Review: ZoneAlarm Security Suite 5.5

The latest ZoneAlarm version beefs up its spam-blocking capability significantly using partnered technology from MailFrontier Desktop, without slowing your PC.

ZoneAlarm's Security Suite 5.5 is one of the best security suites we've seen. Its interface is far easier to use and understand than the competition's, and its feature set, which includes a personal information vault and instant-messaging encryption, puts the comparably priced Norton Internet Security 2005 and McAfee Internet Security 2005 to shame.

The latest ZoneAlarm version beefs up its spam-blocking capability significantly using partnered technology from MailFrontier Desktop, without slowing your PC down. ZoneAlarm Security Suite is now the suite to beat for all-around Internet privacy and security, whether you use your PC from home or take the corporate notebook out on the road.

Setup & interface
ZoneAlarm Security Suite 5.5 is available as a boxed CD or as an 11MB download -- you can download a trial version here. When you install, the program asks for your Internet connection method (dial-up, DSL, cable and so on), the type of computer you use (single user, family, notebook, workstation) and whether you're part of a network and already use antivirus software. This information provides ZoneAlarm Security Suite with an initial configuration that you can tweak later if necessary.

After rebooting your PC, ZoneAlarm launches its main interface, the Control Center, which is clean and concise, with configuration options intuitively divided under 10 tabs (Overview, Firewall, Program Control, Antivirus, E-mail Protection, Privacy, ID Lock, IM Security, Web Filtering and Alerts & Logs). For example, you can customise the ad-blocking feature to permit banner ads while removing animated and pop-up ads.

Overall, ZoneAlarm Security Suite's configuration is as simple or complex as you prefer. For instance, you can set the suite's Internet cookie management to off, turn it on high (blocking all cookies) or leave it at medium to permit session-only cookies. If you want more detailed control, however, you can accept each tracking cookie on your computer for whatever length of time you like. Norton and McAfee also allow for these options, but you'll have to dig several layers down to find them.

Considering the suite's functionality, it requires relatively little of your memory resources: roughly 9MB of RAM. In informal tests, the firewall produced almost no degradation in speed while accessing the Web. Norton and McAfee introduce a little more system drag. The only inconvenience occurred shortly after installation, when ZoneAlarm asked us to allow or deny each of our Internet browsers and various other programs to interact with the Web. Once set up, however, the suite's firewall is transparent.

Considering ZoneAlarm Security Suite's modest price, we are impressed with the breadth and depth of its features. In addition to thwarting would-be hackers with its excellent firewall and viruses with its solid antivirus software, ZoneAlarm Security Suite encrypts instant messages for ICQ, AOL, MSN and Yahoo and protects you against IM spam (a.k.a. 'spim').

It also filters Web email scripts, suppresses TCP/IP responses on unused ports to better hide your system from Internet scanners and monitors all inbound and outbound Web contacts, alerting you to any unauthorised access. Both McAfee's and Norton's Internet security suites provide similar protection.

We're especially impressed by ZoneAlarm Security Suite's unique privacy control feature, which lets you store and track user-defined personal information in an encrypted 'information vault'. If you subsequently type any of that data, such as your credit card number, on a Web site, ZoneAlarm asks whether you want the destination added to your Trusted Sites list. If you say no, the outbound transmission is blocked. This feature stops keystroke loggers and other tools used by identity thieves; currently, it isn't included within either the McAfee or Norton Internet security packages.

For a more in-depth discussion of the antivirus and firewall features within ZoneAlarm Security Suite, see our review of ZoneAlarm with Antivirus.

Still, there's room for improvement here. For example, ZoneAlarm Security Suite doesn't include a heuristics-based scan within ZoneAlarm's spam control, just a whitelist of acceptable senders. Heuristics can block spam based on unique features within the message, not just the sender's name or address. Worse, ZoneAlarm's whitelist isn't even maintained on your computer, but back at Zone Labs, making editing your allowable contacts an online activity rather than something you can perform anywhere, anytime on your notebook.

Service & support
The purchase price for ZoneAlarm Security Suite includes one year of software updates and both email- and keyword-based virtual support, along with access to a well-attended user forum. However, phone support is not available outside North America.

ZoneAlarm Security Suite 5.5 lacks documentation, either printed or as an electronic file, and the tutorial is more of a glitzy marketing device than an informative tool -- a drawback in a product of this complexity. However, the built-in help file is excellent, thorough and specific, effectively balancing detail and clarity.

At a glance:
  • Extremely easy-to-understand interface
  • Includes antivirus, firewall, and anti-spam apps
  • Excellent built-in help
  • Doesn't slow Web access
  • Great selection of security tools
  • No printed manual
  • Phone support not available outside North America
  • ZoneAlarm Security Suite puts Norton Internet Security and McAfee Internet Security to shame with its easy-to-use features.