All-in-One Security Suites: Chat Transcript

PC World: Welcome to the PC World live chat with Narasu Rebbapragada! Narasu is a senior associate editor at PC World, and is the author of "All-in-One Security." She's here to answer all your questions about the featured security suites, how they were tested, and which is best for you.

PC World: This chat is sponsored by PC Tools. Spyware Doctor is a highly recommended spyware and adware remover--free scan. Download now.

PC World: Welcome, Narasu!

Narasu: I'm Narasu Rebbapragada, a senior associate editor at PC World. I spent the past two months researching all-in-one security suites, and I'm looking forward to answering your questions.

RB: Crystal ball time: This time next year, with Vista and 64-bit, who will still fill the bill?
Narasu: A good question. My crystal ball doesn't go out too far. The bad news is that when Vista comes out, you will likely have to replace all your security software packages with Vista versions. The reason is the way it handles administrator rights. Right now the only company to come out with a Vista-ready program is CA. This software, naturally, is still in beta. But, no doubt, most major security companies are working on it. As for 64-bit software, right now I don't know of any 64-bit suites. However, if you want to put together your own solution, Zone Labs has a 64-bit version of its firewall. Avast and Eset have 64-bit versions of their antivirus software, and Lavasoft has a 64-bit antispyware program.

SPSPSP: Will we have to replace our security software when Vista comes out if we have not changed to Vista?
Narasu: If you haven't upgraded to Vista, you can use your current security software.

Abet: Are antivirus programs that claim that they also take care of spyware as effective in doing so as antispyware programs?
Narasu: They can be. Many companies have added antispyware software to their antivirus engines, but there are still very good stand-alone antispyware solutions. What you want to use is up to you, but there are good options on both sides.

Alexred: What is the single largest threat to the security of a home PC, and what actions can be taken to offset this?
Narasu: Right now spyware and adware are the biggest area of the new group in security threats. The danger is that you can just be surfing the Internet and stumble across it; you no longer have to receive it. The best tips I can give are (1) get a good antispyware program, one you're comfortable using, and (2) also practice safe surfing. Go to online retailers that you know, and go to financial services or bank sites through their front door.

Barbschu: How many security packages should/can a person have?
Narasu: The most important thing to remember is to run only one antivirus engine at a time. If you run two, you risk system problems. So with that in mind, it's okay, for example, to run a security suite with one stand-alone antispyware program. It's definitely not okay to run two antivirus programs, and it's not okay to run a security suite and another antivirus program if that security suite has antivirus protection.

Bigalsbread: As I have a very limited income, I am interested in finding a free or extremely low-cost security suite. Does such a thing exist?
Narasu: That's a really good point. A lot of security software is expensive. I don't know of any free suites, but you can definitely put together your own free compilation of components. For firewalls you can use Zone Labs Personal Firewall--that's free. We covered three antivirus programs, and they're all good. And Ad-Aware is free on the antispyware side.

Boowahbabe: I've heard yes, and I've heard no--should you ever just delete all the cookies from the computer?
Narasu: While it's tempting to hit the delete button and lose all your cookies, keep in mind that some cookies are ones that you might need, such as for registration to your news page. So if you really can't find a cookie that's causing a pop-up, you can delete them all. But be prepared to re-register for a lot of your services. It's probably better, before you do that, to run an antispyware tool to try to find the problem cookie.

Blwshpnt: Does PC World rank the all-in-one security suites? They all claim to be the best. I have had Norton, McAfee, and now PC-cillin.
Narasu: Funny you should ask! We just completed our story ranking ten all-in-one security suites. It's called "All-in-One Security," and it will also be in the July 2006 print edition of PC World.

Candymanronnie: How does a virus or a Trojan get onto a Web site? Does the Webmaster know of its presence? Can the Webmaster do anything to protect the site?
Narasu: Well, the scary thing is that the Webmaster may have absolutely no idea that their site is infected with a Trojan horse. What can happen is that you can get rerouted, practically invisibly, to another site that drops a Trojan onto your PC. So the old logic that says "so long as you don't click anything (a link in an e-mail for example) you'll be safe" is no longer true.

