Windows Live OneCare has had a rocky history, but what gets lost in all the silliness is that this product is trendsetting, innovative, and effective at what it does. The latest version, Windows Live OneCare 2.0, is the best yet, and it fixes most of my complaints with the lackluster 1.6 version (see my review) while adding a suite of new functionality that complements the built-in security and PC health features found in Windows Vista. If all you've heard about OneCare is how bad it is, I've got a news flash for you: None of that is true.

What it is

Microsoft describes Windows Live OneCare 2.0 as an all-in-one, self-updating PC care service. Fair enough. Like previous versions, it combines antivirus, anti-spyware, and firewall security features with PC tune-up functionality and a first-class PC backup and restore service. But the latest version takes these features to the next level with centralized multiple-PC management, monthly progress reports, online photo backup, and other new features. That it does so for the same low cost--OneCare 2.0 costs about $50 a year at retail, but it can generally be found for much less--is somewhat amazing. In fact, it's turned the PC security industry on its head. Now, McAfee, Symantec, and other major players are all offering OneCare-like products too. I guess imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery.

I've been up and down on OneCare over the years, and certainly the product has had its share of controversy. The initial version, which shipped for Windows XP in early 2006, was excellent, but Microsoft mucked things up a bit with the release of Vista, which duplicated some of OneCare's core functionality and made some of OneCare's most reviled features--specifically, some overly aggressive information pop-up windows--all the more annoying. By the time OneCare 1.6 shipped in early 2007, I was ready to give up the all-in-one security service for good. Though still decent, OneCare 1.6 was more intrusive than the AVG antivirus product I was using, and many of its other features seemed unnecessary in Vista.

Enter OneCare 2.0. This time around, Microsoft has fleshed out OneCare with the many new features mentioned above--which we'll step through in detail below--and largely removed the annoyances. As important, to me, OneCare isn't a heavy abuser of system resources. You won't notice it's presence as you do with, say, those heavyweight Symantec suites. OneCare 2.0 is all about getting out of your way for the most part. It is an important change.

I've already provided a preview of OneCare 2.0, which was based on preview code Microsoft had made available to the public in mid-2007. Now that the final version is broadly available, I've been using on my three most often-used systems, my primary desktop PC and two notebooks. Here's what I've found out.

Major new features

Like previous OneCare versions, OneCare 2.0 is an all-in-one solution for PC health and maintenance. However, this version includes a number of major new features, which we'll examine now.

Manage multiple PCs

In OneCare 2.0, Microsoft has added an interesting multiple-PC management feature that appears to have two goals. The first is to ensure that customers don't install OneCare on more than three PCs: Whereas previous versions of OneCare were licensed for three PCs but could actually be installed on a virtually unlimited number of machines, this time around, you get three installs per product key. That's fine, of course. But anyone who was happily installing a single copy of OneCare on more PCs will have some thinking to do.

The second aim of this system, of course, is to provide customers with a way to manage multiple (well, up to three) PCs from a single location. And from my use over the past several weeks, it's clear that this system works pretty well.

Basically, Microsoft is introducing a new concept into the OneCare world, the circle, which is a group of PCs on the same home network, all running OneCare. In this circle of up to three PCs, one or more PCs can be denoted as hub PCs, which are capable of monitoring all of the PCs in the circle and, in very limited circumstances, trigger remote PC health fixes. Non-hub PCs simply operate as did OneCare-enabled PCs before: They're unaware of other OneCare-running PCs on the network and operate as if in a standalone install.

Under this new system, a hub PC's OneCare console will have two health shield icons, one for the local system and one for the circle. The goal, as before, is for these shield icons to remain green, which indicates good health. (A yellow icon indicates fair health, such as when a tune-up, backup, or automatic update is overdue. A red icon is more serious: In this case, a PC is at risk and requires immediate attention. ) What's different is that hub PCs monitor not just their own health but also the health of the other PCs on the network. So if your PC's health is fine, but another PC in the circle requires a tune-up, for example, the local PC's status will be good (green), while the circle's status will be fair (yellow). This is reflected both in the aforementioned console and in the OneCare tray icon, which also uses the same three-color system.

I mentioned before that you could use this system to fix other PCs in very limited circumstances. What you can't do is arbitrarily run remote tasks, like backups and tune-ups, on remote PCs. But if another PC in your circle requires attention, you can in fact address that need from a hub PC's OneCare console. My guess is that most people will make their own PC the hub PC and then configure other PCs in the house as non-hub PCs. That way, when you sit down at the PC each day, you can respond to any issues that crop up without having to physically visit the other PCs. This is a wonderful bit of functionality and it works quite well.

Monthly reports

On a related note, OneCare 2.0 also generates comprehensive monthly reports that appear onscreen on hub PCs in your circle. These reports provide an excellent overview of the health of your circle and spell out what steps OneCare may have had to make in that time. The reports are interactive where required as well. If you're not using a particular OneCare feature, for example, the report will provide a way for you to enable it without having to dive into the OneCare console or Settings dialog.

Centralized PC backup and restore

While previous OneCare versions offered excellent backup and restore functionality, with Microsoft improving things over time by making it possible to backup to a network location. Now, in OneCare 2.0, backup and restore has been improved yet again: Now, all PCs in your OneCare circle can be optionally configured to backup to a centralized location, typically an external USB hard drive. This location can be on any of the PCs in the circle--i.e. it does not have to be connected to a hub PC--or an arbitrary network location, including network-attached storage.

