It’s no longer enough for antivirus software to scan files on your PC. You need someone looking over your shoulder and telling you whether it’s safe to click that link; whether the popup for that software update is legitimate; and whether that download from your favorite social network is actually a tool created by organized criminals for stealing your personal information. You need an all-in-one Internet security suite capable of identifying, blocking, and cleaning up after a wide array of malware.
We examined 13 security suites for this story. To handle our expanded Internet security testing, PCWorld contracted for the services of AV-Test.org, a respected security testing company. We looked at traditional signature-based detection (which indicates how well products can block known malware) and at how well the suites cleaned infections and blocked brand-new, live malware attacks.
In many respects, the suites we looked at produced closely bunched results, but they did vary in the efficacy of their protection and in the extra features they offered. Ultimately, we picked Symantec’s Norton Internet Security 2011–the most balanced of the suites–as our overall winner.
New Threats for a New Year
Malware has migrated to social networks, so this year’s Internet security suites put more emphasis on stopping Web-based attacks. Norton Internet Security 2011, for example, has Norton Safe Web, a feature that hooks into your Facebook stream (with your permission) to scan your Facebook links and proactively block malicious ones. Other suites this year look for techniques that cyber-criminals use in attempts to poison SEO (search engine optimization), loading up on popular search keywords to make malware-compromised sites appear higher in search results. A suite may flag any such sites in search results as unsafe or questionable.
Another threat is the resurgence of banking-related malware. Though some suites protect against certain types of banking-specific malware–Kaspersky Internet Security 2011 offers a virtual, on-screen keyboard that lets you bypass traditional keyloggers, and in our tests, Panda, followed by G-Data, offered the best detection rates for known banking-specific malware– no suite targets the relatively new “man-in-the-browser” attacks, in which the malware doesn’t activate until you have successfully logged into your bank account.
Practically all suites offer some method to prevent malware from downloading through your browser without your consent. For example, a Website might pop up a fraudulent warning that your PC is infected and that you must buy a particular (but fake) antivirus program to remove it. Or it might trick you into downloading Trojan horses disguised as the latest version of Adobe Reader or Flash. Most security suites now monitor browser downloads and filter out this bogus software.
Comodo Internet Security 2011 Complete (which did not capture a spot in our Top 10 chart–click on the thumbnail at left) and the Kaspersky and Norton suites offered the best detection in our “real world” malicious downloads tests, which gauge how well the various suites block brand-new, as-yet unknown malware. And Norton Download Insight, which filters bad apps, now supports the Chrome, Opera, and Safari browsers (and AOL) as well as Internet Explorer and Firefox. Download managers from other companies typically work only with IE and Firefox.
Improved from last year is Norton Insight, which measures the relative trustworthiness of the files loaded on your desktop. The idea is that crowd-sourcing safe files (letting consumers around the world rate a file’s safety) is better than white-listing them (depending on a static list of acceptable files).
Crowd-sourcing is also behind so-called cloud-based detection of new malware. Security software reports suspect new files from a PC to the cloud and creates antimalware signatures as needed. In 2011, BitDefender, Comodo, and others join cloud pioneers McAfee, Norton, Panda, and Trend Micro.
For detection and removal of “zoo malware” (a collection of known worms, bots, backdoors, and downloaders) using traditional methods built into the program, Panda had near-perfect scores in our tests, followed by Avira and G-Data.
All 13 of the security suites we reviewed offer at least antivirus, antispyware, and antispam components, plus a firewall. Some, such as Eset Smart Security 4 and PC Tools Internet Security 2011, had little more. The others provide additional capabilities–parental controls, gaming features (such as a “silent mode” that won’t interrupt a game with alerts), and online backup (useful if malware ever nukes your PC).
A few products also boasted “sandbox” features that run a new app within a protected environment so that if it turns out to be malicious, it can’t infect your operating system. In 2011, Avast, Comodo, and Kaspersky all offer this feature.
Many users worry that a security suite will slow their PC. This year, AV-Test ran a battery of tests to address that concern, looking at a number of key aspects of a suite’s impact on PC performance–including boot time, application launch time, file copy operations, application installation time, and file compression, among others. AV-Test also looked at how quickly each suite scanned a PC for viruses and other malware.
(For the three suites that had the most and the least impact on system performance, as measured by memory usage, see the “RAM Hogs” chart at the end of this article.)
Overall McAfee Internet Security 2011 had the least impact on system performance, with faster-than-average scores in all 13 tests, and very good scan speeds. On the opposite end, PCTools added the most latency in nearly all the tests despite having the fastest on-access scanning speeds. While top-ranking Norton Internet Security wasn’t as light in impact on system performance as McAfee, it had better than average scores overall, though performance dragged a little more than average in a couple of tests. For on-demand scanning speed, Eset had the fastest score.
The overall score for each suite takes into account various aspects of malware detection, blocking, and cleanup; the feature set; and ease of use. However, malware detection, blocking, and cleanup account for the lion’s share of the scoring.
Pros: Put up solid numbers in detecting known malware; has extras such as parental controls; often available at a discount price.
Cons: Very poor numbers in real-world malware blocking and with false positives.
Bottom line: McAfee’s solid performance at detecting known malware earns it some consideration, but its dismal real-world malware blocking and over-the-top problem with false positives give us serious pause.