Cmwashington: As a new PC user, how do I determine when my PC has been invaded by something foreign and harmful?
Narasu: Well, a lot of times you won't know. Symptoms can be if your PC suddenly is running very slow, or if you're getting pop-ups. Those kinds of things can be a sign of spyware or adware on your PC. And many times nothing will appear to be wrong. So it's important to still run a weekly scan using your antivirus software to make sure there's no bad stuff on your PC.

Cosmo776: How vulnerable are wireless connections compared to dial-up?
Narasu: Wi-Fi connections are more vulnerable than dial-up. So if you're running a Wi-Fi network at home, make sure you password-protect it. If you're at a Starbucks, for example, and you're connecting from a hot spot, make sure you're connected to the network you actually want to be connected to.

Craig: I'd like some feedback on Microsoft's new subscription service it is offering: OneCare and Defender. From a small-business perspective, it would seem like the way to go.
Narasu: The good thing about Microsoft's OneCare from a small-business point of view is that the $50 it costs per year is good for up to three PCs. That makes it the cheapest suite we looked at. However, I wouldn't really recommend OneCare for a business, because its tools aren't very configurable.

Dlks: What do you think is the best utility in this category, and why?
Narasu: As far as suites go, Symantec's suite and Norton Internet Security ranked first overall because the software had a good blend of features, performance, and overall usability. If you want the absolute top performer, that title went to McAfee's suite. Another top performer is Kaspersky's suite. For timing reasons it didn't make our suite roundup, but it's another good option.

Dshema: I have McAfee VirusScan, and every time I log on to my computer I get the message "McAfee Active Shield has found a suspect file on your computer. McAfee strongly recommends that you scan your computer now." I run a scan, and it finds nothing. What may be causing this?
Narasu: The first thing I would check is that you have up-to-date virus definitions, the very latest software updates from McAfee. After that, if your scan still finds a problem, you can try running a different antivirus program; but I must stress strongly that before you do that, properly uninstall the McAfee product. I don't recommend you buy anything new right away, as there are trials and free scanners up on the Internet. But again, when you go to the Internet, make sure you go to a company that you trust.

Effex: Does a router protect my computer from any and all viruses and malicious invasion?
Narasu: No. Someone once explained it to me like this: A router is like the fence surrounding your house. So it's good at keeping out certain kinds of networks that are trying to get in. But beyond that, say, for example, you get a virus in an e-mail and you click on it, a router won't prevent that piece of malware from accessing the Internet once it's on your computer. So a router is great for hiding your PC's IP address from the outside world, but you still need antivirus and antispyware software.

Jander41: Is it really necessary to have antispyware and a firewall?
Narasu: That's up for debate. I personally think so, and I run both. But there are compelling arguments that a software firewall, so long as you have a router or something that's hiding you from the Internet, may not be necessary. I would recommend you get both, but keep in mind that a software firewall will cough up messages. It wants to know if certain applications can access the Internet. I prefer that level of protection, but if you're always going to be irritated by the pop-ups and just clicking Yes to get rid of them, then you're defeating the purpose. If you don't have a software firewall, make sure you have a router or some sort of hardware firewall.

Mconway15: Do I need a firewall if I do not bank or pay bills online?
Narasu: Again, same thing--I would say yes, because there are other types of network threats.

N3boden: I need virus tools that will run from a floppy disk or CD, or from a USB port--one that will run from DOS boot.
Narasu: Most of the security suites do have some sort of bootable-CD option. F-Secure, Symantec, and McAfee have CDs that double as emergency discs so you can boot from them. Panda's CD will boot, but it won't boot Windows. BitDefender has a bootable-CD feature, but it's an extra fee (not much, though).

Rafalot: If I use a router even though I'm on a single computer, I don't need a third-party firewall, do I?
Narasu: Really, all you're doing is hiding your computer's IP address from the Internet. So if that's enough protection for you, that might be okay. Again, if you do a lot of file-sharing activities, you might want a software firewall to be able to configure certain applications and how they talk to the Internet.

