A few short years ago, all a PC needed for protection was a basic antivirus program to guard against any malware that arrived via an e-mail attachment, embedded in a shareware application or piggy-backed on a floppy disk.
These days, however, the threat landscape has changed drastically. Now PC users have to cope not only with viruses, but also with spyware, spam, infected Web sites, adware, key loggers, phishing schemes and much, much more. It’s enough to make your head spin.
As a result, properly securing a PC now requires a layered approach that incorporates many security technologies. Although some are still sold in separate packages, most security products are currently gathered in suites, available from a multitude of security software vendors.
The crowded market makes picking a suite a bit of a dilemma for most users. Narrowing down which product to use requires a closer look at what type of protection is available.
Security suites can include some, or all, of the following: antivirus, antispyware, antispam, anti-malware (rootkits, bots, zombies, etc.) and anti-phishing tools, plus a link scanner, privacy controls, parental controls, content filtering, registry protection, data filtering and password protection.
In this roundup, I look at nine security suites that include all of the features mentioned above.
How we tested
New viruses and threats arrive every day –and on any given day, one vendor may be a little quicker on the draw to prevent a virus than others. That makes evaluating the strength of a particular anti-malware or anti-spam product very difficult — there is never a level playing field.
With that in mind, I tested each security suite based upon factors that affect the user directly. I evaluated each for ease of installation, ease of use, notification capabilities, updating and quality of the interface.
For testing purposes, I used a Toshiba Tecra A11-S3450 notebook computer configured with 4GB of RAM, an Intel Core i7-620M CPU and a 320GB 7,200-rpm hard drive that was running the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Professional.
(Some of these products also have versions for other operating systems, such as Mac OS X, iOS and Android, and other devices, such as netbooks. These are noted in the spec boxes that are included with each review.)
During testing, I installed each product on the Toshiba notebook and timed how long the machine took to boot up, then I compared that figure to the time it had taken the machine to boot up without a security suite installed (see table). After each test, I restored the notebook back to its pretesting condition using Paragon’s Backup & Recovery 10 Suite. That way, each product was installed under the exact same conditions, with the same software configuration.
During testing, I looked for telltale signs of poor performance, such as high processor utilization and slow system boots. I also noted the overall responsiveness of the interface. And I took a look at what suites proved to be overly intrusive, getting in the way of effectively using your PC by, for example, bombarding you with messages and warnings.
It’s important to note the evolution of the products tested here, each of which has changed significantly with each new version. As malware has become more sophisticated, so have security suites.
One interesting trend is the inclusion of digital sandboxes, which work by executing unknown applications in protected memory to detect any malicious behavior before allowing the application to access the system. Another innovation is application-stamping, where known good applications are whitelisted, allowing the anti-malware software/firewall to skip rescanning the applications whenever they are launched. That helps to speed up application launches and minimize the CPU cycles needed by the security software.
What’s more, security software vendors are becoming more proactive about protecting your PC, especially when it comes to updating signatures. Many of the products here check for new signatures several times a day, which is helpful for combating zero-day threats from new exploits.
All in all, today’s Internet security suites are becoming more sophisticated and are blazing new trails in protection technologies.
Frank J. Ohlhorst is a technology professional specializing in products and services analysis and writes for several technology publications. His Web site can be found at www.ohlhorst.net.