November 19, 2009


Norton Internet Security 2010. Windows 7/Vista/XP SP2. Symantec. $69.99.

     Year after year, Symantec makes small incremental improvements to its Norton line of utility products. But, to misquote George Orwell, some years are more equal than others – and the changes in Norton Internet Security 2010 add up to more than the ones in the last several years of updates. This needs to be pointed out up front, because what is interesting about the new version of this security program is that most users will not notice how much better it has become.

     Here’s why: having successfully reduced the previous Norton Internet Security drag on system performance with the 2009 version of this protection suite, Symantec this year made the product even easier to use and better at its primary job of protecting users’ computers (up to three for the $69.99 price). One-click installation is simple and quicker than in past years (five minutes or less), and – this is a neat trick – when the 2010 version runs into problems during installation, it tackles them instead of crashing. That is, it offers solutions, suggests approaches, and can even make decisions on its own (about whether to run a preinstall scan, for example).

     Once installed, Norton Internet Security 2010 does something that no previous version has done: it uses an approach called reputation-based security technology to supplement the signature-based and behavior-based protection of previous years. This add-on approach, which Symantec has labeled Quorum, has the potential to undercut one of the most troubling weapons of malware creators: their ability to turn out new instances of malicious code very quickly. The reason Symantec’s counterattack works is that Quorum evaluates download source, age and other factors for every file. So a file that is a) new and b) downloaded from a Web site that is not well known and that few people have used will be automatically regarded as suspect even if it does not seem harmful. This should let Norton Internet Security 2010 intercept threats very quickly – and that is increasingly important, since a great deal of modern malware is written to exist in any single form for less than 24 hours (the time needed to release signatures to detect a threat). Malware writers are, in effect, doing drive-by computer hijacking these days. Quorum fights back.

     What matters to users, though, is that they will not know Quorum is there. In fact, they will have only rudimentary evidence that Norton Internet Security 2010 is working at all, most of the time. Both unobtrusive and non-intrusive, the software percolates along in the background so effectively that users will notice it only when it warns them about a threat. Like earlier versions, Norton Internet Security 2010 protects against viruses, Trojans, rootkits, spyware and more, and includes a firewall, intrusion protection, Web protection and E-mail protection for POP-3 and SMTP-compatible E-mail clients (and if you don’t know the terminology, don’t worry – all it means is that most E-mail is protected). Furthermore, Norton Internet Security 2010 integrates with browsers and search engines to warn users away from sites that may be malicious or compromised. And it is designed for Windows 7 as well as for Vista and XP, so it works effectively in any operating system a PC user is likely to have.

     You might think the improvements to Norton Internet Security 2010 come at the cost of bloat – after all, more features, more need for memory and hard-disk space, right? But not so: the suite does not require substantial RAM or system resources and does not noticeably slow down other processes.

     The fact that users already familiar with Norton Internet Security will not notice much new this year is remarkable, considering the changes in the product. The interface is similar to those of previous years, although not identical – for instance, the main screen is now in three sections called Computer, Network and Web instead of the previous Computer, Web and Identity. But the screen still gives you a snapshot of your security at a glance, says whether any actions need to be taken, and lets you turn features on and off; and, as before, has monitors on the left-hand side of the screen that show current CPU usage and how much of that Norton is taking up. The main screen is all you need for a security overview, and will be plenty for many users. But those who enjoy poking around in the innards of their computer (figuratively speaking) can go much more deeply into the system by clicking on links such as Performance, System Insight and Network Security Map. System Insight can be particularly useful if problems develop unexpectedly: you can use this feature to find out (for example) whether an odd behavior began after you installed certain software – and if it did, you can uninstall that program and see whether the problems disappear. The result is a kind of collaborative model of system protection, with Norton Internet Security 2010 doing most of the work but letting you investigate matters on your own if you wish to do so.

     Among other improvements in Norton Internet Security 2010 are an anti-spam component that Symantec says is 20% more effective than previous ones; a free subscription to OnlineFamily.Norton, which lets parents adjust children’s Web access; and Norton Safe Web (previously introduced in Norton 360, version 3.0), which shows whether any Web sites that turn up in search results are potentially dangerous (it works with Google, Bing and Yahoo!). There are also a few changes that are not really improvements, such as a main-screen link called Vulnerability Protection, which lists programs that Symantec has found to have vulnerabilities. That sounds good, but the list is generic, not related to what you actually have on your computer – so there is really no value to looking at it. Furthermore, Symantec’s continued insistence on offering protection for only a single year remains an irritant, especially if you use Norton Internet Security 2010 on only one computer, which makes it pricey. Nevertheless, the new version of Norton Internet Security is improved in so many ways that it certainly makes sense to upgrade from earlier incarnations (in other years, this has often been a close call). This is simply the best Norton Internet Security yet.

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