In my annual comparison of the market's leading Internet security suites, namely Symantec Norton Internet Security 2004
and McAfee Internet Security 6.0
I declared the last contest a draw. Our reviewer found nearly as many
faults as merits, and we've developed a complete disdain for Symantec's
and McAfee's paltry yet pricey technical-support policies. I was
beginning to think that the all-in-one Internet security software
market for consumers was moribund. But with Zone Labs' release of
comparably priced ZoneAlarm Security Suite
this week, all that's about to change.
Let's revisit the Internet security slugfest and see whether the newbie tips the scales.
Product activation: Starting this year, Symantec requires
product activation on all its Norton products. That means you have 15
days to record your purchase, or the product will stop working. Unlike
Microsoft's activation policy, which allows you only three
installations, Symantec's is much more generous. Like Microsoft,
Symantec does record some information about your hardware
configuration, which may be an invasion of privacy for some. Neither
McAfee nor ZoneAlarm require product activation, a plus for them.
Antivirus: Both Norton and McAfee offer their own antivirus products as part of their security suites.
ZoneAlarm, on the other hand, licenses the Vet antivirus engine from
Computer Associates. For comparison, using tests conducted by Virus Bulletin,
Norton and Vet have each won the same number of VB 100% awards since
2000. Over the same amount of time, McAfee has been tested against and
won only one VB 100% award. Yet, only ZoneAlarm's interface alerts you
if the antivirus tools in Norton, McAfee, or Trend Micro is disabled or
not up-to-date. Bravo to ZoneAlarm for its egalitarian approach to
Firewall: For the last three years, ZoneAlarm Pro
has been our Editors' Choice for the easiest-to-use, most comprehensive
personal firewall on the market. That hasn't changed here.
Antispam: McAfee should have won this one; it did purchase my favourite antispam app, Deersoft's SpamAssassin.
But alas, the company blew it, providing a clunky interface for its own
enhanced antispam app. ZoneAlarm also provides a spam feature, but it's
a whitelist-only feature, offering no heuristics, and thus unable to
think on its feet regarding individual spam. The winner here is Norton,
whose standalone antispam app is our Editors' Choice, and it also stops more spam than did McAfee or ZoneAlarm.
Privacy control: All three security suites manage cookies, clear
Internet browser caches, and block Web sites inappropriate for small
children. However, McAfee includes an online privacy service that
identifies and removes spyware from your PC. McAfee also offers a
secure shredder that deletes files by overwriting them with ones and
zeros, making it hard for someone to resurrect your deleted files later
on. Neither Norton nor ZoneAlarm offer these features. However,
ZoneAlarm offers something that neither McAfee nor Norton does: a
To use the ZoneAlarm vault, simply type in your credit card number,
social security number, or any personal information you are sometimes
asked by banks or other credible sources to enter online. ZoneAlarm
will then warn you anytime you type personal information onto a Web
site (reminding you that this information could be used by identity
thieves). ZoneAlarm also blocks any unauthorized transactions that
include your personal information, either via Web form or e-mail.
That's proactive security, so my nod goes to ZoneAlarm.
IM security: While Norton and McAfee have made cursory overtures
into the IM market, the ZoneAlarm folks have their own IM security
product, which they've incorporated into the suite. ZoneAlarm encrypts
instant messages, preventing outside monitoring of conversations, and
defends your PC against SPIM, malicious code attacks through IM, unsafe
scripts, and executable URLs (often the source of malicious code
attacks). If IM is a part of your life, you'll want ZoneAlarm.
Hands-off operation: Both Norton and ZoneAlarm configure their
out-of-the-box products for maximum security, making it easy for
beginners to get up and running fast; McAfee sets everything for medium
security, with the option to increase settings left up to the
individual. And both Norton and ZoneAlarm can automatically detect a
change in networks, say, from a LAN to a wireless one, an important
feature for laptop users; McAfee can't do this.
Of course, there's a catch
Before announcing a winner, let's look at service and support. McAfee
and Norton price their subscription renewals at around US$30, while
ZoneAlarm's costs only US$25. If the renewal included new antivirus
signature files, program updates, and
telephone support, I'd say that was a fair deal all around. Instead,
none of the three security vendors includes telephone technical
support. They each charge a punitive US$2.95 per minute for live
That said, both McAfee and ZoneAlarm include built-in tutorials; Norton
does not. And ZoneAlarm has one of the most concise yet descriptive
built-in help files I've seen in a long while. Finally, each of the
vendors does offer free online support, either as a chat service or as
an interactive knowledge base system.
Bottom line: I annually fault Norton and McAfee for charging
US$60 a year for their new suites while offering minuscule tweaks from
previous years. ZoneAlarm Security Suite is like a beacon of light on a
darkling plain, proving there is life in the consumer Internet security
market. This year, my nod goes to ZoneAlarm Security Suite as the best
all-around Internet protection software.
It'll be interesting to see how these three products rank next year and
whether ZoneAlarm keeps innovating, or whether it slides into
complacency like the competition. Given the evolving nature of Internet
threats, I certainly hope it does not.