November 11, 2010


Norton Internet Security 2011. Windows 7/Vista/XP. Symantec. $69.99.

     Symantec Corporation pretty much has to make its security products better than anyone else’s these days. With very good free products from Microsoft, AVG and other sources available on the one hand, and with paid products from its longtime competitor McAfee – recently purchased by Intel – on the other, Symantec is in something of a squeeze (as its stockholders know well). But this is not and never has been a company that rests on its laurels, and once again, with Norton Internet Security 2011, it has managed to take a product that was already excellent and make it even better – and well worth the price for families and small businesses that want reliable, easy-to-use and extremely efficient protection from ever-present (and ever-increasing) online security threats.

     In fact, the best thing about Norton Internet Security 2011 is that most users won’t even know it is there most of the time. For many years, Symantec’s Norton products were great for engineers (okay, geeks) but overly complex for many everyday users. In recent years, as the technology underlying the products has become far more complex, their usability has become far easier. Norton Internet Security 2011 takes this about as far as it can go, since you can get to a lot of very sophisticated elements of the security suite but do not have to. The installation (which takes less than two minutes) is essentially a one-button, one-click affair, after which the product automatically starts protecting your computer (actually up to three computers for the price – although only for one year). You no longer even need to use the “Live Update” feature after installation to obtain the most recent product improvements and virus definitions, because Norton Internet Security 2011 will run the update automatically within (usually) just a few minutes.

     Most of what is new in Norton Internet Security 2011 represents refinements from Norton Internet Security 2010, so users of the older version who still have months to run on their subscription really do not need the update. But they will appreciate it when they eventually get it (although it remains an irritation that Symantec sells only one-year versions of its security products – a discount for a two-year or three-year subscription would be attractive, especially for business users). System Insight, for example, still analyzes your computer and determines which programs need how many resources, but now it also alerts you to memory and performance hogs when you use them and gives you a way (if you feel like using it) to create exceptions to the alerts (although, operationally, this is a new feature whose use is actually a holdover from the more-complex days, since it takes six clicks to tell the software not to give you an alert). There is still a bootable recovery tool, but now it is easier to use and runs faster than it did before. There is a prompt that comes up in cases of install failures that provides a link to Norton Power Eraser, a tool available free to anyone but more useful when used in conjunction with Norton Internet Security 2011, whose alerts tell users that they may be in the process of being tricked by scareware into downloading damaging programs (many of which, ironically, are fake virus-removal tools). Norton Power Eraser is a bit much for casual use – it can identify some harmless programs and some that the system needs as potentially dangerous – but in conjunction with the alerts from Norton Internet Security 2011, it is a very useful enhancement.

     Other new features here are Norton Safe Web for Facebook, which is pretty much what it sounds like: a way to protect yourself against potentially harmful links on your Facebook wall; and a messaging area that gives status reports and shows a world map identifying areas where malicious activity has been blocked (although, again, the messaging feature is a bit of a throwback, being somewhat confusing in layout even though it is simple in operation). None of these new elements is crucial to the performance of Norton Internet Security 2011, though, which is why users of the 2010 version need not rush out for the new one.

     What does matter is Symantec’s increasing emphasis on statistical detection for protection against threats that are emerging and disappearing faster than ever before. Using a database compiled from information provided automatically by Symantec users – a feature from which users can opt out but should not – the company checks for safety of programs and uses behavior-based detection (instead of relying only on old-fashioned signature analysis) to determine whether a program is safe. This technology is coupled with a firewall that, as in earlier years, works effectively in the background and does a good job of preventing most malware from even reaching a user’s computer. Also here is Identity Safe, which is essentially the same (except for minor appearance changes) as in the 2010 software, when for the first time it allowed storage of personal data on a removable drive. This password-retention and form-filling utility is easy to use and works well, although this is one case where a free alternative has more features and works even better: LastPass. Still, one of the attractions of Norton Internet Security 2011 is that you get so many components at the same time and they work together seamlessly; for most users, this suite’s password and data management will be just fine.

     Norton Internet Security 2011 also includes spam filtering and parental controls, as did earlier versions. And the new program, like last year’s but unlike many earlier Symantec products, has very little impact on system performance. You can find all this out by downloading Norton Internet Security 2011 from Symantec and trying it for free for 30 days – and Symantec provides a full-featured trial, not one in which some functionality has been disabled, so you can get a good sense of whether the software suite does everything you want it to do and is sufficiently easy to use for your taste.

     In summary, Norton Internet Security 2011 is a refinement of a program that already worked quite well in its 2010 version, that remains easy to install, that generally runs during idle time and therefore is attractively unobtrusive, and that does an excellent job of fighting malware and phishing scams. Some of its controls remain a touch confusing, especially if you drill down past the basic displays, but most users will not need to do that in order to get most of the value from the software. Norton Internet Security 2011 is, at bottom, a fine-tuning of an already fine program. It is not inexpensive, much less free; but it does more things, and does them better, than competitors’ offerings, and does not require users to download multiple free or lower-cost programs in order to obtain most of the functions that Norton Internet Security 2011 provides in a single package. It is by no means a “must” upgrade for users of last year’s suite, but anyone considering first-time purchase of security software should definitely look first at Symantec’s. There simply isn’t anything better out there.

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