Microsoft released a free beta version of Windows Live OneCare 2.0, its next-generation desktop security and management package.

The company says the new version offers a number of improvements, including the ability to monitor multiple PCs on a local network.

Available for free from Microsoft's website, OneCare 2.0 - which is aimed specifically at consumers and small businesses - also adds new functionality for backing-up data and protecting against malware attacks.

Introduced roughly six months after the launch of Microsoft's OneCare 1.5 in January 2007, the beta - which like its predecessors includes firewall, AV (antivirus), backup, and antispyware programs – adds new tools for securing wireless networks and an automated, self-adjusting firewall.

Among the new management features being introduced in the product are support for the sharing of printers among multiple computers, a start time optimiser for speeding computer boot cycles, and an online backup system for photos and other images.

As part of the service portion of the offering, Microsoft said it has added more proactive system fixes and end-user configuration suggestions to the package along with monthly reports on important computer events or recommended upgrades.

OneCare 2.0’s centralised backup feature allows users to configure and monitor automated storage controls for all PCs covered under a lone OneCare subscription - which can cover up to three machines - in a single network location.

The newest iteration of the package also adds support for 64-bit PCs.

Microsoft, whose security software product business remains in its early stages, is the third major company to release a new version of its consumer security tools in the past month as both McAfee and Symantec have also revamped their competing applications.

Microsoft gave no indication as to when it might push OneCare 2.0 from beta into production but said it is actively seeking feedback from users who decide to try out the package.

Since its initial launch in May 2006 OneCare has drawn mixed reviews from end users and security researchers. While many experts have said that the product's pricing - £37.99 for protection and management of up to three PCs for one year - has drawn the interest of many consumers, the product has fared poorly against its rivals in some head-to-head bake-offs.

In such a comparison study published in March 2007 by researchers at AV-Comparatives - a project based in Austria and overseen by security researcher Andreas Clementi - OneCare performed poorly next to similar products made by Symantec, McAfee, Kaspersky Lab, BitDefender, Fortinet, F-Secure, and several other antivirus providers.

See: Windows OneCare last in AV test

According to the report, OneCare ranked last among the products tested in detecting Windows viruses, worms, macros, scripts, and other OS threats, detecting 91 percent of the threats.

In stopping intrusion through backdoors, Trojan viruses and other malware attacks, OneCare also ranked last out of 13 vendors with 79.6 percent detection.

Despite any perceived shortcomings in OneCare, at least one industry analyst said that Microsoft has had a significant impact on the consumer AV market, specifically around pricing.

By offering coverage for multiple PCs for much less than it would have cost using older products from market leaders Symantec and McAfee, Microsoft has forced those companies and others to drop their own pricing and changed consumer perceptions about the cost of AV tools, said Natalie Lambert, analyst for Forrester Research.