs via an install of OneCare that's been designated as the hub. From this hub, you get extra tools for managing the health of the other PCs. Meanwhile, the non-hub PCs see the traditional OneCare UI, which provides access to just the local machine.

Obviously, this is a huge change. What's excellent about it is that you can now remotely configure how OneCare behaves on other PCs in your home (or small business). So, for example, you can make sure that the kid's PC upstairs is always configured securely, without having to manually go to the machine, logon, and do the work yourself. This functionality extends to such things as backup, too: You can configure other PCs in your circle to automatically backup to any storage device on the network. Neat.

Automatic printer sharing

If you've configured a printer on any PC in your OneCare circle, that printer will be automatically shared with all of the other PCs in the circle, so you'll only need to configure it once. This feature integrates with the Windows Point and Print technology in both Windows XP and Vista, but because it works automatically, it doesn't require any work on your part. There are some caveats, however: It can't work across 32-bit and 64-bit machines, so a printer shared from a 32-bit version of Windows will only work with other 32-bit versions of Windows. And as you might expect, the PC which is sharing the printer must be running for that shared resource to be available.

Wi-Fi connection security

Now, OneCare provides a handy Wireless Network Setup wizard that guides you through the process of protecting your wireless network and then connecting clients to that network. This is important because of the sheer number of unprotected wireless networks out there: Apparently, the utilities that come with these networking devices are too difficult for normal people to configure them correctly. On supported routers from Belkin, Buffalo, D-Link, Linksys, Netgear, and others, OneCare can securely configure wireless networking automatically. However, it's only compatible with 128-bit WEP security, which is hardly the best solution out there, given the availability of superior WPA security. I'll test this feature over the summer and report back with more information in my eventual review.

Proactive PC health fixes and recommendations

When OneCare runs its regularly scheduled Tune-up process, which performs a number of PC health and maintenance-related tasks, including disk defragmentation, unnecessary file removal, malware scanning, file backup, and critical update installation, the product also examines your PC to determine whether it is configured in the most secure and performant possible manner. OneCare will then proactively make changes to your configuration so that you don't have problems down the road. What's interesting about this functionality is that while it works with built-in Windows and Microsoft product features, it also performs proactive fixes on a number of third party products as well.

OK, so what does this mean? Well, OneCare can do things like turn the IE 7 pop-up blocker on if it's disabled. It can remove broken entries from the startup process. It adjusts Microsoft Office macro security settings to their default values. And it clears failed jobs from the print queue so that users connected to your shared printer can actually print their own documents without wondering what's wrong. In the third party space, OneCare works with popular software like Adobe's Flash Player, the Java Runtime, and Adobe Acrobat Reader, as well as various DVD burner solutions and display and graphics card drivers. There are hundreds of proactive fixes currently in the public beta of OneCare 2.0, and Microsoft tells me it will add many more over time.

In addition to proactively fixing certain issues, OneCare 2.0 will provide recommendations about other, less serious, problems. These recommendations are delivered through action items in the OneCare UI and in the product's monthly reports.

Start-time optimizer

OneCare 2.0 expands on the Tune-up feature in previous OneCare versions by also providing a new Start-time optimizer that monitors which applications are automatically run every time your PC boots and displaying a list of those apps which you rarely use. You can then remove these items from the boot process, speeding your PC's boot time and the overall performance of the system.

As currently configured, you won't see any start-time recommendations until you've used OneCare for a week. Microsoft may change this interval in the shipping version of the product, based on beta tester feedback.

Online photo backup

As the world moves inevitably from optical disk storage formats like CD and DVD to USB-based storage and now, increasingly, to online storage options, OneCare is evolving to meet the changing needs of consumers. As a first step into the dark waters of online backup, OneCare 2.0 offers a single option: Online photo backup. Coincidentally, I've spent the past few months doing just this, and to date, I've backed up over 22 GB of photos--four and a half years worth--to Google's PicasaWeb service. And no wonder this is such a pressing concern: These are memories, stored in digital form, and losing them to a hard drive failure, fire, or other disaster would be hard to take. Offsite online backup is an excellent option and one that all users should consider.

In OneCare 2.0, online photo backup occurs through a new Live.com service called Windows Live OneCare Online Backup, so you'll need a Windows Live ID (formerly Passport account), which is typically tied to a Hotmail email address. You'll also need a registered and activated version of OneCare 2.0, which means that this feature won't be available to most beta testers. My understanding is that the initial, free backup space will be pretty limited--probably 1 GB--but that users will be able to pay for more space on a yearly basis, per other similar offerings.

Monthly reports

While OneCare is often applauded for doing its work quietly in the background, some users asked Microsoft if they could get occasional updates from the product to see how things were going. To this end, the new monthly reports feature provides a nice monthly dashboard view from which you can see backup results, tune-up results, malware protection status, firewall protection status, and, if necessary, a list of steps to take to fix any problems.

x64 support

Many Windows Vista users will be excited to hear that OneCare, finally, is compatible with the x64 versions of that operating system. (Note that OneCare will not work with x64 versions of Windows XP, however.) At install time, the OneCare Setup utility will detect which version of the OS you're running and install the appropriate code. So if you're using an x64 version of Vista, you'll get a native 64-bit version of OneCare.

Not-so-final thoughts

I'll be using OneCare 2.0 pretty heavily for the next few months to determine how well the product actually works, and I'm curious to see whether Microsoft has fixed any of the niggling issues I have with previous versions. But the feature set for OneCare 2.0 is certainly impressive, and it looks like Microsoft is doing a good job of keeping the product relevant and interesting. Stay tuned for more information.