If you attach a USB hard drive to a OneCare 2.0-based PC, OneCare will ask you whether you'd like to use that storage as centralized backup. And once centralized backup is configured for all PCs, any new PCs added to the circle will automatically inherit those settings and use that location for backup. You can, of course, optionally configure each PC to backup to different locations, as you could with previous OneCare versions.

Online photo backup

In its first move towards true off-site backup, OneCare 2.0 includes support for online photo backup only (the feature cannot be used to backup documents or other file types). However, online photo backup is considered a premium feature, and thus costs an additional $50 per year for 10 GB of storage. That's not a good deal at all: Google charges just $20 for 10 GB of storage, which can be used across its Gmail, PicasaWeb, and other services. Furthermore, you should understand this feature is intended only for offsite backup: It cannot be used to share photos online, as is the case with most other online photo storage solutions.

Those qualifications out of the way, the service is well-intentioned: With more and more people storing their memories solely in digital form, we're all a hard drive crash away from losing a lot of important data. Certainly, you're going to want to institute some form of offsite backup for photos as well as other important files.

Start-time optimizer

While Windows users can turn to a number of places in the UI to control what applications run when Windows boots, there's never been a truly excellent and centralized control panel for this kind of functionality. (One that comes pretty darn close is Windows Defender, by the way.) OneCare 2.0 seeks to fill this need with a new Start-time Optimizer, which is available via the Tune-up tab of the OneCare Settings dialog. There, you'll see a button labeled Change startup settings, which unleashed one of OneCare's best, and most well-hidden, new features.

The resulting window, simply titled "Turn off unused programs," is fairly obvious: You see an alphabetical list of the applications that have been configured to run when Windows boots up. Next to each application is a set of On-Off toggle switches: Those marked On will run, those marked Off will not. What makes this feature special is that you actually get some information about each application, which is accessed by clicking the little carat character that's found between the icon and name of each entry. This, along with recommendations found next to most but not all entries, should help the non-technical make better decisions about which applications to disable at boot-time: After all, it's not always clear which things are safe to disable.

Automatic printer sharing

While both Windows XP and Vista make it possible for users to manually share printers with each other, many users are simply unaware of this functionality. For this reason, OneCare 2.0 now includes the ability to automatically share printers between all of the PCs in a OneCare circle. Since we only have two printers in my house, and they're shared across the network already, I didn't find much use for this feature personally. But I could see it being helpful for the typical consumers OneCare targets. That said, there are some small omissions. The only notable one concerns the the 32-bit/64-bit divide: If one of your PCs is running an x64 version of Windows, OneCare won't share printers from the 32-bit PCs.

Windows Home Server integration

I don't believe this is documented anywhere, but one of the things I was wondering about OneCare 2.0 has a happy resolution. Both OneCare and Windows Home Server (see my review) include centralized PC backup and restore functionality. The difference between the two solutions, from a high level, is that the WHS backup and restore feature backs up data to the server, whereas OneCare 2.0 can be centralized, typically to USB-based storage, on any PC in the circle. Conceptually, they are similar, though I feel the WHS solution is more sophisticated. (It's also more expensive and complex.) But what happens if you have both? Obviously, you don't want or need two similar and competing backup solutions running simultaneously.

Fortunately, WHS and OneCare 2.0 are aware of each other. If you install OneCare 2.0 on a system that is already protected by WHS, the OneCare 2.0 backup feature will be automatically disabled, with no user intervention required on your part. Obviously, you're free to go into the UI for either or both solutions and configure things differently. But it's nice that Microsoft thought this one through: I've been using both WHS and OneCare 2.0 with the same set of three PCs now for a few weeks and there haven't been any issues.

x64 support

Finally, OneCare supports 64-bit versions of Windows, though only under Windows Vista: All mainstream 32-bit and x64 Vista versions are supported by this product.

Facts and figures

OneCare 2.0 works with all 32-bit versions of Windows XP (Home, Professional, Media Center, and Tablet PC) with Service Pack 2 or higher. (Windows XP Professional x64 Edition is not supported.) All mainstream Windows Vista versions (Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate) are supported, in both 32-bit and 64-bit (x64) guise. IE 7 is required for OneCare's anti-phishing integration.

While you can only have up to three PCs in any given OneCare circle, you can in fact purchase multiple copies of OneCare 2.0 if you have more than three computers. However, doing so won't increase the size of your circle, which seems like a pointless limitation: Why not just allow additional PCs at a set additional cost per year? There is no circle-to-circle communication possible. So you can't, for example, share printers outside of your circle.

OneCare 2.0 is $49.95 in the US. Again, it can be found much more cheaply online and at retailers like Costco.

Final thoughts

Windows Live OneCare 2.0 is an excellent update to a suite of services that has redefined the consumer-oriented PC security software market. As with previous versions of this software, OneCare 2.0 provides excellent anti-virus, anti-spyware, and firewall security functionality, various PC tune-up features, and superb PC backup and restore functionality. The new features, for the most part, are just icing on the cake: Microsoft was able to pull off multi-PC management and backup without making it too complex for real humans, which is quite a feat. The start-time optimizer is valuable for just about anyone. And the Windows Home Server integration and x64 support should quiet most complaints from the more technical crowd. Only the online photo backup feature is ill-conceived: $50 a year for just 10 GB of storage--which can only be used for backup, and not photo sharing--is exorbitant. For this to become competitive, Microsoft will need to lower prices and make purchased storage common and sharable across all of its Windows Live services. Regardless, Windows Live OneCare 2.0 is excellent, and I'll continue using it on all of my PCs. Highly recommended.