Security Suites: Big Protection, Little Fuss

Just a few short years ago, all a PC needed for protection was a basic antivirus program to guard against any malware that arrived via an e-mail attachment, embedded in a shareware application or piggy-backed on a floppy disk.

Just a few short years ago, all a PC needed for protection was a basic antivirus program to guard against any malware that arrived via an e-mail attachment, embedded in a shareware application or piggy-backed on a floppy disk.

These days, however, the threat landscape has changed drastically. Now PC users have to cope not only with viruses, but also with spyware, spam, infected Web sites, adware, key loggers, phishing schemes and much, much more. It's enough to make your head spin.

As a result, properly securing a PC now requires a layered approach that incorporates many security technologies. Although some are still sold in separate packages, most security products are currently gathered in suites, available from a multitude of security software vendors.

The crowded market makes picking a suite a bit of a dilemma for most users. Narrowing down which product to use requires a closer look at what type of protection is available.

Security suites can include some, or all, of the following: antivirus, antispyware, antispam, anti-malware (rootkits, bots, zombies, etc.) and antiphishing tools, plus a link scanner, privacy controls, parental controls, content filtering, registry protection, data filtering and password protection.

In this roundup, I look at nine security suites that include all of the features mentioned above. The suites are BitDefender Internet Security, Kaspersky Internet Security, McAfee Internet Security, Norman Internet Security Suite, Norton Internet Security 2010, Panda Internet Security, Security Shield 2010, Trend Micro Internet Security Pro and ZoneAlarm Internet Security.

How we tested

New viruses and threats arrive every day --and on any given day, one vendor may be a little quicker on the draw to prevent a virus than others. That makes evaluating the strength of a particular anti-malware or antispam product very difficult -- there is never a level playing field.

With that in mind, I tested each security suite based upon factors that affect the user directly. I evaluated each for ease of installation, ease of use, notification capabilities, updating and quality of the interface.

For testing purposes, I used a Toshiba Tecra A11-S3450 notebook computer configured with 4GB of RAM, an Intel Core i7-620M CPU and a 320GB 7,200-rpm hard drive that was running the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Professional.

(Some of these products also have versions for other operating systems, such as Mac OS X, iOS and Android, and other devices, such as netbooks. These are noted in the spec boxes that are included with each review.)

During testing, I installed each product on the Toshiba notebook and timed how long the machine took to boot up, then I compared that figure to the time it had taken the machine to boot up without a security suite installed (see table). After each test, I restored the notebook back to its pretesting condition using Paragon's Backup & Recovery 10 Suite. That way, each product was installed under the exact same conditions, with the same software configuration.

During testing, I looked for telltale signs of poor performance, such as high processor utilization and slow system boots. I also noted the overall responsiveness of the interface. And I took a look at what suites proved to be overly intrusive, getting in the way of effectively using your PC by, for example, bombarding you with messages and warnings.

It's important to note the evolution of the products tested here, each of which has changed significantly with each new version. As malware has become more sophisticated, so have security suites.

One interesting trend is the inclusion of digital sandboxes, which work by executing unknown applications in protected memory to detect any malicious behavior before allowing the application to access the system. Another innovation is application-stamping, where known good applications are whitelisted, allowing the anti-malware software/firewall to skip rescanning the applications whenever they are launched. That helps to speed up application launches and minimize the CPU cycles needed by the security software.

What's more, security software vendors are becoming more proactive about protecting your PC, especially when it comes to updating signatures. Many of the products here check for new signatures several times a day, which is helpful for combating zero-day threats from new exploits.

All in all, today's Internet security suites are becoming more sophisticated and are blazing new trails in protection technologies.

BitDefender Internet Security 2010

Romania-based BitDefender SRL only has a fraction of the U.S. security market, which is dominated by industry giants Symantec Corp. and McAfee Inc. But BitDefender has a solid following in Europe. BitDefender Internet Security 2010 comes at a bargain price of $49.95 for three PCs, which is $10 to $20 cheaper than the prices of most other Internet security suites.

Internet Security 2010 comes with all of the expected bells and whistles; it's a complete suite that includes everything typical desktop users need to secure their systems, from firewall protection to antispam features.

Internet protection

BitDefender's firewall is easy to set up. The product seems to understand what ports and protocols are normally used by a PC, as well as the standard communications performed by common applications. That helps to prevent annoying pop-ups and warnings.

Like most anti-malware products, BitDefender relies on signature files to identify problems. However, the product's B-Have module also runs unknown files in a sandbox to detect malicious behavior. In addition, the company has added another layer of protection called Active Virus Control, which further analyzes programs and blocks them if they misbehave.

The product offers a few nifty features. For example, the integrated Wi-Fi monitor offers a way to see if anyone is trying to connect to your Wi-Fi network or to your PC using a Wi-Fi connection.

The firewall's Game Mode is another plus. Most online games work best when a firewall is disabled; however, users can easily forget to turn the firewall back on once they're done playing. The Game Mode acts like a switch that allows games to function and then returns the firewall to full functionality once a game is over.

Parental controls support multiple users, multiple policies and multiple exceptions, allowing you to set up custom access for each minor that might use your PC.