Simoncotton: AVG is seldom mentioned in magazines. Has it a place?
Narasu: AVG is terrifically good, free antivirus software. If you don't have money, I would definitely recommend using it. I'm not sure why it's overlooked--we included it in our last antivirus roundup. And while it ranked last out of the ten products we tested, it's still good software.

Yyja: With the plethora of security software suites available, plus Microsoft's own OS-bundled security features, how is a poor user like me going to sort out the complexity--and even conflicts--and come up with a proper choice?
Narasu: If you're really a poor user, as in you have no money, then you go with the free software solutions, like one of the free antivirus programs, free firewalls, and free antispyware tools we've recommended in the past. Beyond that, the main decision you have to make is how much help you want with your software. If you consider yourself comfortable with software--uninstalling, installing, configuring--then you may want software that doesn't talk to you as much. F-Secure Internet Security performed well, but it won't explain very many options. I like that one because it interfaces very simply. However, if you don't understand common security terms--for example, whether or not you want to scan a compressed archive--then you may want to go with one of the top three contenders in our security suite roundup, from Symantec, McAfee, or Panda. I find that they pop-up too many alerts about how my software is running, but other people may need that interaction to remind them that they need to update their software. And that's perfectly fine. I wouldn't recommend that my friends use the same security software as me, because we have different levels of experience with it.

3: How do you know which company really has the best security software? They all are going to toot their own horn.
Narasu: That's very true, and it's good that you're aware of that, because the security company with the biggest marketing budget doesn't always make the best product. And the same product can perform differently year after year. So the best thing you can really do is read articles from magazines like PC World, or the variety of other publications out there, and just keep current. Just to give you an indication of some of the things we examined, we looked at how well the different security packages were able to detect and clean up a large number of security threats. We looked at the number of features they had. And we also looked at how actionable they are (how well you're able to understand the information they're giving you). And they all did that pretty differently. It's unfortunate that we live in a world where we have to keep track of a lot of this stuff, but we do.

User: Do you think that technology and/or software will ever enable home-based antivirus software to be proactive instead of reactive, and are the scanning engines among the major antivirus players really that different? Or does it essentially still come down to who's quickest to post the latest updated definition file? Thank you, Narasu!
Narasu: There's two things in there. The first is the eventual goal in the industry for everything to be proactive, so that a piece of malware never hits your PC. But we're not there just yet. So right now, a number of software providers rely on virus definitions, and that means they identify security threats by the exact code. They also rely on what's called heuristics: They analyze how close a new piece of malware matches code that they already recognize. Right now, that's pretty reliable, especially in the virus area. What's newer and pretty exciting is what is called "behavior-based protection." That's where a piece of software can identify a security threat based only on how it acts. So if it sees your PC is acting suspiciously, it'll block whatever is causing that. You might see what's called TruPrevent, one example of a behavior-based teacher. There are other, smaller software packages that are only behavior-based. Right now, I would recommend using behavior-based protection as a supplement to, not instead of, traditional definition-based security software.

Bwitch: At what point should I abandon the frailty of Windows security and join the Mac revolution? Will the PC ever be as "untouchable" as the Mac OS?
Narasu: The real question is whether the Mac OS will stay as untouchable as it currently is. One of my machines at home is a Mac, and I have to be honest--I don't run any antivirus software on it. I do, however, have a firewall enabled. So yes, the Mac is one way to be less vulnerable to security threats, but that's sort of like never leaving your house. I think it's easy to get paranoid about the vast number of security threats facing the PC, but you'll be able to stay pretty healthy so long as you manage your security software and interact with the Internet in a safe manner.

Dan The Man: Are you better off picking and choosing the best individual security components/software, or should you just get an all-in-one suite? And which components/suite is the best one?
Narasu: Whether you go with a suite or stand-alone software, the question is how much you want to manage it. If you don't mind installing and updating three individual products, then I would recommend getting the three that you find the best. That said, if you might forget to update one of them, then you're not protected, so you should buy a suite. It's really a matter of convenience.

