The last time we reviewed BitDefender Total Security, it won our Editors' Choice award, largely on account of its customizable user interface and strong parental controls. While it still has a unique range of user interfaces designed for people with different levels of tech-savviness, along with relatively strong parental controls, other security vendors have caught up in both the ease of use and parental controls departments, and also do a better job of keeping your PC running fast. Still, a few useful settings, including the ability to put off scans while you're gaming or using the PC unplugged, ensures that Total Security is still among our preferred security suites.
Total Security has a longer installation process than its competitors, but that can be a good thing when you consider that it gives you the chance to configure features such as online backup and parental controls in one fell swoop. There's something to be said for taking a few minutes to activate all these features easily, especially if it means enjoying an easy user experience thereafter.
That the software runs a scan of your computer even before beginning the installation bodes well for its thoroughness in the security department. Once it does that, it will look for already installed security software. By default, there are checked boxes giving the software permission to disable Windows Firewall and Windows Defender (we agree that it's best not to have dueling security software programs running concurrently). Then, you'll enter your license key and create an account, providing an e-mail address and choosing a password (you'll have to confirm the account through a link in your e-mail).
This is where the installation takes a uniquely convenient turn. BitDefender lets you choose between one of three interfaces: Basic, Intermediate, and Expert (you can see previews during installation, and change the view after installation if you don't like the experience). Users can also choose what BitDefender calls Tools, essentially icons for features such as parental controls, which will appear in a dashboard in whatever interface you choose.
While we're on the subject of choice, you can elect to set up parental controls, creating new Windows user accounts for your children if you want. It's also easy to set up home network management; BitDefender does a good job explaining the difference between a server PC and a client. You can even choose to see Internet safety tips on the home screen. The last setup screen gives you a rundown of all the features that will be at your disposal, and includes check boxes for running a scan after the installation has finished and scheduling a weekly scan (oddly, there were no options for more frequent or automatic scans).
We appreciate that Total Security's user interface can look more or less simple, depending on how comfortable you are at tweaking settings. As a general rule, the easier the interface, the larger and fewer the icons. Regardless of the interface you choose, you'll find that it relies on pop-up windows, whereas other programs, such as Norton 360, are all about navigating backward and forward within one box. While we usually prefer self-contained interfaces, these pop-ups didn't annoy us. There's also more clicking here: you'll have to click, not roll over, an icon such as Security to view more options.
Particularly for basic users, we love that in addition to security tips and a search bar there are also video tips, helping newbies get oriented with the product.
The basic interface, specifically, has large icons for Security, Tune-Up, and My Tools, which in this case includes parental controls, quick scan, online backup and restore, and help & support. The tools also include Laptop and Game modes, which delay scans when the computer is unplugged or running a game (other suites don't have these features, particularly the Laptop mode).
The intermediate interface is considerably more complicated, featuring five tabs: Dashboard, File storage, Network, Security, and Tune-up. In this view, My Tools appears as a carousel of icons, as opposed to a single My Tools icon that hides a lengthier list of features. On the left-hand side is a list of details for the status of every major area, such as security and tune-up. Whereas the basic interface just shows one color-coded symbol, summarizing the state of the system, each major area of security in the intermediate UI has a color-coded icon next to it: a red exclamation point indicates there's something wrong; a green check mark means everything is okay; and a blue exclamation point is for non-urgent things you might want to pay attention to (say, registering the product). We wish BitDefender had stuck to the more intuitive red, green, and yellow color scheme that other vendors use. In the basic version, you won't see such a list; just a single icon summarizing the state of the system.
The expert interface is somehow more streamlined, although its detailed options will intimidate (or just confuse) the average user. On top, there are just three tabs for finding the main dashboard, a page for adjusting general settings, and reviewing system info (if "Known DLLs" means anything to you, try out this interface). Otherwise, you'll find all of the usual categories--Encryption, Firewall, and Parental Controls, among others--lining the left side of the screen.
Performance and PC Tuneup
BitDefender's security scanning system works by taking a snapshot of critical areas of your PC, and then processing this information in the cloud. With this version, BitDefender also introduced Search Advisor, which, like McAfee's Site Advisor, displays ratings next to Bing, Google, and Yahoo search results.
