March 26, 2009


Norton 360 version 3.0. Windows Vista or XP. Symantec. $79.95.

     In its often-confusing array of computer protection products, Symantec’s Norton 360 is designed to be the one that “circles the wagons,” so to speak, providing complete protection in what is essentially set-it-and-forget-it mode. The new 2009 version of this software, version 3.0, isn’t quite as all-encompassing as it might be, but it comes close to its promise and has several incremental improvements over its prior incarnations.

     Norton 360 is, in essence, one of the three versions of Symantec’s Internet-protection products, which are sold under three different names. The most basic Internet product, Norton AntiVirus, not only protects against viruses but 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 there are Norton Internet Security 2009 and Norton 360 version 3.0, which both include Norton AntiVirus but add different things to it. Norton Internet Security 2009 features fast updates and quick scans of your computer to find and eliminate any potential threats, and is good for sophisticated users who want a hands-on product that they can monitor as they wish and with whose functions they can interact. Norton 360 is positioned more as a product that any user can install (and version 3.0 does install more easily and reliably than earlier ones), and that thereafter handles computer protection pretty much on its own. This is not, in truth, an especially useful distinction – 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 Norton 360 does have that Norton Internet Security lacks is backup and PC tuneup features; if these are important to you, the $10 extra that Norton 360 costs makes it a better buy than Norton Internet Security.

     Among the enhancements in Norton 360 version 3.0 are integration of antispam operation into the product (an add-on pack was previously required; but antispam is now turned off by default, which seems a curious decision); improvements in the “Identity Safe” password-protection feature (which, alas, still works only with Internet Explorer); more flexible backup, either to your own media or to Symantec’s site (two gigabytes of storage are included); and a neat feature called “Smart Startup Manager,” which observes the impact of programs that run at startup and advises which ones to disable. Happily, the over-complex diagnostic report produced by version 2.0 is much improved in version 3.0, thanks to one simple change: the software now tells users which sections of the report need attention, thereby uncomplicating the whole process.

     Some changes in version 3.0 will be most appreciated by specific groups of users – for example, the “totally silent” mode, in which there are no interruptions at all, is great for gamers. Other changes benefit everyone: the new version works more quickly and uses less than 10 megabytes of memory at idle. But then there are the little irritations that have not changed at all: parental control, for example, still requires a separate download – and users who want it have to decide between an add-on pack and Norton Online Family, a more-comprehensive product that, however, is still in beta.

     So is Norton 360 version 3.0 the ultimate computer protector? No – it omits some useful technical features of other Symantec security products (such as fast pulse updates), and it is not quite simple enough for less-experienced users to install it and simply let it do its job (although the inclusion of free E-mail, chat and phone support is a nice touch). Also, Norton 360 version 3.0 is scarcely inexpensive in a world where a great deal of good freeware and shareware is available; and some of its features are not quite as valuable as they seem: two gigs of online storage are available free from EMC’s Mozy, for example, and that storage stays with you as long as you like – while Symantec’s is good only for the one year of the product’s life, unless you upgrade or extend the license. (You can get 25 gigs from Symantec by buying the Premier edition for an extra $20, but again, you have to keep the product current to continue to use the storage.) However, there is no question that version 3.0 is the best Norton 360 yet: it installs more easily, uses fewer computer resources, works more quickly, provides a better feature set and gives more comprehensive protection than earlier versions. Even its interface is cleaner and easier to understand than earlier ones. That makes Norton 360 version 3.0 a top-notch choice for family computing – it can be used on up to three PCs per household (or small business) – even if it is not quite a perfect circle of protection.

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