Computer Security Software Buying Guide 2011
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As we are about to enter into the new year, it's time again to take a look at the current security software landscape.
Last year, as an introduction, we went with the war metaphor—and it's just as relevant now as it was then. The security software companies are all allies (if somewhat uncomfortable ones) in a battle for the soul of your PC and your data. On the other side are cyber criminals, malware creators and scammers who want to make you a pawn in their plot, which usually involves acquiring cash.
You can't sit idly on the sidelines though. You have a duty in this struggle and that is to protect yourself and your data. If your computer is compromised, you become just another avenue for malware to spread or another cog in an ever-spreading scam.
In this Guide
Security Software Essentials: What You Need
There are three basic components necessary to any comprehensive security setup—anti-virus, firewall, and anti-malware (including spyware).
Anti-virus software is often the center-piece of any security suite. Good anti-virus software will run regular scans to see if any viruses have loaded themselves on your computer, and they'll provide active protection by checking each and every file as you download or open it. All quality packages will also monitor programs for suspicious behavior in order to block potential threats, even those that have yet to been confirmed as viruses.
A firewall is a filter that controls the flow of data to and from your PC and the Internet. It is able to block hackers from breaking into your PC and stop rogue programs from reaching out to their creators and handing over your personal information or downloading more malware.
There are plenty of threats out there that don't fall under the guise of viruses and other infections normally caught by anti-virus software. These invaders, which go by various names including spyware or adware, used to need their own dedicated tool to root them out, but these capabilities are being folded into traditional anti-virus tools. Unlike viruses, spyware and its companions primarily use your browser as the entry point and are often used to steal passwords and credit card information, or serve up endless streams of annoying pop-up ads. While most security suites include malware protection, stand-alone tools, such as Ad-Aware and Malwarebytes Anti-Malware, offer excellent protection as well.
Short answer—yes. While Apple (and its acolytes) like to extol the virtues of living in a virus and spyware free universe thanks to OS X, the truth is Macs aren't invincible. While there are still far fewer threats out there targeting Apple users, they do exist. And as OS X becomes more popular, the amount of malware will grow to prey upon complacent users. No one wants to be a victim of the first major OS X virus outbreak.
Also, many security threats are caused by “phishing” for personal information through email and bogus websites. Security software suites have features that identify potentially dangerous sites before you enter personal information.
One of the things that made using Windows XP so dangerous was that by default all users were administrators, meaning they had unfettered access to the operating system’s most sensitive parts. That meant any malware you stumbled across also had the same permissions. While you could easily change accounts to be "restricted," this mode was practically useless for doing anything besides creating office documents and browsing the Web.
Windows Vista and Windows 7, on the other hand, create all new user accounts as "normal" users instead of administrators. Unlike the restricted accounts on XP, normal users can still install software and make changes to settings. But they must confirm the changes by clicking through a prompt that is isolated from other programs and therefore cannot be manipulated by malware.
OS X and Linux user accounts are, by default, created as non-administrators. The administrator account, known as Root, is actually turned off in OS X. Instead these operating systems rely on temporarily granting administrative privileges on a per-use basis.
Regardless of what operating system you run though, you should never do your day-to-day computing from an administrator account.
There are, of course, free software packages that provide essential security tools such as anti-virus, anti-malware, and firewall, such as AVG and Comodo Firewall. The problem is that no one offers all those tools together in one easy-to-use package without charging you an annual subscription fee. So, while you could cobble together an decent defense for free, it's often quicker and easier to pay for one of the many commercial suites of Internet security software.
In addition to the simplicity of having all the various pieces of security software integrated, for-pay products tend to have advanced features, such as parental controls, password safes, or file encryption, that aren't essential but can enhance the security of your PC.
Using a combination of free apps (or a mix of free and commercial software) does have its perks however. The integrated suites can be vulnerable to viruses and attacks that can shut down all your computer’s defenses in one shot¬—something much more difficult to accomplish with separate security programs.
Unfortunately some free programs will try to install unnecessary browser toolbars (which you can opt out of during installation), and many free versions of apps will repeatedly ask you to upgrade to the paid versions.
Both Windows and OS X have built in parental control features, but they're very basic. The controls built into security suites tend to be much more robust and customizable. You can block certain programs from running during particular times of the day, or to run only for a set amount of time. You can also quickly block or unblock Web sites as the need arises in a much simpler fashion than the built-in features of your OS.
Rogue security applications masquerade as real virus or spyware-protection programs for the sole purpose of separating you from your money. At best, the programs do nothing; you simply lose however much money you paid for what is, essentially, worthless junk. At worst, these programs can track your keystrokes and steal your personal information from your PC.
Perpetrators of rogue security software scams use a wide variety of methods to fool potential victims. One very common method is to pop up a flashing or other seemingly scary message when you visit a website that tells you "Your PC is infected with a virus. Click here to fix".
If you click on the ad, you may be authorizing it to download the malicious software to your computer and, once installed, you will keep getting messages about viruses, spyware, etc. on your PC that can only by fixed by buying the "premium" version of the product. Of course, there are no viruses on your PC except for the rogue security program itself.
