Symantec releases simplified Norton Security line

Hands-on: Buying Norton for your PC or Mac just got a lot simpler. The product has a rich set of features and the threat protection is excellent.
By Larry Seltzer, Contributor on
1 of 7 Larry Seltzer/ZDNET

No more "which one do I buy?"

If you compared the Norton product line, Symantec's consumer security products, to the competition in recent years, the most glaring distinction would be the bewildering variety of Norton products. Symantec has tossed this confusing arrangement aside for a simpler approach. Now there are two possible things you can buy: Norton Security and Norton Security with Backup.

The new products are full collection of the features in the previous set of products, They have the antivirus and other protections of Norton Internet Security, the system performance tuning of Norton 360 and the mobile device protection of Norton Mobile Security. Norton Security protects up to five devices including PCs, Macs, iOS and Android. Norton Security costs $79.99 US. For $10 more per year you get backup and protection for ten devices.

In the pages that follow I will examine different characteristics of Norton Security and issues users should consider when choosing a consumer security product.

My overall impression is that Norton Security is an excellent, high-quality product, as Norton products have been for many years. The protection is top-notch, the product comes with several ancillary security programs like Norton Identity Safe (a password manager). Consolidation of the product line into just 2 SKUs is a good decision and about time too. The old product line was a confusing mess.

Beyond threat protection some of the features are not so impressive. The performance tuning tools, formerly in Norton 360, are as uncompelling as ever. Identity Safe itself has just the bare essentials of a password manager. The mobile protection is limited, as are all such products, to what is permitted by the operating system on those platforms.

But the main reason to buy a product like this is threat protection, and for that Norton Security is an excellent product.

(Images Symantec)

2 of 7 Larry Seltzer/ZDNET

More a service than software

Symantec was one of the first security vendors to move to a subscription model and now everyone is using the same approach. The software is important, but it's a small thing compared to the need for constant research and intelligence by the vendor and prompt updates to protect against new threats.

And it's not just for anti-malware that this approach makes sense. Norton and many other products protect web browser users against malicious web sites, scan Facebook pages for malicious links and provide numerous cloud-based protections such as password management and backup. Symantec's millions of installations world-wide, plus a significant number of test systems, create a massive network for reputation checking of files and Internet destinations. All of these require ongoing, even increasing investment and world-wide expertise operating 24x7.

(Image Norton Security)

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Actual protection against threats is, of course, the main reason you buy any such product. I haven't rigorously tested this version, but the engine in it is the same as in other Symantec products. In the most recent tests by AV-Test.org Norton Internet Security 2014 did extremely well in terms of protection, as it always does in their tests and many others.

In this, as in earlier tests, AV-Test rates NIS 2014 as less impressive in terms of its impact on system performance. Other products, in particular those from Avira, Bitdefender, Kaspersky and McAfee (all of which are also named "Internet Security 2014") and Trend Micro Titanium Maximum Security, also had top-notch protection scores and less impact on system performance. Even so, the difference isn't pronounced enough that it would affect a purchase or recommendation I made, and I saw no obvious subjective impact on system performance in my testing.

Another very interesting test from AV-Test measured the products' ability to clean up after an infection. They looked at both Norton Internet Security and Norton Power Eraser, a free disinfection tool. The Symantec products did very well, although Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Free did best. The only difference between them was that Norton products left some harmless file remnants of the attacks. The operative word is "harmless" and so the Norton products did everything you need.

Symantec commissioned a special test from AV-Test of the Norton Security beta and select competitors (Bitdefender Internet Security 2015, ESET Smart Security 7, G Data InternetSecurity 2015, Kaspersky Internet Security 2015, McAfee Internet Security 2015 and Trend Micro Titanium Internet Security 2014).

In the commissioned test, Norton Security beta's system performance impact was tied with Bitdefender and Kaspersky for the best score. In a remediation test it scored 123 out of a possible 125, although two products had 124 and another two 125.

The commissioned test also checked for protection against exploits of vulnerable software, in the test old versions of Acrobat and Java. Norton and G Data scored 25 out of 25.

The bottom line in terms of protection and related issues is that Norton products are at or near the top where you need them. There are other products that do as well, perhaps a little better. Kaspersky products, for example, consistently test better in AV-Test roundups. But the differences are not large and the number of users who would be better-protected by a product other than Norton is certainly small. If you believe the commissioned test, the differences are even smaller in this new version of Norton Security.

(Image Symantec)

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Internet security products have become quite sophisticated over the years and Norton Security is as sophisticated as any. It attempts to protect against malware from multiple directions. To be sure, all of the best Internet security products take similar varieties of approach to the problem.

First, it monitors data going to and from the network. The firewall is a relatively simple part of this; the more sophisticated protections come from the IPS (Intrusion Prevention System) which examines the source and contents of data, recognizing some attacks before they make it past the front door.

Second, the traditional protection against attacks in files on the system is itself much more than just pattern recognition. Symantec's Bloodhound and Malheur heuristics engines look for actual behavior patterns in static files before they even execute. This allows them to recognize certain attacks generically without any prior exposure.