(Before we continue, a note: At the time of this writing, BitDefender 2011 had yet to be tested, so the numbers we're using are for the 2010 version of the software.)
According to third-party tests, BitDefender isn't the best at detecting threats, but neither is it the worst. It picked up 50 percent of the malware thrown at it by Anti-Virus Comparative, giving it an Advanced+ rating. That's not as good as Kaspersky (59 percent), but it's well above McAfee, which only caught 38 percent. Likewise, Dennis Publishing gave BitDefender a combined protection score of 68, below Norton 360 (80) and Kaspersky (76), but well above McAfee (43). However, in AV-Test.org's benchmarks, McAfee detected 87.2 percent of malware, compared to 84.3 percent for BitDefender.
Total Security wins performance points for offering both a Laptop and Game mode (Kaspersky, also a favorite among techies, has comparable settings). Even without these modes enabled, though, we found that our Core i3-powered HP G62t ran speedily with Total Security running. For example, prescan, it took 1 second to launch Firefox; with a full scan in progress, launching this browser still took less than 2 seconds.
Total Security's arsenal of tools includes Registry Recover, Registry Cleaner, File Shredder, Duplicate Finder, Disk Defragmenter, and a tool called PC Clean-Up, which clears the cache in Internet Explorer and Firefox, as well as the Recent Documents list and Temporary Files folder. We wish we could click a button to run all processes at once (we couldn't do this in any of the interfaces). In basic mode, only PC Clean-up and Disk Defragmenter are enabled by default. After running PC optimization tools (more on that in a minute), our bootup time remained the same: 1:17.
Like its competitors, Total Security 2011 comes with 2GB of online storage space (except Webroot Internet Security Complete, which offers 10GB). Configuring automatic backups to a local hard drive is also possible. In deciding which folders you want to back up regularly, you can sift through a Windows folder tree, or jump straight to the ones listed under Common Files & Folders (e.g., Documents, Pictures). A calculator at the bottom of the screen shows how much storage space these files will require. You can set the backups to run hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly (you can also set backups to run manually, but we don't recommend this since studies show too many consumers forget to back up their stuff). If you want to encrypt files, you can also drop them in a file vault, which you'll also find under the file storage section. One thing the interface is missing is a link to the online portal containing these files.
To its credit, Total Security's parental controls are built into the main user interface, whereas Symantec sends you to a web portal in Norton 360. However, 360 has a slightly richer feature set and a more intuitive interface. Although we praised BitDefender's parental controls when we reviewed Total Security 2010, and still think they're relatively strong, it's also true that other companies, particularly Symantec, have caught up.
For example, both products allow you to specify the age of your child, as well as allow or block certain categories of sites (the defaults change depending on the child's age). Whereas Symantec presents these categories as check boxes all on one page, however, BitDefender arranges them in a list that you have to scroll through, clicking on drop-down menus as you go to allow or block these categories. Symantec, too, lets you create an age-based profile for every child in the family.
BitDefender lets parents block children from using any desktop application, which is unique, but adding blocked sites is confusing. Also, BitDefender's approach to controlling instant-messaging programs is slightly cruder, simply letting parents block or allow certain IM handles. With Symantec, the options are more sophisticated: parents can block all new friends as a rule, or choose to log conversations.
BitDefender, like every other security vendor offering parental controls, allows parents to allow block specific websites, as well as block access to search results derived from certain keywords. One thing it's missing: a mechanism to prevent children from revealing sensitive information, such as their address or phone number.
Staying true to its geeky roots, BitDefender Total Security 2011 does an admirable job of offering advanced settings aplenty, as well as modes that delay scans until after games end or a laptop is plugged in. Still, other products, namely Symantec Norton 360 ($69.99) and Kaspersky Internet Security 2011 ($79.95), have caught up, offering stronger parental controls and doing a superior job of speeding up users' computers. And although it's more expensive and lacks tune-up tools and online backup, Kaspersky in particular does a better balancing act between keeping the interface simple while also offering options to power users who crave them. But if you're a geek's geek, BitDefender's slightly less straightforward UI won't faze you in the slightest, and you'll appreciate its full feature set.