Microsoft has gone into the antispyware business with the launch of a free beta version of Microsoft AntiSpyware. The software is now available in a beta release and covers all the basics a PC user needs when it comes to spyware and adware detection and removal.

In fact, Microsoft AntiSpyware really is a collection of security and privacy tools that bundles a host of features, such as one that alerts you if someone tries to piggyback bandwidth off your wireless network.

The package is simply a branded version of Giant Company Software's AntiSpyware program, which has been on the market for some time. Microsoft purchased Giant last year. The 6.4MB program works with Windows 2000, Windows XP and Windows Server 2003.

Paul Bryan, Microsoft's director of product management for its Security, Business and Technology unit wouldn't say whether the Microsoft AntiSpyware program would remain free after beta testing ends in July.

In its current form, Microsoft AntiSpyware looks like a winner. It has an intuitive interface that will appeal to Microsoft loyalists. The program is broken down into three main tabs including Scanning, Real-Time Protection and Advanced Tools, which includes privacy and security features. These features are identical to core features in Giant AntiSpyware.

But Microsoft skeptics will likely find plenty to criticise. For example, a browser- settings lockdown feature can only restore Internet Explorer browser settings to point back to MSN as your home page, IE as your default browser and MSN Search as your default search engine. Another feature that erases your history files works with Microsoft programs but not FireFox, Opera and AOL software.

The primary Scanning function of Microsoft AntiSpyware is fast and thorough. We found it able to identify the same three spyware threats that veteran spyware detectors Spybot Search and Destroy and Ad-Aware found on the system we tested with. During an informal test, Microsoft AntiSpyware's scanning engine was able to scour a drive about twice as fast as Spybot Search and Destroy. Ad-Aware, however, was the fastest of the three.

Once threats are identified, Microsoft AntiSpyware displays detailed information about detected programs including where a threat is located on your computer, a risk rating, and a recommended action to take. From the Scanning tab you can also schedule the program to perform scans daily, weekly or monthly, allowing for automatic deletion or quarantining of spyware once it's detected.

Microsoft AntiSpyware goes well beyond scanning and removing spyware. A host of functions found under the Real-Time Protection tab help you protect key system processes, applications, and internet features often targeted by adware and spyware makers and hackers.

For example, under the System Agents tab, the program keeps watch over your dial-up and WiFi connections, making sure you are aware if a third party tries to access your network. Other aspects of real-time protection are Spam Zombie Prevention, which makes sure your PC isn't turned into a spam-spewing machine, and Winsock Layer Service Provider, which assures you that spyware isn't monitoring and recording your network traffic.

The Application Agent component keeps watch over key applications and processes--for example, your Microsoft Startup Files--and makes sure that the list of programs that load automatically when Windows starts is not added to without your knowledge. Other application lockdowns that prevent programs from being modified by third party applications apply to Internet Explorer browser toolbars, bookmarks and your Start page.

We liked Microsoft AntiSpyware and see it as a needed addition to Microsoft-authored security tools for average users. Our fingers are crossed that Microsoft will keep this collection of security and privacy tools free.

However, we don't recommend that you stop using competing products such as Spybot Search and Destroy or Ad-Aware. It's always a good idea to scan your system with another product (but not at the same time), just to make sure every single spyware and adware application is zapped.