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The Best Security May Still Be Free

McAfee and CA, on the other hand, unmistakably flagged viruses the instant I tried to do anything with them: There was no mistaking when these programs brought down the hammer.

The firewalls in these packages, in policing which programs can connect to the Internet, often failed to offer any clue as to whether a new application should be trusted. That forces users to guess which ones are safe -- and if they could do that correctly on their own, they wouldn't need security software in the first place. Norton's firewall provided the most consistently useful guidance.

Effectiveness: Whatever else it does, a security package shouldn't ever put your computer at risk of infection. But in a few rare cases, these suites missed some things they shouldn't have: Panda didn't catch two of four viruses. McAfee's generally helpful SiteAdvisor, intended to warn users about malicious Web pages, suggested that a site distributing pirated game software would be fine to visit (somehow I doubt that).

Cost: The list prices of these bundles cover a year's worth of updates, at which point you need to ante up most or all of the purchase price to renew your subscription. If you own more than one computer, note that McAfee is only licensed for use on a single PC; the others allow installation on three.

If you must use one of these suites, McAfee edges out the others. But none of them makes a convincing argument against mixing and matching separate security programs.

For example, you could combine the free firewall built into Windows XP with Microsoft's free Windows Defender anti-spyware utility, then keep whatever anti-virus program came with your PC (or download the free AVG software: ). To block phishing Web sites trying to impersonate your bank, try the new Internet Explorer 7 and Mozilla Firefox 2.0 browsers.

Whatever security solution you pick, don't forget to use the single most effective defense available: a healthy sense of skepticism when it comes to running any kind of strange software.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro

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