September 26, 2013


Norton Internet Security, 2014 edition. Windows XP/SP2 or later. Symantec. $79.99.

Norton 360, 2014 edition. Windows XP/SP2 or later. Symantec. $89.99.

     Symantec deserves considerable credit for knowing when to tweak, when to change, and when to leave things alone. Its intelligence in this regard is everywhere apparent in the 2014 versions of its Norton Internet Security and Norton 360 suites. The company stopped putting identifying years on these products a while back, but since it updates them annually, a year association is the only reasonable way to identify them – dropping the mention of the year is a small miscalculation on Symantec’s part. On the other hand, there are no large miscalculations, which is more to the point. Both suites are very little changed from the 2013 versions, and that is all to the good: very little needed changing, and Symantec does not do software redesign for its own sake (are you listening, Microsoft?). These security suites have the same components as in the past, do their jobs well, and integrate a variety of functions seamlessly so they protect your computer while running neatly and generally unobtrusively in the background – exactly what you would want in products designed to keep your computer secure at all times.

     The products are priced on a licensing basis, each giving you one year of protection for up to three PCs.  At the core of both is Norton AntiVirus, which is as good a program of its type as you will find anywhere. Norton AntiVirus is available as a standalone product for $49.99 for a single PC, but for the vast majority of users, the suites are a better deal. Between the antivirus program and its other components, Norton Internet Security monitors the files you run, download and access, and keeps an eye on program behavior to detect malware before it gets into and compromises your system. Its firewall is as effective as ever; there is browsing protection to keep you away from phishing sites and ones that would download malware if you visited them; and there are a spam filter, password manager and form filler, network monitor, startup program manager and more. Norton Internet Security has parental controls, too, and online identity protection. In Norton 360, you also get PC tuneup tools and two gigs of free online storage, with more available for purchase – although that is not a particularly good deal when you can get significantly more free storage from Google, Microsoft, Dropbox and elsewhere.

     One of the things that make these Symantec products especially useful is the changing landscape of online threats. Nowadays malware does not just show up when you visit phishing sites or are redirected to them by a botnet. It also comes from wholly legitimate sites that have been hacked by the bad guys. The complexity of the attacks has increased, and therefore the complexity of the defenses must increase, too, in a never-ending “virtual arms race.” Most of us could not care less about the details: we just want to use the Web safely and securely, and that is exactly what these Symantec products let us do. Despite their inner sophistication, they are remarkably unobtrusive in operation, taking care of issues and potential issues silently, then simply offering a monthly report on what they have done – which you need not read if you do not wish to do so. Once these products load – which they do even more quickly now than in the past, a remarkable achievement considering how extensive their functionality is – they simply do what they are intended to do quietly and efficiently. Except for small icons and occasional notifications, you will not even know they are there unless you choose to open them and perhaps make manual adjustments – which are available but quite unnecessary for most people.

     The interfaces for 2014 are very similar to those used in 2013, although there are some relatively small modifications here and there – nothing that users of previous versions will find hard to understand or adjust to, although certain changes in appearance do render some displays a touch more complex-looking. Most of the latest improvements are invisible, but some are not: for example, the form filler in Norton Identity Safe, the password manager, now supports drag-and-drop, and allows login searches directly from the toolbar. In general, though, the enhancements involve such things as improved behavioral detection, more-reliable cleanup tools in case something does get through the various security levels, 15% faster startup, and lower RAM usage – a really significant improvement on the technical side, although not one that most users will notice.

     A major philosophical change n recent years that is now deeply ingrained at Symantec is away from insistence on user involvement in these suites and toward set-and-forget design that allows but by no means requires users to participate in what the programs do and how they do it. This means that the suites include advanced settings that, for example, allow users to exclude files from scanning or block specific signatures – but if that sounds too technical or makes no sense to you, that’s perfectly fine, since it is totally unnecessary for the vast majority of today’s computer users.

     Reports of the death of the personal computer are greatly exaggerated, but the increasing use of other devices for Web access and information consumption – if not for creativity – is leading Symantec to expand the applicability of its security products. For example, for 2014 the company has added a Norton 360 Multi-Device edition for $99.99 – which includes a version of Norton Internet Security for Mac and Norton Mobile Security, a security suite for Android, and which supports up to five total devices for one year. It is smart of Symantec to look beyond its base in PC protection, given the changing landscape of device use, and also smart of it to retain its long-term focus on PCs (dating back to the days of Peter Norton himself) as a foundation from which to grow. Given the quality of its products, Symantec should do just as well on other platforms as it has done on PCs.

     As for what today’s individual and small-business PC users should do, the best bet for most will be Norton Internet Security, which provides very wide functionality and very efficient operation. The storage component added to Norton 360 is not really of significant incremental value, and while the PC tuneup tools are useful, the vast majority of today’s computer users are unlikely to care much about them – we are well into the era of computers as appliances, ones that most people are no more interested in modifying and adapting than they are in making changes to a TV set or, say, a toaster. Aficionados of computers may bemoan this fact – and certainly these Symantec suites provide plenty of ways in which you can make changes to functions if you wish to – but for most people, the object today is to use computers for many everyday tasks while being confident that they are safe and secure in an era in which hackers are becoming ever more sophisticated, necessitating ever more sophisticated responses to their attempted depredations. Ultimately, most people should look at Norton Internet Security and Norton 360 as insurance policies: for a fairly modest investment, these suites let you go about your everyday business just as you wish to, while they provide seamless and unobtrusive background protection against a multiplicity of threats that would otherwise keep you up all day and night attempting to counter them. Like insurance in general, Symantec’s security suites can help you sleep better at night and feel more confident that you are protected against misfortune. For 2014, the suites are marginally more functional – but what really matters is that they continue to give users confidence and the ability to work without constant worry about all the potential dangers out there. That is an accomplishment that makes them well worth their cost.

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