The Best Security May Still Be Free

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, November 5, 2006

Security software doesn't exactly top most people's wish lists. You know you need it -- how else will you protect Windows against viruses, spyware, trojans and whatever other creepy stuff the Internet throws at you? But there's no joy attached to using these defensive programs.

That's somewhat unavoidable with software that, by nature, has zero productivity or entertainment value. Anti-virus, anti-spyware and firewall applications can only help your computer if it's already infected; otherwise, the best they can do is keep your PC in the same condition.

And in the meantime, you have three or more separate programs to maintain. Combining those applications into a unified whole should at least minimize the nuisance factor and, ideally, give your computer a software bodyguard who looks out for trouble at all times.

But a tryout of new security suites from five major developers -- CA, McAfee, Panda, Symantec and Trend Micro -- revealed many of the same sins all around. (Two other developers, Microsoft and Zone Labs, are between updates.) Too often, the software meant to keep your computer safe does so at an unnecessary cost.

Stability: All of these packages must interact with the deepest innards of Windows, and having two of them active risks severe conflicts. But Symantec's Norton Internet Security 2007 (Win XP, $70) didn't even warn me about the presence of an older security suite on the test computer.

McAfee Internet Security Suite 2007 (Win 2000 or newer, $70), Panda Internet Security 2007 (Win 98 or newer, $70) and Trend Micro PC-cillin Internet Security 2007 (Win 2000 or newer, $50) did issue that heads-up, but left it to the user to clean out the other security programs.

Only CA Internet Security Suite 2007 (Win 98 SE or newer, $70) extracted the old software automatically.

Efficiency: These suites can eat up a huge chunk of your computer's capacity, greatly prolonging its start-up times and cutting into memory available for other programs. Norton Internet Security seemed the worst offender, but the others did not appear to be much better.

Visual clutter can also be a problem with these programs, in the form of the toolbars and buttons some add to your Windows desktop, Web browser and e-mail program. CA, Panda and PC-cillin, however, were less of a bother in this respect.

Consistency: Although each of these suites presents a unified front, their constituent programs can have trouble coordinating their work. For example, PC-cillin's anti-spyware component warned me when I visited a site offering spyware downloads but didn't stop me from running a screensaver obtained from there. CA's suite was the least integrated of them all: While the other packages' control panels provided a simple "scan now" button to check for trouble, CA lacked that.

Education: A good security package should educate as well as protect, so you can develop your own sense of what's safe and what's not.

PC-cillin was the worst of the batch at this. When it erased some viruses, my only notice was a vague Windows error message. After a new program set itself to run automatically at each start-up, a "Suspicious changes detected" dialogue effectively buried any useful information about the nature of that potential threat.

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