SAN FRANCISCO (10/27/2003) - Like a small town in a Dashiell Hammett novel, the Internet can be a dirty and dangerous place. The biggest movers in the PC protection business, Symantec Corp. and Network Associate Inc.'s McAfee business unit, sell software to protect your computer from various online thugs. Now, both companies have updated their suites so that one installation routine delivers better antivirus programs, spam filters, and firewall protection.
Besides saving you money, the suites give you a single, integrated interface for setting up, controlling, and regularly updating the programs. In addition, both suites offer better parental-control tools than you'll find in the also-available stand-alone packages.
I looked at the components of Symantec's US$70 Norton Internet Security 2004 (Norton AntiVirus, Norton Personal Firewall, and Norton AntiSpam) and of McAfee's $70 Internet Security Suite 6 (McAfee VirusScan 8, McAfee Personal Firewall Plus 5, Privacy Service 6, and McAfee SpamKiller Home Edition 5). Neither suite was complete; I assessed a combination of beta and final code in order to evaluate all of the programs.
Stop the Spam
The problem with spam filters is that so much guesswork is involved, and it's so easy to guess wrong. When first installed, both Norton AntiSpam and McAfee SpamKiller 5 overwhelmed me with a barrage of unfiltered junk. Even worse, they generated a great many false positives--legitimate mail that they rejected as spam. If you have to scrutinize all your spam every day in search of good messages, why install a filter?
But both proved quick learners. After I identified incorrect choices, each app took only a few days to reduce false positives to virtually zero.
Norton managed almost as well with reducing the volume of undetected spam, but McAfee never quite got the hang of that. I'm not sure whether it's a slower learner or whether its clumsy design prevented me from properly showing it all of its mistakes.
Whereas Norton AntiSpam integrates well with various versions of Outlook, Outlook Express and Eudora, McAfee's setup pretty much requires you to launch the SpamKiller program to find false positives and then instruct it on handling them. If you have Outlook Express 6 or Outlook with a MAPI e-mail account, you can teach SpamKiller about missed spam from within your e-mail client, but you have to do it one message at a time.
On the other hand, both vendors' firewall and antivirus products are easy to figure out and use. For instance, each company maintains an online database of legitimate programs, and each firewall consults it to see if a program is legitimate and should be allowed free access to the Internet. This reduces the number of times the firewall will interrupt you to ask permission.
And both companies' antivirus programs have clear and pleasing user interfaces. Norton AntiVirus tells you in big red letters when something requires your attention (for instance, if it has been too long since you last scanned for viruses). McAfee VirusScan 8 pops up information about the latest viruses. Each program touts its protection against adware and spyware programs that alter Windows, spy on you, and place advertisements on your screen.
This year Norton has added product activation to its entire 2004 line. When I installed the suite, an applet checked a database on the company's server to make sure that I was not installing the software onto too many PCs. This particular activation scheme is far from the worst I've seen. But for users who hate this form of antipiracy protection, it's a point against Norton.
Both suites are likely to protect you against Internet dangers. But Norton gets my nod thanks to its easier and better-integrated spam filtering.