Symantec has been listening to its users, and this year the company delivers a slimmed-down and faster Norton AntiVirus 2009. Almost all the security vendors have recognized the changing threat landscape and have rethought traditional protection. We especially like the Insight feature, which identifies "trusted" files and applications and doesn't waste time rescanning them unless there's been a change. No other product does this. The redesigned logic behind Norton AntiVirus 2009 clearly shows in CNET performance testing: it is faster and considerably lighter than last year's version. Norton continues to win awards in third-party effectiveness testing. Lagging behind, though, is Symantec's technical support. While Norton users now have free telephone support, Symantec still doesn't provide enough of a knowledge base, or even an adequate user's manual. Once again, this year it emphasizes its premium services a bit too much. That said, Norton AntiVirus 2009 presents a remarkable transformation of a product and is worth a second look.
On our test system, we downloaded Norton AntiVirus 2009 and installed the product within a minute. Instead of relying upon Microsoft's installer, which Symantec has blamed for much of its past product bloat, the company started over, designing its own installer. There is the added advantage that as criminals target MSI files (say to prevent you from installing a security defense product on your already compromised machine) Symantec won't be affected--for now. The new installer process works fast, borrowing streaming technology from its Norton Ghost product. On both Windows Vista and Windows XP test machines, we were up and running in one minute and without a reboot.
Should you want to uninstall, Norton includes an uninstall option. In the past, Norton left a mess. Now, after rebooting our machine, what is left behind is licensing information.
Speaking of a mess, we didn't like last year's Halloween colors on the user interface. This year's redesign is much cleaner and more sophisticated, one befitting a major security product, and the colors used on the Interface can be changed if you want. Also gone are the tabs reminding you that you can purchase other Norton products. Specific tools can be turned on and off easily without diving into the configuration settings. The configuration settings page itself is always one click below the main page. The interface also offers a pop-up dialogs to explain specific terms, although thorough explanations of the choice users have in changing the settings is still lacking.
In the lower left-hand panel are two bar graphs representing the overall Windows resources used and one for the specific resources used by the Norton product. Compared with the resources used reported within the Task Manager in Windows, we noticed a slight sync problem between what Windows reported and what Norton reported for the overall system. Symantec confirmed that while Norton AntiVirus 2009 is looking at the Windows Task Manager, it is doing so at different intervals. We like the transparency, and think the presentation here is better than the line graphs used in some other security applications. Should you want line graphs, an icon will reveal how the system and Norton CPU usage has been since the system was last rebooted.
Norton has, in the past, included some sophisticated technology from its enterprise products, which is good because it's cutting-edge, but it's also bad, because it doesn't necessarily integrate with the product, nor is it necessary. In Norton AntiVirus 2009, they seem to have found the right balance.
Whitelisting, the buzzword of security products for 2009, is included, and by marrying it with other technologies, Symantec makes it more suited for the user. Files on a whitelist are deemed trusted, and thus do not need to be scanned as often. Not all "safe files" make it onto the whitelist. For those, Norton uses a community process, called Insight, similar to that used by other security products such as Haute Secure. The thinking is that if thousands of other people are using this suspicious file, chances are it's not a new piece of malicious software but a new application. On the other hand, if only a few are using it, then maybe it's worth it to take another look to see if it's malicious software.
Malicious software signature updates are provided much faster, in some cases within five minutes of the last update.
Gone is the awful LiveUpdate component of past Norton products. With 2009 products, Symantec is providing antimalware definition signatures every few minutes or so. On the interface, you'll see a notice indicating how many minutes since the last update. We didn't see definitions older than four minutes in our testing.
Missing still are the various security utilities provided in other products, namely McAfee VirusScan. We would like to see, for instance, a secure file eraser or the capability to trace potentially malicious IP addresses within Norton AntiVirus 2009. Nor is there any mobile-specific security solution provided within Norton AntiVirus 2009.
In CNET Labs' performance tests, Norton AntiVirus 2009 scored better than last year on our test Windows XP systems. In third-party, independent AntiVirus testing using live viruses, Norton products have scored in the upper ranks, although not always in the top position. On the CNET iTunes test, Norton AntiVirus 2009 scored close to the test system result at 271 seconds, 5 seconds faster than the standalone version of Kaspersky Anti-Virus 2009. On the CNET Microsoft Office test, Norton AntiVirus 2009 finished at a respectable 1,443 seconds, placing near the middle. In a test scanning a single folder with compressed and media files, Norton AntiVirus 2009 came in at 191 seconds, which was the upper end of middle. In terms of boot speed, once again Norton came at a fast 31 seconds.
To find out how we test antivirus (and now Internet Security suite) software, see CNET Labs' How we test: Antivirus software page.
In terms of how well Norton AntiVirus 2009 will protect your PC, we cite results for Norton AntiVirus from two leading independent antivirus testing organizations. In the latest test results from AV-Comparatives.org, for on-demand scans Norton AntiVirus 2008 earned an Advanced + (highest) rating, catching 97 percent of all malicious software tested. However, for the Retrospective/Proactive test, Norton AntiVirus 2008 earned an Advanced rating, with Norton falling behind the others, proactively blocking only 18 percent of the "new samples" in the test. From CheckVir.com, Norton AntiVirus 2008 received its Standard award.
In antispyware testing on CNET, Norton AntiVirus 2008 scored in the upper half of our top 10.
Symantec has dropped its overinflated per-call pricing schemes of the past; all regular telephone technical support calls are finally free. That's good. However, its online manual and knowledgebase could be more robust, and an in program link to its community forums would be wise.
To take advantage of the free offerings, Symantec encourages users to use its One Click Solutions self-diagnosis tools first; that's understandable since common problems can be self-remedied. In our tests, however, after answering no to "Does this resolve your problem?" we still didn't get a telephone number, but an online form. Only after supplying a first name, last name, e-mail address, and phone (information you previously gave when setting up your Norton Account; why the two can't be linked is unclear) are you offered a help ticket along with an option for a free online chat, free technical support phone number, or an e-mail address. Once contacted, a technician may remotely control your PC while you watch them solve your given problem.
Our first encounter with Symantec's technical support ended in frustration. Prominent on the technical support page and competing for prime eyeball space are Symantec's premium technical support services: Spyware and Virus Removal (prices range), PC Checkup Service ($29.99), Green PC Service ($14.99), and PC TuneUp ($69.99). These premium services are also mentioned when you call for technical support. But in subsequent testing, we found neither the call nor the chat technician tried to steer us toward these premium solutions. Of course, that depends on what specific problem you have and which technician you get.
The Norton in-program Help is better than in past years. Within the Help file, more terms are explained and less jargon is used this year, but it's still not as thorough as other Help documents we've seen in competing products. And user options when changing configuration settings, long the bane of this reviewer, are once again not adequately presented to the end user: you still have to trust Symantec's opinion on many things.
And the online manual, although indexed, is not very comprehensive, and leans heavily toward installation and the creation of the Recovery Disk. Only by accessing the Symantec Web site do you see the free community forums. That's a mistake. Despite the company response that the Norton community forum is still in beta, these open communities provide more technical support than the canned responses offered through Symantec's One Click Solutions process.
Norton AntiVirus 2009 hits all the right performance notes and its award-winning protection technologies should start to win back even jaded anti-Symantec folks. We love its sleek build, performance speed, and array of quality security tools. Our only fault remains with the products lackluster online consumer technical support.