Installation and Usability
Suites are simple to use when they install cleanly, organize your configuration options well, run quickly, and alert you clearly to potential malware. Microsoft's and Trend Micro's suites fit those criteria the best, but for different reasons. Microsoft's product is easy to configure because there just isn't a lot to configure--a setup that many PC users might find limiting. On the other hand, Trend Micro's suite does an excellent job of cramming a multitude of options into a well-structured and aesthetically pleasing interface.
All the suites installed properly, and all configured our test PC's network settings correctly. (Right now, Microsoft's Windows Defender antispyware app is a separate software install.) Our few gripes were with McAfee's suite: Its painful installation required five restarts and the creation of a user name and password. A subsequent dialog box makes you opt out of receiving newsletters about virus threats, McAfee promotions, and McAfee partner promotions. Also, initially we couldn't download software updates via Firefox; we had to use Internet Explorer and temporarily allow pop-up windows.
CA's suite was the worst integrated, depositing four icons in our system tray. Plus, the main interface doesn't link to Blue Coat's parental controls.
Symantec's suite seemed to talk the most, regularly popping up software status alerts and cookie warnings. Some people may want this level of explanation; those who don't may prefer F-Secure's suite, which has a lot of deep settings but little instruction about managing them.
Speed also differentiated the products. Panda's suite performed the fastest on-demand virus scan, taking 6 minutes, 39 seconds to speed through 14.7GB worth of files and folders on our test PC. Trend Micro's was second-fastest with a scan time of 7 minutes, 37 seconds. F-Secure's was the slowest, completing the scan at a glacial pace of 28 minutes, 46 seconds. F-Secure says that its real-time protection and its five scan engines--two for viruses and one each for spyware, rootkits, and heuristics--slow down scan speed.
We measured the suites' drag on system resources by installing them with default settings and then running WorldBench 5. Microsoft's product imposed the lightest load, increasing the execution time of each our nine WorldBench 5 application tests by 4 percent or less. (An increase of 15 percent would be noticeable.) The Aluria suite was the hungriest resource hog, more than doubling the execution time of our ACDSee PowerPack and Microsoft Windows Media Encoder tests. BitDefender's package also bogged down our system, causing a 25 percent time increase in our Microsoft Office 2002 test and a 69 percent time increase in the Mozilla test.
As for malware alerts, Microsoft's firewall warnings gave complete program and path information for apps trying to access the Internet. BitDefender's package had clearer virus alerts than firewall warnings. The McAfee suite refused to classify a threat as adware or spyware, instead using the vague term PUP--potentially unwanted program--to describe both. For a closer look at the alerts, see each suite's full online review, accessible via our expanded chart.
Overall, even the highest-rated suites, from Symantec and McAfee, weren't the best at all tasks, so power users may still want to mix and match best-of-breed security components. Many other people, though, will find it hard to beat the convenience of one-stop security shopping.