Gamoonbeam: I am interested in determining the best security software for my home situation. We own five Dell desktops for our family. I've always bought Norton products in the past and placed them on each of my computers. I want something that I can pay a multiple-user fee on due to the number of computers we now own. They are all for personal use. How safe am I?
Narasu: You're right to have software on each of your PCs, particularly if each of them is accessing the Internet. Most security software packages have a multiuser fee. Windows OneCare has the best deal on multilicense fees, $50 for three PCs.

Chasdiasb: How can I tell if a hacker is connected to my PC?
Narasu: A lot of times you can't. If you feel like your system is slowing down, that can be one indication. The scary thing is that a lot of times you won't know, so that's why it's important that you at least have some kind of firewall.

Nantao: I was told that even with all the security and kits sold that there is no way to avoid or remove adware or a virus. Is this true?
Narasu: No, that's not true, although it might seem like it. There are plenty of good anti-adware and antivirus products. Sometimes, with particularly stubborn adware or spyware, you might have to try a few solutions.

Richienay: System performance and conflicts are my main concern when installing a security suite. Which one can be considered to cause the least effect on system performance and still provide decent protection?
Narasu: Windows OneCare showed the least drain on system resources in our latest tests. But it's also probably because OneCare had the fewest features among the suites tested. McAfee was also light on the system, and Panda had a very fast system scan.

Bnf: I've read that all-in-one suites seem to have weaknesses that offset their convenience. Is that really true?
Narasu: Yes, I'd say that's true. During our security suite roundup, the ones that did the best weren't the best at everything. So that really does leave the case open for building your own suite with different components. If having best-of-breed protection is very important to you, then you should build your own. That said, the security suites that I tried ran well. So what you're getting with a suite is convenience, and knowing that all the different components have been tested and work well together.

Cmdata: As a home user who occasionally downloads from P-to-P file-sharing sites such as LimeWire, should I be seriously concerned with security breaches into my computer?
Narasu: Yes. If you use LimeWire or any sort of file-sharing program, you're at greater risk than someone who doesn't. And there are security threats out there that target P-to-P services. In that case, I absolutely would recommend getting a software firewall in addition to your router or whatever else you might have, as well as antivirus and antispyware.

NB: Will we eventually need antivirus/antispyware software, etc. for our games consoles that connect to the Internet, such as Xbox 360?
Narasu: I'll have to get back to you on the details of that. Right now some firewalls have gaming modes, but all they really do is suppress pop-ups so they don't interrupt your gaming experience. There are threats targeting gaming, but to my knowledge they're limited. But, in the same way that more Mac users means more Mac security threats, more online gamers present the opportunity for more threats. The real thing is, it's where the money is. If there's profit potential, someone will develop a threat for it.

Ray-2: Are there compatibility issues with using different antivirus software on laptops using a (wireless) network?
Narasu: All antivirus software that we tested should be fine if you're on a laptop that has Wi-Fi. So it's not like you won't be able to use the antivirus software. Where you'll start seeing problems is perhaps in your firewall software, and that would be a question of configuring your firewall.

Grtfulrow: Does the Internet security protect your Web e-mail?
Narasu: That's a really good question. The answer is no--until the point where you download an attachment, then your security product will scan it the way it scans other incoming traffic. But it won't protect your Web messages.

Thom: Do any all-in-one security suites protect against phishing?
Narasu: Yes, most of them do, and most of them are getting better at it.

Tenbeers: Don't you think businesses and home users need to start considering gateway antivirus, antispyware, and IPS to go along with their security software at the desktop level, in order to build a threat management system that protects against the types of attacks and blended threats that we see these days?
Narasu: The short answer is yes, all businesses should have some sort of comprehensive security suite. What they use depends on how many people are on the network, how many employees they have, and whether they have someone administering the network.

PC World: Narasu, thank you for being here and answering so many questions! Do you have any final comments to make, before we have to close?

Narasu: The only take-away that I have is to make sure that you're using some kind of antivirus, antispyware, and firewall solution, and that you're updating it regularly. I want to thank everyone for participating and for reading PC World.

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