January 22, 2009


Norton Internet Security 2009. Windows Vista or XP. Symantec. $69.95.

Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0. Windows Vista or XP. Symantec. $99.99.

     Once again for 2009, the eternal question arises: why pay for computer protection when there is so much of it available for free, built into operating systems and browsers, or downloadable as freeware or shareware? (Well, it seems like an eternal question.) The answer is that you don’t have to pay for most of the security offered by Symantec’s Norton product line – but if you don’t, you’ll be constantly updating programs that may or may not work well together, and you’ll spend a lot of time making sure you have everything protected that needs to be protected. If you’d rather “set it and forget it” when it comes to security, the Norton line is almost the perfect way to go.

     Almost. Because you can’t quite do set-and-forget in 2009, any more than in previous years. In fact, you can’t necessarily even do “set” particularly easily: Norton Internet Security 2009 and Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0 are large, complicated programs that will not necessarily install the first time you try to load them – and that require multiple reboots and update searches after you do get them installed, to be sure they are up and running with the latest software improvements, virus definitions and the like.

     Still, a certain amount of setup inconvenience is worthwhile for a large amount of protection, and that is just what you get with these products – which, despite some continued complexity that may be daunting to less-experienced computer users, are far simpler to configure, update and use than similar Symantec products from earlier years. Unfortunately, the complexity starts even before you buy the products, when you try to figure out which to buy. There are three versions of Norton SystemWorks and three versions of Norton Internet Security, although two of those three carry different names. The most basic Internet product is Norton AntiVirus, a top-notch protector that also effectively blocks spyware and other malware, shields users against infected Web sites, secures a home or small-business network, and more. Simple enough – but then things get complicated with Norton 360 and Norton Internet Security 2009, which both include Norton AntiVirus but add different things to it. Norton 360 has backup and PC-tuneup features, but Norton Internet Security 2009 updates more quickly and is faster at scanning your computer to find and eliminate any potential threats – so it is the purer “protection” product. Actually, Symantec is overdue to produce a single product combining all the features of Norton 360 and Norton Internet Security, but that hasn’t happened this year.

     What has happened is that Norton Internet Security 2009 now contains its own installer, which puts it on your computer quite quickly when everything goes right; its main interface neatly lays out all aspects of computer protection on a single screen; it includes some features previously available through such utility programs as Norton System Doctor, including CPU usage monitoring and an evaluation of trusted programs and those that need scanning; and it has a good firewall and effective browser protection built in. A number of these functions are readily obtainable elsewhere and may already be on your computer – for example, shields against phishing sites and spyware protection are built directly into some Web browsers – but there is a real advantage to having all these security elements in one place, accessible through one primary display. And Norton Internet Security 2009 has a few small but very nice features as well, notably Silent Mode – during which the program continues to function but does not interfere with gaming or with viewing full-screen movies.

     So, if Norton Internet Security 2009 does so much and works so well, what’s the purpose of Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0? That’s a good question, and not an easy one to answer definitively. Premier Edition is the top-of-the-line offering in this Symantec product line, which also includes Basic Edition (forget it; it does not even include Norton AntiVirus) and Standard Edition (which is fine if you have other arrangements for data backup and restoration: backup-and-restore functions are included only in Premier Edition). Essentially, Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0 focuses more on housekeeping tasks than does Norton Internet Security, but there are major areas of overlap: both programs include Norton AntiVirus and networking protection, for example. Norton Internet Security 2009 has useful identity-protection features, while Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0 offers backup and tuneup programs that can help keep your computer running smoothly and quickly. Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0 seems more prone to causing a crash on installation than Norton Internet Security, although things run smoothly with both programs once they are set up. Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0 does have some elements that could use further refinement: the registry editor shows registry errors by category but does not take you to the actual errors within the registry (they can be dauntingly difficult to find manually), and there is no startup manager to let you see and control which programs load when you boot your computer (this feature would be very helpful in getting rid of unneeded software that slows down operations). Despite these omissions, Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0 handles its chores effectively and generally efficiently, and does a good job of keeping your computer operating as quickly and smoothly as it can.

     Some notable differences between Norton Internet Security 2009 and Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0 have to do with configuration and support rather than functionality. Although both products provide their services for only one year – irritatingly forcing you to upgrade or buy additional coverage in the future – Norton Internet Security 2009 allows usage on three computers, while Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0 may be used on only one. And Norton Internet Security 2009 requires less processing power and less hard-disc space: 300 megabytes, vs. 500 for Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0. Furthermore, Norton Internet Security 2009 provides free support via E-mail, chat or telephone, but Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0 charges for some phone support. Yes, these differences tie directly to the different elements of the two programs, but they are nevertheless noteworthy.

     Both these Symantec products have enough useful features, are well enough engineered and operate with sufficient ease to deserve (++++) ratings. But deciding which of them to buy – if either – is not simple. There is certainly too much overlap for it to be worthwhile spending $170 for both products. Backing down to a less-full-featured SystemWorks, which means losing data-backup elements, makes sense only if you have those features already or get them through Norton 360 instead of buying Norton Internet Security. There is no perfect melding of features here for anyone seeking both top-notch computer housecleaning and the best possible Internet security. And of course, programs such as Grisoft’s AVG Anti-Virus Free and EMC’s MozyHome backup offer some of what you get in the Norton line – at no cost.

     Symantec is long overdue to simplify its product line, creating a single top-of-the-line product with all the features of Norton Internet Security 2009 and Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0, then offering lower-cost versions of the combined product that omit certain of those features. Charging, say, $150 for the combined product, and giving it a two-year lifespan, should encourage sales at the higher end, while people wishing to spend less could buy products with fewer features and continue using them for one year. Until Symantec wises up to this model – or some other arrangement less complicated than its current one – users are going to have difficulty figuring out how to get the best Symantec products for their needs at the most reasonable cost, without paying to duplicate elements of one product when they buy another. Confusion over what to purchase could easily push more people to opt for freeware or shareware – which would definitely not be good for the Norton product line. Both Norton Internet Security 2009 and Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0 are excellent programs that are well worth the cost if their feature sets fit your needs closely. Unfortunately, figuring out whether they are a good fit is more difficult than using the programs once you decide which to buy.

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