For more information, read Protect Yourself from Fake Security Software.
Ultimately all the security software in world can't save you from poor judgment. The Web is littered with threats that rely on carelessness and trickery to sneak past your security suite. Developing good browsing habits are the best way to protect yourself and your data. This means not logging into online banking sites or shopping while using public Wi-Fi networks, being suspicious of things like Facebook apps (especially those that promise free goods for filling out surveys) and only download files from trusted sources. And when you get that e-mail, in all caps, promising the latest celebrity sex tape, don't click the link.
Our Picks: Commercial Security Software
Norton Internet Security 2011 (retail: $69.99 for 3 PCs, $31.99 on Amazon as of 11/20/2010)
Though once considered the bane of many computer users existence, Symantec's Norton suite keeps getting more impressive. It's not the lightest or fastest security suite on the market, but the performance hit is negligible. And the Norton Internet Security Suite 2011 packs plenty of impressive features (though most are not new).
The 2011 edition has extensive parental controls, Insight (for detecting causes of system slowdowns), and SONAR, a behavior and reputation monitoring engine that can detect threats that have yet to be postitively identified. SONAR, which in addition to feedback from other Norton users takes locality into consideration (so downloads from China are automatically trusted less than those coming from the U.S.), is one of the most effective systems for identifying potential threats we've seen. As expected, Norton Internet Security also includes a firewall and tools for removing spyware and its ilk.
We're also impressed by how simple Norton is to use. Many of the feature-laden commercial security suites can be confusing and have cumbersome interfaces with poorly organized buttons, links and menus. Norton bucks that trend by having a relatively clean and intuitive interface making it very beginner friendly.
Kaspersky Internet Security 2011 (retail: $79.99 for 3 PCs, $19.99 on Amazon as of 11/20/2010)
Like Norton, one of the things that makes Kaspersky Internet Security 2011 so attractive is that, for a feature rich security suite, it's not particularly resource intensive. This makes it a great choice for owners of older machines who still want the bells and whistles of a commercial security package. It packs a behavior based threat scanner, anti-malware and a firewall just like any good security suite, but it offers plenty of unique features.
One of our favorite features is Safe Run, a way to run programs "sandboxed" from the rest of the computer, including the operating system. This is perfect for Web browsing since it can prevent the installation of spyware and viruses. Kaspersky has made great improvements to Safe Run this year, making it more prominent, easier to use and (thankfully) faster. It even includes SafeSurf, a sort of Safe Run preset that loads sites sandboxed and scans them before fully rendering them on your PC.
Oddly Kaspersky's scans haven't gotten any faster, and the Quick Scan feature has been replaced with a Critical Areas scan that focuses only on the most sensitive components of your PC. This new "quick" scan is not nearly as fast as advertised. The interface hasn't been seriously updated since last year's version, which we cited as its one major flaw. Many options and settings are still buried in menus when they should be right up front.
Norton Internet Security 4.1 for Mac (retail: $79.99 for 1 PC, $38.95 on Amazon as of 11/20/2010)
Your security software choices on Macs are very limited. With essentially no Mac malware out in the wild, this is not where software manufacturers are putting their efforts. And few choices mean higher prices.
The lack of real threats to test against also makes it darn near impossible to determine how effective security software would be if a threat did arrive. But we're confident that, one day, the big one will come. And when it does, Norton will be quick to get updated protection out on its products.
Until then, Norton Internet Security 4.1 for Mac will protect you from the more common risk of phishing sites, and will also prevent you from passing on viruses through email to Windows PCs.
Our Picks: Free
AVG Free 2011
AVG used to be the darling of the free security software crowd, but in recent years had failed to keep up with its competitors. The 2001 version has received a drastic overhaul that offers a much cleaner interface, faster scans and imposes much less of a performance hit on your everday computing.
The new Smart Scan feature minimizes repeated scanning of files, skipping over those that have been unchanged since the last scan. The new PC Analyzer looks for other problems like registry errors and broken shortcuts, though the free version only allows you to fix these errors once. But most importantly, the free AVG scanning engine is now the same as the paid version, which means better security thanks to more comprehensive results and the ability to detect and remove rootkits.
Just watch out during install as AVG tries to install an unnecessary browser toolbar. Download Now at free.avg.com
Microsoft Security Essentials
Microsoft's anti-malware package is free, easily to install and just as effective as its paid competitors. When combined with the built-in Windows security features, like the included firewall, it constitutes a full-fledged security suite that may lack some advanced features but is more than adequate for keeping the average user safe. According to independent tests, it ranks with the best commercial offerings when it comes to detection and removal. And like AVG it can remove rootkits.
As an added bonus, Microsoft Security Essentials is updated through the Microsoft Updater used to update the rest of the operating system, meaning there's one less piece of software to keep track of and keep up to date. And unlike most other free security packages, Microsoft Security Essentials doesn't attempt to install any toolbars or tag-along software. Download Now at Microsoft.com