PRODUCT REVIEW

Norton 360: Is Hands-Off Security a Good Thing?

Symantec’s latest security suite, Norton 360, gives less-experienced consumers a fresh approach to hardening their computer security with a from-the-ground-up rebuild of its Norton Internet Security Suite into a product that offers anti-intrusion, PC optimization and backup modules.

Norton 360 is a step up for Symantec, as it competes with McAfee Total Protection and Microsoft Live OneCare all-in-one security solutions. Norton 360 takes careful aim at improving Internet security, but it dumbs down the configuration features so that typical users get an out-of-the-box package that provides almost no fiddling of settings and user options.

If your security needs go beyond the mainstream PC user, however, Norton 360 will not leave you smiling. Its target user is the mainstream consumer who desires hands-off protection.

“We decided to start from scratch and create an all-in-one package with a totally rewritten user interface,” Thomas Powledge, senior director of consumer security for Symantec, told TechNewsWorld.

Installation Missteps

I have installed and uninstalled practically every Symantec product that exists. That experience has taught me to take a deep breath and cross my fingers.

Despite the new code, Symantec may have forgotten to rework the installation routine. I installed Norton 360 on two computers (Symantec allows installations on three computers) and had to uninstall and reinstall on one of them to get Norton 360 working.

With previous Symantec products I almost always had to track down a separate program from the company’s Web site to fully remove traces of previous Norton packages when upgrading. Norton 360 has no included uninstall feature, which means I had to use the Windows Add/Remove applet to excise Norton 360 from both computers.

Upon reinstalling, the process skipped the step of asking for the product code. I take this as an indication that some footprints remained behind. I always regard with considerable skepticism programs that behave this way.

Lackluster GUI

For consumers who are familiar with the current generation of computer security suites, Norton 360’s look and feel is not much different. Clicking the Norton icon in the system tray opens the security panel, which reports the status of the four components.

Each of the four panels — PC Security, Transaction Security, Backup and Restore, and PC Tuneup — has a “details” button at the bottom to open limited user options. However, the settings offer little more than turning the main options on or off or selecting when to run a limited collection of commands.

The user has almost no configuring decisions to make. For inexperienced users, this is a good thing. For experienced users, the lack of advanced feature controls is less inviting.

No Resource Hog

Unlike previous Symantec security and maintenance suites, Norton 360 plays nicely with system resources. On a relatively new test computer with a dual-core processor and ample RAM, this was less of an issue. However, the older, slower test computer showed far fewer signs of strain with Norton 360.

“We reworked components to use less system resources. Most only kick in when the PC goes into an idle state,” said Powledge.

Norton 360 needs only 300 MB of hard drive storage and 256 MB of RAM.

What It Does

Norton 360 provides PC security by protecting against viruses, spyware and other intrusion risks. It provides a firewall, automatic updates and e-mail attachment scanning.

The product also monitors the computer for intrusion attempts, browser vulnerabilities and hijacked network addresses, as well as checking for weak passwords. It also adds phishing protection through Web site authentication checks. This feature, however, is already present in most updated Web browsers, such as Microsoft Internet Explorer 7.0 and Mozilla’s Firefox 2.0.

Symantec included a backup and restore module with limited user-selected options for files and folder selections as well as a PC Tuneup component. Both of these features are very lightweight. Like Microsoft’s Live OneCare, Norton 360 simply puts into one place what Windows already provides within the Control Panel.

The backup feature is primarily designed for online storage rather than attached peripherals. Symantec provides 2 GB of online storage space, which is woefully inadequate for serious data backups.

The Tuneup optimization includes cleaning up the Internet history record, Internet temporary files, Windows temporary files and disk defragmentation.

What It Doesn’t Do

A big disappointment is the lack of many truly advanced user features in Norton 360. The most notable omission is the ability to fine tune firewall settings and wireless security tools.

“It can recognize what network is connected for locational awareness,” Powledge said. “It makes automatic determinations about what should be allowed.”

When pressed about the rationale for not including a stronger set of tools for firewall and wireless configuring, Powledge conceded that Symantec will consider more advanced features later on.

How It Performs

Shortcomings aside, Norton 360 does a good job of executing what it was obviously designed to do. It encircles the computer with a no-nonsense security layer that provides basic security with no user input required.

Norton 360 held the line against viruses, spyware and adware infections. Both test computers were exposed to a rigorous onslaught of test-bench intrusion attempts and survived unscathed.

Norton 360 correctly identified installed programs that should have Internet access and blocked several obvious miscreants.

While Norton 360 handled basic-to-moderate security tasks well, it did so with a big caveat. It lacks optimization for browsers other than Microsoft IE.

Norton 360 works with Windows XP Home, Windows XP Professional and Windows Vista.

The per-item purchase price is US$79.99 for installation on up to three computers. Additional storage space is available for back ups at $29.99 for 5 GB, $49.99 for 10 GB and $79.99 for 25 GB.

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