Anti-Virus Programs Aren't One-Stop Stoppers

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, April 17, 2008

Many Windows users worry about viruses. Some also worry about the software that's supposed to protect their computers from viruses.

That second fear comes in two flavors: that a security program will unintentionally sabotage your machine and that it will get more complicated every year.

Once, not too many years ago, you could feel safe with just an anti-virus program.

But over the past few years, security-software developers have kept adding new defenses for new dangers: worms, spyware, spam, phishing and so on. More recently, by adding tools to back up your data, they've built all-in-one suites that claim to do everything to defend a Windows machine.

The idea is to end your computing anxieties with a single installation. But after testing three of these bundles -- Symantec's Norton 360 Version 2.0, McAfee's Total Protection and Microsoft's Windows Live OneCare -- I wonder whether attaining that goal is possible.

All of these packages include the same defensive lineup of anti-virus, anti-spyware and firewall protection, with side orders of Web phishing filters, data backups and performance tuneups. McAfee adds spam filtering and parental-control features, while Symantec provides those features in a free, optional download.

Norton 360 and McAfee Total Protection cost $79.99 a year to run on three computers (McAfee has a $20 rebate available), while OneCare runs $49.95 a year for use on three PCs. Norton 360 and OneCare run on Windows XP and Vista; McAfee Total Protection also runs on Win 2000.

For this kind of program, "success" means keeping the PC safe and then keeping out of your way.

To test that fairly, I created a test XP system, with all of Microsoft's patches and a grab-bag of other programs, then cloned three copies of it, one for each suite, using the Parallels Desktop "virtual machine" program on a Mac. (I picked XP over Vista because Vista includes many of these programs' security fixes, such as spyware protection.)

That test revealed one surprise: For all the griping about how security programs can instantly bog down a system, these three did not. Each took up only 50 to 70 more megabytes of memory than the free, anti-virus-only AVG program. Norton 360 was only slightly more efficient than the other two.

But other glitches surfaced. Microsoft's Outlook 2007 mail program froze once in the McAfee and OneCare installations. Windows itself locked up mid-shutdown on the McAfee system, and Norton 360 stalled a shutdown when its "ccSvcHst" file wouldn't quit. (Incidentally: Why can't Symantec use real names for these program files?)

Should a known virus land on your machine, you should be able to count on these programs to swat it aside. But Norton 360 took its time issuing a verdict on new downloads and once didn't stop me from installing some fairly obvious spyware -- which it then volunteered to evict afterward.

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