Symantec pioneered the category of all-in-one security suites with Norton 360, which combines traditional tools to thwart malware, spam, and phishing attacks with parental controls, identity theft protection, online backup, and utilities designed to make your PC run faster. The software won our Editors' Choice award two years ago, and this year it earns the honor again, thanks to more robust parental controls and a simple but elegant interface.
Installing the 300MB program was straightforward: after agreeing to Symantec's terms and conditions, Norton 360 detected and removed a previous-generation Norton product installed on our PC. (It can detect specific versions of competing programs that are known to present compatibility conflicts.) After a brief wait, we were prompted to restart, and that was that.
The main screen, done up in Symantec's familiar yellow and black tones, has four vertical panes for Backup, Identity Protection, PC Security, and PC Tuneup. Underneath each pane, you'll see the status (e.g., Protected, written in green). Below that, you'll see an explanation of your status (say, "You are protected for web browsing and e-mail," or "You are secured for online banking and shopping"). That's pretty much what the last generation of the software looked like, except it had a zen white background and reassuring green check marks when things were in order.
Norton's interface makes it easy to launch features with one click and ignore intimidating menus, while still being able to drill into more advanced settings, something we felt was lacking in the previous version. If you roll over each pane, you'll see various options for activities such as running a malware scan or a backup. You can also click View Details to turn features on and off. To tweak settings, such as deciding what features run automatically or on a schedule, click on the Tasks and Settings tabs, which are listed in smaller font at the top of the screen. Beginners will find the scheduling settings, for instance, easy to navigate. Other options, such as the Firewall menu, are clearly for the most advanced users.
Our biggest issue with the UI is that there's no Back button; you have to click Close in the lower right-hand corner every time you want to navigate backward. At least there are no pop-up windows, something that makes competing security programs a pain to use.
Performance and Malware Detection
This edition of 360 ushers in a reputation-based technology that helps identify threats based on how other machines in Symantec's vast network have responded to them. According to Anti-Virus Comparatives, Norton had a detection rate of 43 percent, enough to give it Advanced status, but behind Kaspersky (59 percent) and Bitdefender (50 percent). It should be noted that AV Comparatives tested the 2010 versions of Bitdefender and Kaspersky.
Norton redeemed itself with other third-party tests. Dennis gave it a combined protection score of 80, above Bitdefender (68) and Kaspersky (76), and Norton was also tops in AV-Test.org's benchmarks, detecting 98 percent of malware, and just edging out Kaspersky (97.5 percent).
We noticed some performance lag after installing and running the software, but it was most apparent when we booted our machine. Before we installed Norton 360, our HP G62t took 1:17 to boot (that is, how long it took for the circle to stop spinning once the desktop appeared). After we installed 360 and ran PC Tuneup, this time rose to 1:24. When it came to launching applications, though, we didn't notice much of a difference. Launching Firefox without a scan running took a shade under 2 seconds; with a full scan in progress, it took 3. Ironically, Norton 360 includes tools to help your PC start faster by allowing you to prioritize and stagger start-up applications.
Norton 360 lets users back up files, folders, and entire drives to both portable hard drives as well as Symantec's own Norton Online backup (the subscription comes with two free gigabytes of storage). Symantec makes the process easy by letting users check off boxes next to drives and the common My Documents folder. You can also check off file types you'd like to back up (e.g., photos or Office documents), while more advanced users can opt to exclude certain file extensions. By default, the program favors a faster backup, even if it does slow down your PC. However, you can throttle between backup speed and your PC's performance, and you can also opt to have the software back up your files weekly or monthly instead of kicking in every time you make a change to a file.
The PC Tuneup software lets users run disk optimization, file cleanup, and registry cleanup, as well as remove unnecessary startup programs and generate a diagnostic report. While you can start any of these scans simply by rolling over the PC Tuneup pane in the main menu and clicking on the one you want, you can't click a button asking the software to run all of these tests in sequence. There's no progress bar when you optimize your disk, run a file cleanup, or clean your registry. Then again, all of these processes took less than a minute.
The Startup Manager is for people who don't know how or are too intimidated to remove startup programs using msconfig in Windows. Norton 360's version rates the resource usage (e.g., "low," "medium") as well as how popular these programs are among other users. For each program, you can uncheck a box to make sure it doesn't run when you start up your computer. You can also check a Delay Start button to ensure it launches eventually, some time after the PC has booted up.
Symantec has beefed up its parental controls, adding more customizable settings. First, though, a complaint: Symantec still forces users to download Norton Safety Minder separately. Even after you install it, clicking on the shortcut will still open a window in your browser, where it's much too easy to click on ads by mistake. We wish that users didn't have to log into a web portal to see what their kids have been up to or change their settings, but rather, could do so from the same program from which they run malware scans and back up their hard drives.
Unlike other security suites, you can create a profile for each of your kids, adding an avatar and specifying what year he or she was born. Safety Minder lets you control your children's social networking, instant messaging, web surfing, searching, and time spent on the computer. For starters, within each child's profile you can click on the Personal Information tab to prevent him or her from sharing sensitive information, such as a social security number, phone number, address, e-mail address, or the school he or she attends.
Parents can block 47 categories of websites, as well as block and allow specific sites. You can't prevent children from searching for certain words, but the Safe Search feature (which works with Ask.com, Bing, Blinkx, Google, and YouTube) blocks "explicit adult-oriented content."
In lieu of blocking particular web sites, parents can have Norton simply monitor the child's surfing behavior, or give a warning but allow the child to visit the site anyway. Chat Supervision for IM clients is disabled by default, but you can automatically block new friends until you approve them, record logs of conversations, or opt to do neither.
If you're interested in making sure your child isn't turning into a computer zombie, you can set specific hours as well as a maximum usage time for both weekends (Saturday and Sunday) and weekdays. Once children reach that threshold, parents can have the computer lock or set up Norton 360 so that it simply issues a warning. Parents can track time spent on the computer as well as the number of times the child has logged in. Finally, parents can decide which transgressions trigger an e-mail alert, as well as whittle down a usage report to show just questionable activity. (We wish these reports also showed the time spent on a site, which would help shed light on whether a child had stumbled on it by mistake).
While advanced users will likely gravitate toward BitDefender Total Security 2011 ($69.95 per year) and the pricier Kaspersky Internet Security 2011 ($79.95 per year), which offer more options for that crowd, less tech-savvy users will take comfort in Symantec's simple, automated interface and unparalleled parental controls. For $69.99 (for three licenses), Norton 360 offers the most comprehensive and well-rounded security suite on the market.