Still too complex: Norton Internet Security 2008

Review: Bundling too many functions into one package risks challenging user's ability to comprehend, and chews-up system resources

Trying to bundle every possible function into one package is always dangerous. It risks challenging not only the novice’s ability to comprehend, but also the average user’s. It bloats the size of the application suite, too, and consumes system resources.

Symantec already has a poor reputation in this regard, and it doesn’t seem to have appreciably lightened the resource-load with Norton Internet Security 2008.

Yet, in a networked world, where every user who leaves a hole increases the risk for everyone else, the temptation to strive for the complete, all-purpose product is seemingly irresistible.

Virus and spyware scanning, anti-phishing precautions, blocking other suspicious programs and websites, basic network management, as well as “secure” centralised storage of passwords — the latter frowned on by the NZ Bankers’ Association — it’s all here.

That’s not to say the ordinary user will immediately find all these things, or that if they do they would understand them all. For example, the user is given the option to “turn on Bloodhound heuristics”. This turns out to be a kind of behavioural virus-detection.

In addition, the user is told, in the all-too-brief manual, that SONAR means Symantec Online Network for Advanced Response and that this “turn[s] on proactive detection to stop unknown security risks on your computer.” This doesn’t really add much to the user’s knowledge, though.

Another issue is that right at the outset, during installation, users are asked to decide whether to download the Add-On Pack — this turns out to be a Parental Control facility — and also whether they want to “join Norton Community Watch”. (The latter sends Symantec information about what you were doing immediately before a threat was detected.)

“This helps Symantec to provide solutions that identify the new threats and risks more efficiently,” says the manual. It’s accompanied by vague assurances of anonymity. Really, this isn’t the kind of moral quagmire users should have to wade through when all they’re doing is just upgrading a software product.

The software throws up the usual little glitches, accompanied by Big Red Warnings, during installation. This usually means that one part of the suite expects something to be there that another part hasn’t got around to installing yet. And the upgrade also seems to have deleted a Symantec file from the registry that my other Trojan detector thinks ought to be present, which is a little worrying.

The Norton 2008 version ran a complete scan of my laptop no quicker than its 2006 predecessor — though it’s probably doing more.

But it got interesting when I tried to tuck the window out of the way. I was told: “You have minimised the scan. Would you like to run the scan in the background to reduce the performance impact?” Such an intelligent way of presenting an advanced feature only when needed — if only there was more of this sort of thing.

The “Identity Safe”, which stores passwords and other private information, is a nice feature, but it’s too easy to leave yourself logged into the safe. This, of course, means any casual user passing by has “one-click access”, and so risks creating the very problem it was designed to solve — identity theft.

Live Update of malware definitions has been more closely integrated and made automatic, but it’s still slow and drags the system down more than any other feature. A progress bar that actually indicated progress, rather than just presenting a pattern of oscillating wasp-stripes, would be a nice idea here.

The most visible immediate change to the desktop, after installation, is a big yellow icon in the “quick-launch” section of the Windows task bar, with a green badge bearing a tick to show everything’s all right, and the legend “Norton™”.

Personally, as a hater of the telescopic quick-launch menu, I see this as a positive development. Other reviewers view it as an obtrusive advertisement. Everyone to their own taste, but there doesn’t seem to be an option to make it go away.

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