December 27, 2012
(++++) A CONVERGENCE OF EXCELLENCE
Norton Internet Security, 2013 edition. Windows XP/SP2 or later. Symantec. $79.99.
Norton 360, 2013 edition. Windows XP/SP2 or later. Symantec. $89.99.
Rejoice! Symantec has pulled its two premier protection products so closely together that it is finally possible to compare them directly to one another, and has changed their release schedule to be the same – instead of bringing them out on schedules differing by six months – so users can pick whichever one fits their needs better…without worrying that an even better match may turn up half a year later. And Symantec, despite its official list prices for these security suites, has been offering them as downloads for 50% off: $39.99 for Norton Internet Security and $49.99 for Norton 360, for a one-year subscription to each – usable on up to three computers, with 24/7 technical support. This price reduction eliminates the biggest issue that Symantec has faced in recent years: its security suites cost so much that home users and small-business owners have had to think whether they might do better with the many freeware and shareware products out there, even though those products lack the easy interoperability of the Symantec suites and require separate updates and often considerably more tweaking.
Ah yes, the tweaking. For some years now, Symantec’s Norton product line has been moving away from the legacy of Peter Norton, whose photo no longer adorns the boxed versions of the products. Norton created excellent, well-thought-out utilities (in fact including, among others, Norton Utilities) that frequently required more understanding and expertise to set up and use than the average computer user cared to lavish on them. And this was in the days when “average computer users” were often more knowledgeable about hardware and software than average ones are (or need to be) today. Early Norton products were fun to play with – they had enormous capabilities for those who knew how to evoke and manage them – but they were scarcely hands-off, set-and-forget protective suites along the lines of what computer users expect today. Symantec has engineered Norton Internet Security and Norton 360 to levels far beyond anything Peter Norton himself accomplished, or could accomplish, in the past, and in so doing has rendered the suites much more powerful and much, much easier to use – fast, efficient, minimally detrimental to system performance, and good-looking, too.
It is in their looks that the 2013 versions of Norton Internet Security and Norton 360 most noticeably differ. Symantec is no longer including a date or version label with the suites, and this may cause some confusion when the 2014 editions come out, but for now, it is no big deal. What is a big deal is the way Symantec has brought the suites together – for which users can thank Microsoft, whose Windows 8 release essentially forced Symantec to produce new versions of both the suites at the same time. Just to be clear about what both suites contain: Norton Internet Security and Norton 360 both include Norton AntiVirus, which lists for $49.99 on its own and is an excellent product that is distinctly overpriced when the suites including it sell for the same cost or less. Both suites detect and get rid of spyware, monitoring software and other forms of malware; block worms and hackers; include a Startup Manager utility to help PCs boot more quickly; improve spam filtering; protect against phishing sites; and have excellent firewalls. For the extra cost, Norton 360 adds features that users may or may not find useful: a backup utility that includes automatic file backup (but users may already have one, and many are available free in the cloud); monthly reports on threats, backups and other data; and two gigabytes of online storage (a rather paltry amount, with more than that available free from other sources). All these extras work well, but they are not all that much “extra” in the current computing environment, and Symantec may have to rethink ways of making Norton 360 distinctive and worth its additional cost if it is to entice people to pay more for it than for Norton Internet Security.
What is different about the two suites – and this may or may not be a deciding factor for users – is the interface each presents. As befits products redesigned in connection with the launch of Windows 8, both suites have the Win8 look, with large buttons that have a rather flat look to them – the opposite of the wonderful-looking but resource-hogging Aero interface in Windows 7, which Microsoft dropped in order to make its new operating system more compatible with less-powerful mobile devices. Norton Internet Security has a look that ties to its appearance in previous years, largely black and gray and green – a kind of technical slickness that befits the suite’s history. There are a few icons at the far right, but this is basically a clean and uncluttered interface with buttons that zip out of the way when you make choices – an obvious and pleasing nod to tablet and smartphone use. Norton 360 has similar buttons, but its interface is more colorful (the buttons are primarily yellowish-gold), and they work differently. Clicking (or touching, on a touch screen) a button in Norton Internet Security causes all the buttons to slide out of the way, revealing a new panel. Clicking (or touching) in Norton 360 expands the button itself into a menu of related tasks – which ties this year’s interface to that of previous editions of this suite.
There are also differences in the two suites’ Setup pages. In Norton Internet Security, users pick a main “settings” category using tabs across the top – then select a subcategory using tabs along the side. You can get to any settings page in two clicks, but the arrangement may not be intuitive for all users, particularly ones less experienced with computers or less comfortable with software utilities in general. Norton 360 stays true to its heritage as a suite for the less technically knowledgeable or adept with a settings page that presents a set of controls that quickly turn specific components of the suite on or off. For users who do want to accomplish more, there are nine links to pages of more-detailed settings.
Interface design differences are not usually worth discussing in much detail, but they are notable here because the underlying functionality of Norton Internet Security and Norton 360 is identical – except for the extras in the latter suite. In this particular case, users may actually make a decision on which suite to buy based on the interface: even if you do not think the extras in Norton 360 to be worth the additional cost, you may prefer the look and functionality of that suite, and that may be worth a slightly higher initial expense.
As for the operation of both suites: it is as seamless, efficient and well-integrated as ever. Malware protection is top-notch, and antispam and antiphishing are both well-designed and accurate. There is a scam-insight feature that catches potentially dangerous Web sites, and it works well; and the behavioral-detection feature works even better in the 2013 versions of these suites than it did before. Those considering Norton 360 should know that the tune-up feature does a good job of improving system performance and is arguably the most useful additional element. The backup works quite well but is scarcely unique, and the two-gig limit is low. The diagnostic reports are good, but are actually more detailed than many users are likely to want – the whole point of security software nowadays is to set it up without significant difficulty and let it run quietly in the background, without compromising system performance (both Norton Internet Security and Norton 360 do so only minimally – impressive for such powerful suites). The argument about getting most of the same functionality for free vs. paying for it remains a valid one. For example, Windows Defender in Win8, like Microsoft Security Essentials in earlier Windows versions, is a fine protective program; and Defender comes bundled with the operating system. But the convenience of having multiple protective programs running under the same umbrella, whether in Norton Internet Security or Norton 360, remains a major plus for these suites, and the ability to buy them for significantly less than their official list prices tilts the playing field decisively in their direction. You can assemble the functions for free or at low cost if you want to return to the earlier days of Peter Norton himself, putting bits from here together with pieces from there and figuring out interoperability issues and update necessities on your own. But if you simply want to work and play on your Windows-based system, and leave the protection of the system up to powerful software running in the background and alerting you only when necessary, then you cannot go wrong with either Norton Internet Security or Norton 360. In fact, you can only go right with either one of them.