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.

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Kaspersky Internet Security 2010 is a good value and covers all the bases well for users of Windows 7, Vista or XP PCs. Purchasers will be happy with the fast performance and the ability to limit the barrage of security messages that most competing products unleash. The next version of the product promises important improvements that could make the Kaspersky Internet Security one of the best security suites on the market.

McAfee Internet Security 2010

McAfee software has undergone quite a few enhancements since the company started offering security products in 1987. The latest incarnation, McAfee Internet Security 2010, has a completely new interface, feel and installation process. That's a good thing, since many neophyte users complained about all of those elements in previous versions, leaving only advanced users enamored with the product's capabilities.

Internet protection

McAfee Internet Security 2010 offers a variety of malware scanning options, including on-demand, real-time or according to a schedule. As with most Internet security products, McAfee Internet Security 2010 offers a firewall, parental controls, antispam tools and filters.

The firewall monitors all data that enters or leaves your PC and keeps an eye on your computer's ports, as a firewall should. Basic setup was easy; McAfee uses predefined settings to get your PC secured quickly. On the other hand, manually setting up firewall rules and policies was complicated, definitely more so than with competing products. The process lacks effective help and choices, and it assumes that users have advanced knowledge of how a firewall should work.

In addition, users will want to make sure to set the firewall to standard mode, because the default, out-of-the-box settings don't block all critical ports on the firewall, leaving some open, such as FTP and POP3. McAfee should consider making the firewall's standard mode the default mode -- currently, the product leaves too many things unprotected in its default configuration, probably to suit the needs of gamers and those that have fewer concerns about security when accessing the Web.

On the other hand, you can block all network traffic between your computer and the Internet with a single click. That's a handy way to keep your computer secure when you're not actively using the Internet.

Out of the box, the integrated antispam application works with Outlook and Thunderbird, with no need for additional integration steps. Since the antispam application supports both IMAP and POP3, it is easily configured to work with other e-mail products that are not predefined in the product.

Parental control options are limited and only offer basic protection. I was able to block Web sites, limit time on the Internet and filter keywords, but not much more. The keyword filter lets you assign an age group to any keyword you choose. If a site has the keyword, parental controls will block it.

McAfee's SiteAdvisor component installs into your browser and warns you about dangerous sites. SiteAdvisor uses McAfee's Global Threat Intelligence network to identify phishing or hacked sites and warns the user before any damage can occur.

Usability

Installation was easy and the configuration wizard did a decent job of stepping me through the options. However, many of the help screens, notifications and warnings were somewhat cryptic and felt like they had been thrown together quickly -- or translated from another language.

Product specs

McAfee Internet Security 2010

Company:McAfee Inc.

Price: $44.99 for up to three PCs (includes one year of updates and support)

Operating systems: Windows XP/Vista/7

McAfee has put a great deal of work into improving the user experience, and those efforts do show in the product's new interface. The GUI is divvied up into logical sections; with only a quick glance, I could tell the status of the system thanks to the color-coded status screens and bold messages that said either "No Action Required" or, if there was a problem, "Action Required."

Each primary menu choice launches a submenu that features options that allow you to configure the product. You choose each option simply by clicking on a dialog box, which offers a green circle when enabled. However, if you are looking to set up a custom rule or setting, figuring out how to do that is a challenge -- after something of a hunt, I found that I had to drill down through several menu levels to locate the custom settings.

Performance-wise, the product was fairly effective -- most of the scans on the test system only increased CPU utilization a few percentage points. However, utilization spiked to almost a 100% when doing a manual scan of compressed files.

Overall, most users should not experience any slowdowns that affect day-to-day activities, with the exception of the system boot which, as was the case with most of the other suites in this roundup, increased after the product was installed.

Those looking for help with McAfee's software will be disappointed that the company charges for technical phone support, with prices ranging from $9.95 to $59.95. The company does offer online support, user groups and the usual bevy of free support options, but if you want a human being on the phone, you have to pay.

Coming soon

Like most vendors of Internet security software, McAfee frequently upgrades its products. However, the company has not released any information on what's in store for McAfee Internet Security 2011.

Conclusion

McAfee Internet Security 2010 covers the basics well, offers an interface that's easy to use and comes at an affordable price. However, the lack of free technical support and the inability to easily set up custom rules and policies makes McAfee Internet Security 2010 a product to avoid for most power users.

Norman Security Suite

Oslo, Norway-based Norman ASA is well known in Europe for its security products and has started to get recognition in the U.S. with its straightforward, easy-to-use software. Case in point is Norman Security Suite, a comprehensive Internet protection offering. While it doesn't stand out against its competition, it is a competent product that adequately does what it's supposed to do -- protect PCs from Internet-borne threats.

Internet protection

The product offers real-time, on-demand and scheduled virus scans. During on-demand scans, the product is very informative, displaying a progress graph that offers interesting tidbits of information, such as what has been found and what is being scanned. While most security products offer that capability, Norman's is more descriptive, offering file names and a running status of problems found.

Software can be configured to automatically scan and shows a progress report in the form of a graph. The antivirus and antispyware program offers protection from instant-messaging attachments, viruses and other forms of malware. Scheduled scans can be performed in "screen saver" mode, which, during periods of inactivity, launches a screen saver that also executes a scan of the files on the PC.