BitDefender's antispam capabilities work with Outlook, Outlook Express, Windows Mail and Thunderbird; it will analyze e-mail messages and send spam into a "Deleted Items" folder. If you use a different e-mail client, you can use message rules to route obvious spam into a junk folder.

Usability

BitDefender Internet Security 2010 includes some major enhancements to improve the ease of installation and ease of use.

Product specs

BitDefender Internet Security 2010

Company: BitDefender SRL

Price: $49.95 for as many as three PCs (includes one year of updates and support)

Operating systems: Windows XP/Vista/7, OS X 10.4.6 or later; Windows Mobile Pocket PC versions 2002 or later; Windows Mobile Smartphone 2002 or later; Symbian 60, Symbian 80

Installation and initial configuration use templates to speed and simplify the process. During the install, you choose from four user types (typical, parent, gamer or custom) and three interface levels (novice, intermediate or expert). It basically comes down to what type of user you are -- do you want the product to just do its job behind the scenes, or do you want an active hand in what is happening?

I installed BitDefender using the "typical" and "expert" choices and found the custom interface straightforward to work with. You can change your user type and/or interface level later if you wish.

The interface is laid out clearly and most functions are easy to locate and find -- although it does not offer the same level of polish and integrated help as some other products on the market. For example, BitDefender does not offer context-sensitive help that can drill down farther into definitions of the problem and recommended actions. The interface has features buried under menus and has some elements hidden under submenus. But on the whole, BitDefender Internet Security 2010 should not be difficult to master.

If you do run into problems, the company offers excellent tech support resources. If you need personal assistance, you can call support 24/7 or send an e-mail or instantly connect via live chat with a support specialist. The company also offers a wealth of resources on its Web site, ranging from searchable documents to a user forum.

Performance-wise, BitDefender worked well, although some initial scans were both CPU-intensive (sometimes CPU utilization hit 99%, at other times it was as low as 5%) and time-intensive, taking some 30 minutes to perform a complete scan on my Toshiba notebook. Luckily, the product builds a list of all the "scanned good" files on the system and can skip rescanning those files in the future.

Coming soon

The company is expecting to release a beta of BitDefender Internet Security 2011 sometime around August. Although details are sketchy, users can expect faster scan speeds and improvements in spyware detection that minimize false positives, as well as an antispam component that supports more e-mail clients out of the box.

Conclusion

BitDefender Internet Security 2010 comes in at a lower price than its competitors and offers all of the needed security features for the typical desktop user. However, it lacks the polish of some of the other products on the market.

Kaspersky Internet Security 2010

Moscow-based Kaspersky Labs is well known to the IT community: The company has been making security products since 1997, it reported revenue of $480 million in 2009, and it claims to have a user base of more than 300 million. Its premium PC product is Kaspersky Internet Security 2010, which offers a comprehensive suite of security features that should meet any PC user's needs.

Internet protection

Most users will like how Kaspersky's firewall works. It's easy to define simple firewall policies, yet you can delve deeper down into the firewall functions and block individual ports, requests or other types of traffic.

Like BitDefender, Kaspersky has a digital sandbox -- it's called Safe Run -- that allows you to run new applications and browser sessions in a sandbox.

I found that the firewall was less intrusive than others on the market, thanks mostly to its efficient use of its whitelist of approved programs. The product also offers antispam capabilities which, unlike some other antispam tools, work with IMAP-based e-mail accounts as well as common

POP3 accounts.

Users in households with underage humans will appreciate the parental controls, which are easy to set up and are capable of blocking access to the Web by categories or even by a schedule -- making sure that innocent eyes don't glance upon the seamy side of the Web. And an integrated link scanner warns users of suspect Web sites and other browser-related issues before an actual problem arises.

Usability

Of the suites reviewed here, Kaspersky Internet Security 2010 was one of the easiest to install. A wizard steps you through the process, and only one reboot is required. The default settings and policies will prove quite adequate for most users.

The software proved to be relatively easy to work with as well -- most of the typical technobabble has been eliminated and plain English explanations abound, making it easy for even people who are new to PC security to effectively configure the software. For those who need help, Kaspersky offers several options for support: phone, e-mail or online chat sessions. Users also have the option of accessing a community of users, where they can get advice from Kaspersky staffers.

The interface contains several submenus and is divided up cleanly by task. The scanning options are easy to locate and are split up in a logical fashion, making it easy to find a particular scan and execute it quickly.

Product specs

Kaspersky Internet Security 2010

Company: Kaspersky Lab ZAO

Price: $59.95 for as many as three PCs (includes one year of updates and support)

Operating systems: Windows XP/Vista/7, Mac OS 10.4.11 or later, Symbian 9.1 or later, Windows Mobile 5.0 or later

Scanning runs as a background process, allowing you to continue to work while a comprehensive scan takes place. On my test system, scanning went unnoticed; it had little impact on my ability to perform other tasks. A glance at the Windows Task Manager showed processor utilization increased less than 10% during an active scan. I found that the active notifications kept me well informed of potential problems without hounding me constantly.

I was able to run the full suite on a netbook with no problems.

Coming soon

Kaspersky Internet Security 2011 is currently in private beta and should be available sometime in August.

New features will include a desktop gadget that will offer customizable buttons for quick access to product features and will display the current security status using red, yellow, or green indicators.

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