Third, Symantec maintains a reputation system for files (called Insight) and for Internet domains and addresses and may warn or block based on previous problems observed elsewhere. Symantec's large market share, plus a large number of test systems around the world, help to make their reputation database one of the largest. In such cases, bigger is better.

Fourth, as programs execute Norton monitors the system for certain suspicious or malicious behaviors.

Finally, for the inevitable cases where malware gets through, Symantec has a variety of tools for removing threats from a system. For more on this see the previous page on detection.

(Image Symantec)

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More than just antivirus

As a consolidation of numerous other products, Norton Security has many more features than I can describe here. Several are worthy security protections that go beyond traditional PC anti-malware and related technology, but they're not as impressive as the basic threat protection.

First, mobile security is included. In theory this includes support for iOS and Android devices (Norton Security has no support for Windows Phone). In fact, only the Android protection is particularly interesting and the iOS features, as with all the other iOS consumer security apps, are severely limited by Apple's restrictions on what apps can do. Norton Security on iOS provides only content backup and anti-theft features. These are available from a variety of sources, including Apple, and in fact the Norton product is free on iOS going forward.

On Android there is a lot more Norton Security can do. In addition to conventional malicious file protection and what the product does on iOS, Norton Security on Android monitors web traffic looking for malicious sites and content, has a Call Blocker which blocks calls from specific, anonymous or unknown numbers, and what Symantec calls "Built-in Intelligence" to maximize battery life by protecting against apps with high battery drain and data use, and also puts off non-critical activities until you are plugged in. I did some testing of these features, but it will require time to get the full picture of them.

Norton Security also includes Identity Safe, their password manager, which is pictured on this page. Identity Safe has the core password management features for PC and Mac: it saves passwords and other sensitive information in a secure "vault" and can stuff the valued into login fields when the browser hits the correct site. In includes a strong password generator and can also copy specific passwords to the clipboard.

It is, unfortunately, lacking in several important features which leave it well short of some dedicated password manager products, such as my personal favorite LastPass. For instance, Identity Safe has no mobile clients, so if you need to access a service from your mobile device, Identity Safe is no help. Nor is there a web interface to the password vault, so you can't even access it that way. If this isn't a major problem for you then it's far better that you use Norton Identity Safe than no password manager at all. But if you take password management seriously, as you should of course, you're better off with another product, which will likely involve another annual subscription. To my knowledge, none of the other security suites with which Norton Security competes has a password manager any better than Norton Identity Safe, so in a sense this is not a reason not to buy Norton, but it's not much of a reason to buy it.

There are many other smaller features in Norton Security. It contains the system performance tuning features formerly in Norton 360. These include a disk optimizer, a tool for cleaning up extraneous files, a tool for managing startup programs and graphs to show system performance and resource utilization of various programs. These are nice, but some of them come with Windows (perhaps those versions aren't as good as Norton's; I haven't specifically checked). Some of the tools are similar to the respected and free Sysinternals tools from Microsoft.

(Image Norton Identity Safe)

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Support, management, Money-back guarantee

In pitching their products, Symantec is adamant that their support capabilities are a major advantage for them. They have extensive self-support features, plus live chat and phone support are available 24x7. If they can't clean your PC or Mac, you get your money back. In such cases this is likely of small comfort, but it's not nothing, and I suspect it happens rarely.

Some Norton self-support features

Like a lot of other companies, Symantec has moved much of the user/product administration into a web portal, pictured on this page. It's a good system, even if it doesn't go quite as far as it might. The main thing you can do here is to register and deregister devices from coverage. In the past, if a PC crashed and you replaced it with a new PC, moving your existing protection on to the new PC could be a pain. With Norton you just log into the portal, deregister the old device, then on the new device go to norton.com/setup, enter your product code and log in. You can then download and install the software and register the new device.

Through Norton.com you can also gain access to your backed-up files, but not your passwords in Identity Safe.

(Image Norton.com)

7 of 7 Larry Seltzer/ZDNET

Norton Security with Backup

For an extra $10 ($89.99 per year instead of $79.99), Norton Security with Backup includes ten device licenses rather than five and 25GB of online storage for backing up files from PCs or Macs.

I found the interface for creating a backup set cumbersome and a bit confusing, but I did finally get it right. Once you get it set up, of course, it runs on the schedule you set and usability is no longer an issue unless you want to change the files being backed up or need to restore. I tested a restore and it was simple to perform. Users can also access backed-up files through the web on their Norton.com account.

Users may purchase more storage space in 10GB chunks starting at $10 per year. If users purchase additional storage in the middle of their annual subscription Symantec will prorate the cost; for instance, if the purchase is after six months of the annual subscription, the cost will be $5 for the rest of the year.

To a point, online backup such as this is redundant with cloud storage of the sort provided by Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive and a dozen other companies, and storage from those sources is much cheaper. For instance, for $3.99 per month ($47.88 per year) OneDrive provides 200GB of storage, less than a quarter of the marginal cost per GB from Symantec.

Backup and cloud storage aren't the same though. It's much easier to delete or damage cloud storage than backup storage, the only interface to which is through the backup interface. Even beyond that, for an extra $2 per device per year you get support for five more devices. My own family of three has more than five devices that would merit protection.

(Image Norton Security with Backup)

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