This review appears in the January 2007 issue of PC Advisor, available now in all good newsagents. The screenshot, price, system requirements and scores to the right are for Sophos Security Suite SBE 2.0; we also have details for AVG Internet Security 7.5 and Panda Internet Security 2007.
With broadband becoming ubiquitous, internet security is now a vital factor for any home or business user. Two of the three packages reviewed here, AVG Internet Security 7.5 and Panda Internet Security 2007, are aimed at individual users, with AVG's offering a new suite that wraps up the company's excellent antivirus program within a complete security bundle. Sophos Security Suite is intended for small businesses, with components for server and client that will protect the whole network rather than individual PCs.
As with other internet security suites (such as theMcAfee and Symantec products reviewed here), the core components consist of antivirus protection and a firewall. Particularly important is the ability to receive updates, as internet threats constantly evolve. Any protection you have should ideally receive new antivirus signatures throughout the day – the Sophos suite does this by the hour.
The AVG product range is worth mentioning for one other reason: along with server editions for networked businesses, its developer, Grisoft, also provides a free version for private use. This provides regular updates – although these are not prioritised in the same way as the commercial releases – and offers excellent protection against viruses, spyware and worms.
As this is the best free antivirus software available on the market then why pay? Well, the interface of the freeware is fairly basic in comparison to the full version, which will give you extra peace of mind by providing much faster updates.
The advanced settings also offer greater control over such features as scheduling virus scans, automatic disinfection and selecting which files or folders to exclude.
Updates to Panda's antivirus package are not as extensive as those for the previous version, but they remain extremely good. Certainly the Ultrafast engine lives up to its name. Compared to packages such as McAfee and Norton, Panda consumes far fewer resources. AVG is better still in this regard although, overall, Panda remains a very reliable application.
The approach taken by Sophos Security Suite SBE is very different. As this is aimed at businesses, installation is more complex but designed to allow an administrator control over all PCs on a network. Thus the Management Console must first be installed on a Windows 2000/2003 server or XP Professional machine before client software is rolled out to other computers.
Once this is done, all PCs on the network can be checked to ensure that they are protected. And, while it is more complex initially, the process of virus protection is invisible to the end user on a client PC.
All three programs employ some form of heuristic analysis. This way antivirus software can attempt to determine suspicious activity on your PC that could be a virus before it has been identified in labs.
Alongside antivirus protection, all of these suites offer a personal firewall that's a great improvement on the free software included as part of Windows XP Service Pack 2. While many broadband routers provide hardware protection to hide PCs on a network from potential hackers, these applications monitor your operating system for evidence of malware attempting to connect.
AVG's firewall monitors all communication to and from the computer, the latter being most important when locating any Trojans that could send out confidential information. In basic mode, a configuration wizard creates access rules for popular applications, while it doesn't take much effort to set up profiles so that a user can switch security levels.
As with the rest of the Panda Platinum Internet Security Suite, the firewall interface is generally easier to use and slicker than that of AVG. Antiphishing controls and Wi-Fi intruder blocking are easier to locate and configure, and there's better support for privacy controls.
The Sophos firewall component is used at the client level, offering what the company calls 'day-zero' protection to prevent attacks. As with the antivirus protection, it's managed centrally but, unlike the antivirus client, it runs only on Windows 2000 and XP.
While configuration isn't as simple as the other packages reviewed here, Sophos allows system admins to enforce security policies that most users would probably neglect, such as moving to a wireless network.
Spam and extras
While viruses and hacking are the main threats faced by computer users, a more common if less destructive menace is spam, which can render email accounts unusable.
Both Panda and AVG provide decent antispam support, checking email and then quarantining it so that it can either be deleted or blocked.
The Sophos approach is different. The PureMessage application that comes as part of its security suite is designed to protect against email spam as well as viruses. It also enforces policies for email usage across a network – hardly a consideration for the individual user.
All three programs take seriously the issue of phishing and spyware. Fraudulent attempts to solicit personal information will be blocked from within the browser. Panda is slightly easier to use in this regard than AVG – administration of the Sophos suite requires configuration by a network manager. One element that might swing users to prefer Panda suite is use of parental controls to block access to inappropriate sites.
The final element to consider when selecting a personal security suite is whether you wish to use it on one or more PCs. If you have several systems, Panda is excellent value for money. Its licence covers up to three computers. The AVG package is more expensive, but if you wish to install it on only one PC it'll work out cheaper as the price includes a two-year subscription for updates.
Of the three products, Sophos Security Suite SBE 2.0 stands apart. For the average PC user, its operations will be largely invisible. While the management console offers simple ways to configure the program across a network, this requires considerable technical expertise. With this in mind, this package offers excellent protection across a small business network – and it is the network that's protected, not just individual PCs. However, as a five-user licence starts at £260, the cost only really starts to be justified if you also wish to enforce policies for net access and mail usage across your network as well. For larger companies, Sophos dealers offer various discounts and pricing schemes.
For individuals, either of the other two programs will work extremely well. AVG’s Internet Security is a good addition to the scene, bringing together an excellent antivirus application with other elements that'll provide good basic security and performance. Its two-year licence also offers welcome competition in a crowded market. The interface, however, while functional, could put off new and inexperienced users, and Panda is the better option overall.