Norman's firewall offers professional-level logging that can be used to identify any activity detected by the firewall, which is useful for tracking down suspicious activity. I found the firewall pretty easy to set up and the management console quite detailed.

Although the firewall is geared toward more technically savvy users, most people should be able to figure out how to use it. I found the integrated tools, such as the port monitor and real-time packet logs, a real bonus. Those tools give you a real feel for what is exactly happening on a PC when it's connected to the Internet.

However, neophyte users might find a few of the features a little complicated. For example, Norman offers a "digital sandbox" -- questionable code is placed in a sandbox for further testing, and ideally that code (if infected) will activate in the sandbox, before entering the actual operating system. It's an important feature, but Norman's sandbox requires more end-user interaction than those of competing products, such as McAfee, ZoneAlarm and Trend Micro.

I found Norman's parental controls easy to set up, thanks to a wizard that guides you through the process. You can set it for multiple users, time limitations and password-protected access. However, users looking for more granular control over parental settings will find Norman's choices more limited; it lets you select only generalized settings such as "child" and "teenager."

The same can be said for Norman's antispam tool. It works with both POP3 and IMAP e-mail accounts and supports all of the popular e-mail clients. However, while it is easy to set up and configure, it doesn't stand out among its competitors -- for example, customization is limited to a few "block" or "deny" rules for e-mail messages that fall outside of the normal spam/not spam calculations.

The link scanner, Surf-Shield, worked for the most part, blocking access to scam sites and links that were known to be infected. However, the warnings were somewhat vague, offering little information on why a specific site was a problem.

The firewall also suffered from a lack of descriptiveness: It was able to block unauthorized programs but did not provide much follow-up information. It would have been nice if the firewall offered a little more guidance than just reporting that an application was trying to access the Internet.

In short, Norman lacks some of the bells and whistles found on other products -- features such as extensive reporting and customizable warning screens.

Usability

Installation of Norman Security Suite is straightforward. During the install process, you will have to enter a key code and reboot your system at least one time (pretty standard fare with a security suite).

Product specs

Norman Security Suite

Company: Norman ASA

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

Operating systems: Windows XP/Vista/7, Linux (antivirus)

One interesting thing Norman does during the installation is ask for the user's "experience level." You can choose experienced or inexperienced -- I chose the latter, just to see what would happen. For an inexperienced user, the setup is mostly automated and only asks simple questions, such as what browser you primarily use and whether or not you are on a network. The installation for experienced users was initially more time-consuming; however, having the ability to set defaults during the installation saved time later on, because I didn't have to go back into the configuration settings to make changes to meet my specific needs.

Once installed, Norman is fairly simple to use. The main screen, which acts as the main menu interface, offers a view of the various categories or modules that make up Norman, including the status of each (for example, whether any malware has been intercepted).

Categories include Virus & Spyware Protection, Personal Firewall, Parental Controls, Install and Update and Support Center. Each selection sports submenus that avoid technobabble, making it simple to make minor changes and understand what is going on with the product.

Virus scans were very processor-intensive -- when running a scan, even on my Intel i7-powered Toshiba, there was a noticeable lag in system performance, with processor utilization spiking to near 100%. I wouldn't recommend using this product on a netbook or an older, less-powerful PC.

Coming soon

There's a lot of room for improvement in this product, and although Norman wouldn't release any details about the next version, the company did tell me that it will address some of these concerns in the near future.

Conclusion

Norman Security Suite does an adequate job of protecting a PC from the ills of the Internet. The Pro version ($75.95) adds intrusion detection and prevention and may be a better choice for those looking for a more robust firewall. However, potential buyers might want to wait and see what the next version has to offer.

Norton Internet Security 2010

Symantec's Norton Internet Security 2010 is the 800-pound gorilla in the room, simply because Norton-branded security products have been the ones to beat for several years.

Of course, name recognition doesn't always mean a product is the best. Symantec strives to keep competitors at bay and is constantly improving its offerings. Norton Internet Security 2010 is no exception.

Internet protection

Norton's firewall is very easy to set up and controls Internet access for known good programs. In other words, if a program needs to access the Internet to function and is on the "good" list, the firewall will allow that access without any user intervention. Examples include programs that check for version updates, patches or need to retrieve data to function. The product also deletes known malware, such as rootkits, adware and any application that has been blacklisted. What's more, the firewall keeps an eye on the behavior of unknowns, all without pestering the user with cryptic security questions.

One interesting feature is Symantec's Quorum reputation index. Here all known files are assigned a reputation level, which is based upon continually updated data from Symantec's customers. Files that have given no one any problems have a high reputation, while files that have been easily infected or compromised have a low reputation. If a program being downloaded has a low reputation, the user is informed and can abort the download or decide not to execute the application.

Norton also utilizes its SONAR2 engine, which, according to Symantec, uses all sources of information, including the reputation index, to judge whether a file should be classified as suspicious and subjected to more in-depth testing.

Parents will like how easy it is to set up parental controls and keep a tab on what little Billy and Janie can access. The product integrates with an online offering called OnlineFamily.Norton, a Web service that is free for Norton customers.

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