Pick a security suite

Robert Vamosi surveys the security suite landscape and picks his latest favourite.

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.

Product comparisons
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 all-in-one security.

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 privacy vault.

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 technical support.

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.