Test Drive: Norton Internet Security 2003

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted November 11, 2002
By Eric Grevstead

We've grumbled that Microsoft Office has acquired the market-dominance status of a "safe buy" or best-known brand; that it costs more than rivals like Corel WordPerfect Office and OpenOffice.org; and that Microsoft's periodic upgrades to the suite tend to smooth rough edges or add relatively minor enhancements rather than spectacular new features. So, for similar reasons, we should probably grumble about Symantec's annual antivirus and firewall release, Norton Internet Security 2003. But we can't help giving it a thumbs-up. Just as you'll get an excellent productivity suite if you choose Office, you'll get first-class online protection from Norton Internet Security - at a far easier-to-swallow price, $70 for the package or $40 for the upgrade from the 2002 edition.

Norton Internet Security (NIS) bundles Norton AntiVirus and Norton Personal Firewall (each $50 alone) with the personal-data-guarding and Internet-ad-blocking Norton Privacy Control, kid-protecting Norton Parental Control, and a new, minimal-but-useful e-mail filter called Norton Spam Alert.

As a gotta-have-it PC toolkit, it's frankly surpassed its stablemate Norton SystemWorks (which combines Norton AntiVirus with the aging Norton Utilities and CleanSweep), though in a perfect world, NIS would have the Internet cache- and cookie-cleanup functions found in SystemWorks - and for that matter, Norton AntiVirus would include the company's firewall, as rival McAfee VirusScan now does, instead of continuing Symantec's a-la-carte strategy.

As is, Norton Internet Security does an impressive job of working like one product instead of a bunch - and working with next to no intrusion, for the majority of users who'll follow its default setup of automatic, background operation for everything from catching and curing virus-infected downloads to fetching the latest program updates and virus signatures from Symantec's LiveUpdate servers (the price includes one year's subscription).

Normally, you'll see no more of NIS than a couple of icons in the system tray and alerts that pop into the lower right corner of your display when the firewall stops a snoop or the program scans a piece of outgoing mail for viruses (the only time we really noticed a slowdown in operations on our Pentium 4 desktop, by a matter of two or three seconds). If you like, you can put a Security Monitor on screen that gives quick access to the main menu, some NIS functions, and a panic button to block all Internet traffic, but you'll probably settle for the main menu, logically divided between AntiVirus and Internet Security submenus and between friendly "Configure" (mostly quick, prefab settings for low, medium, and high security) and expert "Options" tabs.

Additions to Norton AntiVirus' repertoire include scanning for viruses in instant messaging as well as e-mail attachments; the function works with Microsoft's Windows/MSN Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger 4.7 or higher, and Yahoo Messenger 5.0 or higher, but ICQ, Trillian, and other IM users are out of luck.

A new Worm Blocking feature checks outbound e-mails so you won't be guilty of passing along the next Sircam; Symantec says the scheme, like its Script Blocking sibling, can recognize and stop malicious behavior even before a new baddie has been added to the signature list.

NIS alerts you when your PC has joined a new network (such as an 802.11b wireless LAN) and has a wizard for setting up protection for a home network, creating a "Trusted Zone" of computers allowed to communicate with your own. But the main job of Norton Personal Firewall is to let you connect safely to the biggest network of them all, the Internet, without throwing open the doors of your PC to every hacker and passerby.

The program passed Gibson Research Corp.'s Shields Up probe with flying colors, making our PC's NetBIOS, POP3, FTP, and other ports (including the recently ballyhooed Universal Plug 'n' Play port 5000) not only impenetrable but invisible to random-chance snoopers. But wait, you say; didn't worms like Nimda and Code Red make it through many firewalls? Sadly, yes - so Norton's new Intrusion Detection feature checks all incoming and outgoing packets for signatures of known attacks or exploits such as WinNuke and Wrap_CGI (LiveUpdate refreshes these signatures along with virus definitions and other info).

Norton Personal Firewall also makes things easy for consumers when it comes to the classic firewall chore of stopping Trojan horses or spyware while permitting Internet access by "trusted" programs; an initial scan recognizes scores of Internet-enabled applications, while helpful pop-up dialogs explain the risk potential of different access attempts (from first-time, don't-interrupt-again launches of your Web browser or e-mail client to unexpected, unauthorized outbound attempts). The alert dialogs, including an enjoyable option to zero in on a snoop's IP info and location map, strike a good balance of reassurance and detail.

While it works fine, Norton Personal Firewall didn't strike us as being quite as elegant in the program-control area as Zone Labs' ZoneAlarm family - our Program Scan list was cluttered with confusing triplicate and quadruplicate entries for Windows components, and burrowing into the Options menus to activate checking of individual DLLs and parts of programs brings a baffling barrage of alerts (although we don't think most users will need to try it, any more than they'll use the menu to permit inbound ICMP but not outbound DNS).

A Small Step Toward Less Spam
Similarly, the default settings for Norton's Web-page banner and pop-up/under ad blocker let through a few ads that Panicware's Pop-Up Stopper spared us, but make an unquestionably welcome difference (especially for slower dial-up modem users) when it comes to loading pages' steak without their sizzle. The Options tab lets you configure the program to block not only pop-up ads but cookies and ActiveX or Java applets on a broad or site-specific basis.

Norton Privacy Control lets you enter a list of don't-tell-anyone information, such as phone or credit-card numbers, to be intercepted instead of sent via a Web form, e-mail, or instant message. Norton Parental Control lives up to its name by blocking access to objectionable Web sites - and, new in this version, newsgroups - based on a Symantec-supplied, regularly updated directory or personal blacklist.

Finally, though it's a very limited, simple first strike against the surging armies of commercial e-mailers, a Spam Alert feature compares incoming e-mails against lists of senders and subject phrases and automatically adds "Spam Alert:" to the start of unsolicited items' subject lines (changing, say, "Cheap Printer Cartridges!" to "Spam Alert: Cheap Printer Cartridges!"). The manual and help screens tell you how to add a filter to your e-mail program that'll bounce these messages from your inbox to a new folder, where you can review and delete them at your leisure.

Spam Alert is liable to tag at least a few "real" or wanted e-mails as spam, and in our few days' testing it let maybe a third of the junk mail slide by - but hey, when it comes to a painless way to reduce spam, batting .600 is not bad, and you can improve its average by custom-tuning your own filters. The spam tally, like intrusion and virus histories, can be reviewed, saved, or cleared from NIS' log files.

Overall, Norton Internet Security 2003 succeeds superbly at its mission - to offer a friendly, all-in-one, peace-of-mind package for everyday Web and e-mail users. Yes, it could be even nicer with a few more features added; yes, tech-savvy users can roll up their sleeves and configure even stronger protection via a combination of other programs. But for $70 a year ($40 if you're an upgrader), Symantec's insurance policy is hard to resist.

Reprinted from hardwarecentral.com.

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