December 13, 2008

Norton Internet Security 2009 -- What A Difference!

I recently upgraded my personal laptop to Norton Internet Security 2009, and was very pleasantly surprised. In stark contrast to prior versions, the new 2009 version has been streamlined and so far seems very light on system resources. In recent years, Symantec has needed to rebuild both its brand and its products, mainly due to the horribly bloated and CPU-intensive 2005 and 2006 versions of their Norton Internet Security (NIS) and Norton Antivirus (NAV) programs, which prompted many customers to post negative feedback online.

Starting with the 2007 version, Symantec recoded these products from the ground up in an effort to make them lighter on system resources. It was a partial success. While it was a good restart for the Norton line, I still saw my system take a noticeable performance hit during the Live Updates, with a lot of disk thrashing as it processed the chunkier updates. When it wasn't updating, though, it was mostly transparent. The main problem was that it always wanted to update shortly after I logged into Windows, which I found quite interruptive and annoying. I could've turned off the automatic updates, but I tend to forget to turn them back on, and my protection would become outdated.

Well, no more. The folks at Symantec have finally gotten the message, loud and clear. NIS 2009 has several new features designed to significantly lighten the load on your PC. In fact, Symantec went out their way to not only make it faster, but to show you as well (can you say, "win back customers"?). In addition to several key performance enhancements, NIS 2009 includes two CPU meters on its main screen and other visual cues and logs to show how much lighter it is on your system resources. The user interface was also streamlined to present users with cleaner status view:

I'll add that the 2009 line is much more behaved when you're actively using your PC. Rather than interrupting your computer usage with large updates to download and install, it features frequent tiny "pulse updates", which install unnoticed and provide up-to-the-minute protection. Notice that my screenshot above shows that NIS 2009 was updated just "4 minutes ago" -- with the new pulse updates, that's now a very common status as the updates are checked every 10 minutes. The 2009 version also detects when your PC is idle, and waits to run background scans only during idle time (the default trigger is 10 minutes of inactivity, which you can change).

Also new is "full screen detection", which temporarily disables non-essential alerts, updates, and scans while you're running a program in full screen mode, such as while watching a movie or playing a game. Rest assured, the auto-protection feature smartly provides continuous protection while in this "silent" mode. Norton Insight is a new feature which speeds system scanning by identifying files that don't have to be scanned again. It checks your program and system files against a database of trusted programs and displays a large meter showing how many it can skip next time to save you a lot of time. I'm hoping that it also tracks each file's checksum or hash as it's not uncommon for malware to replace system or program files with its own tainted versions.

For further explanation of all the new features and performance enhancements, I'll direct you to the following review and online resource guide which provide more depth:

I'm generally a tough critic of security software's impact on the end user, so using NIS 2009 has been refreshing so far as my laptop seems a bit spunkier. Since the configuration screen has been completely reordered, it took a little time getting reacquainted with it and understanding some of the new functions.

The only downside -- and it's a big annoying one for me -- is that in NIS 2009, Symantec disabled all standard user accounts from being able to change its settings by entering the administrator password. Remember, even if it's your own personal laptop, it's more secure to run programs and access the Internet using Windows accounts without administrator privileges. So I mainly run as a standard user in Vista and only log in as the administrator when needed. However, prior versions of NIS would allow me, as a standard user, to enter the administrator password in NIS when I needed to temporarily disable the firewall or antivirus for troubleshooting, or when a blocked program needed temporary Internet access.

With NIS 2009, I either have to log off or switch users to the admin account in Windows to do this, which is time-consuming and a royal pain. When I inquired about this, Symantec's tech support responded the product team changed this behavior to make it more secure in case users discovered the admin password. Unfortunately, this is faulty logic as users could do a lot more in that situation. I logically suggested that Symantec provide a program update which retains this as the default behavior for maximum security, but which simply adds a configuration setting in which the administrator can re-enable the option to accept the admin password from standard users. In other words, give the customer the choice! Don't just take it away in the name of security.

Last but not least, since the Norton products are now subscription-based: If you have a current subscription for a previous version of NIS or NAV, you should be able to upgrade for FREE to the 2009 versions as I did, and your remaining subscription period carries over. Just remember you need to uninstall any older version first so they don't conflict. I also recommend storing your Norton product activation code in your online Norton account -- it just makes reactivation easier.

It also appears Symantec's tech support has improved over the past year or two. I used both the built-in chat feature as well as the telephone option and both went very well with only a minor wait. While no security suite is perfect (many reviewers report the spam module is still subpar), I'd say that Norton Internet Security 2009 is a welcome advance and it's good to see Symantec getting back in touch with the needs of its customer base.

Topic(s):   Privacy & Security
Posted by Jeff Beard