The price, scores, system requirements and screenshot to the right are for Norton Internet Security 2007; for details of McAfee Internet Security Suite 9.0, kindly click here.
Protecting your PC is a necessity for anyone connecting to the internet. And these two releases from Norton and McAfee provide essential one-stop solutions. Each offers the core requirements and neither will be a poor choice, but your own requirements could make either one slightly more desirable.
A big complaint about previous versions of Norton was that it could be overwhelming. The updated Protection Center offers a simplified interface, with main features accessible from the front page and configuration options tucked away. McAfee’s control panel is not quite as slick, but experienced users will find it easier to locate settings they wish to modify, with essentials such as scanning and updates accessible via convenient buttons. And log files are more advanced, too.
The core features of any internet security package remain antivirus protection and a firewall. Both products' firewalls protect users against harmful traffic. The enhanced Smart Firewall in Norton deals with a common problem for inexperienced users: how to deal with information about applications. Often files have obscure names, some of which may be necessary for the operation of essential applications.
For those who wish to have more control over their firewall settings, there are plenty of options to set up active, trusted and restricted networks. And an important feature of both applications is that they will monitor wireless networks. You can customise a list of trusted programs that are allowed to access the net.
In our advance review copy of McAfee, the firewall has to be downloaded once the suite has installed. This makes the installation more complex than necessary, but it should be rectified by the final release. As with the Norton firewall, however, it does a very good job of hiding your PC from malicious attacks. And it offers customisable control over which applications can access the web.
There tend to be more alerts from McAfee, while Norton’s Smart Firewall makes more decisions on behalf of the user. That said, McAfee's ability to police networks is simpler.
With regards to antivirus protection, maintaining up-to-date databases against potential threats is essential. McAfee and Symantec have long been major players in this field and updates are maintained extensively on a daily basis. The latest version of Norton includes an enhanced Auto-Protect component for viruses, spyware and adware, but offers IM (instant messaging) scanning and email protection too.
Enhancements have been made to such things as identifying rootkits and scan times. But despite running a system scan several times, Norton insisted that this action must be taken every time it is launched.
Norton's Bloodhound heuristics analyse executable files to find potential virus threats, even if these are not matched against any database. While the antivirus features are particularly good at locating known spyware and viruses, we didn't have the opportunity to test the effectiveness of Bloodhound itself.
McAfee VirusScan made effective work of scanning for viruses, spyware and other malicious activity on our test PC, although this was considerably slower than Norton and placed a greater burden on system resources. Like Norton, McAfee provides a heuristic engine (called SystemGuards) to monitor suspicious activity and prevent viruses that are not listed. And it uses a system called X-Ray to find and remove rootkits.
Baiting the line
While malware is the most significant component for online protection, there are plenty of other menaces – some of which can be even worse. If your privacy is infringed, or you fall prey to a phishing scam, it can be much more than just your hard drive that suffers.
As such, protecting personal information is a key feature for both of these security programs.
Norton has several features to protect users from fraudulent sites. The most obvious is the Toolbar, which is displayed by default in your browser. Usually this appears as a large green button at the top of the browser, indicating that fraud monitoring is on. But if you encounter a web page masquerading as another, Norton prevents the page from being displayed. This does involve a slight performance hit, but is extremely useful against links in scam emails.
Norton can use advanced heuristics to check that sites are what they claim to be. By breaking down URLs and analysing the format and content of web pages, it can have a decent stab at telling whether a website is official or not.
McAfee’s protection features are, as far as the browser is concerned, less ostentatious. A SiteAdvisor button sits in the toolbar, informing you whether sites are safe or not. When confidential information is sent out, the privacy service can block the information and alert the user. This can easily double up as a parental control, an area where McAfee is particularly strong. The program can analyse web pages for inappropriate content and images and then block any offending material.
The improvements to Norton Internet Security have been made primarily in terms of firewall and antivirus protection. In this version, you won't find advanced parental controls, for example. Nonetheless, for the security-obsessed, there are very good logging features and a comprehensive virus encyclopedia.
By contrast, McAfee's suite provides several extras. As well as the parental controls already alluded to, Spamkiller will block unwanted email, while Data Backup allows you to protect your data in case files are lost or damaged. After the initial run, McAfee can back up files the second that they're updated. As well as ensuring maximum security of files, this cuts down on those annoying moments when the PC embarks on a 20-minute backup job, just as you're in the middle of an important assignment.
And if you fancy getting hold of even more features, there is a Total Protection suite that includes password protection for crucial data and file shredding. You will, however, have to pay more for it.