Best known for its ZoneAlarm firewall, Check Point Software also publishes two full-featured security suites. ZoneAlarm Internet Security 2010 gives users a robust firewall, antivirus and antispyware, and parental control package for $49.95, while ZoneAlarm Extreme Security 2010 adds Web browsing protection, system tune-up tools, backup options, and antiphishing technology for three computers, which will set you back $69.95. The suite is effective, although not necessarily the best all around.
ZoneAlarm's well-known firewall is included, and after spending half a day with it on a Windows 7 computer we didn't notice any of the usability problems that have notoriously plagued it. That doesn't mean they don't exist, of course, but they weren't experienced on the latest version during a short period of testing.
ZoneAlarm is claiming faster performance in its antivirus and antispyware scans because it has unified them this year, something that most of its competitors did awhile back. The company says that users should expect scans to be 80 to 90 percent faster than in previous versions. In our tests, detailed below, we found that Extreme Security generally held its own against the current competition, but occasionally did worse.
ZoneAlarm is one of the most polite programs we've installed in a while, not only giving users choices, but explaining what happens if they opt for the automated steps. ZoneAlarm lets you toggle the antivirus component of its program, recognizing that some people may only want the firewall, browser, and system tools. ZoneAlarm's firewall keeps programs honest by making sure that they only do what you want them to during installation.
You can opt out of installing a desktop icon, and also opt out of contributing to ZoneAlarm's behavioral analysis engine, and like most of the high-end security suites that offers such detection, opting out of contributing the anonymous data does not stop the engine from protecting you. Behavioral detection looks beyond virus definitions, and focuses on whether a program is behaving badly or unusually.
The installation requires a reboot, which is annoying, and currently the program will warn users if they're installing on a Windows 7 release candidate operating system that the program hasn't been perfected for Windows 7. Check Point says that this won't occur by the time consumers get their final versions of Windows 7 during the third week of October 2009. However, it doesn't demand that you uninstall any previously installed antivirus solutions--not that we recommend running more than one at a time.
Interface and features
Even from a quick glance, Extreme Security's interface struggles to present all that the program offers in an orderly and comprehensible design. The center of the main window contains icons and links to Firewall Security, Anti-virus/Anti-spyware, and Browser Security. These will appear green if they are up-to-date, and red if there are problems that need to be addressed.
However, clicking on one only opens up a pop-up window with detection counters and links to adjust settings. To get direct access to options and settings, you have to use the text links on left nav. When you click on the Firewall link, for example, the main window will show the basic firewall controls, and then beneath the left-nav text link will appear links to more firewall-controlling options. It's hardly a simple design, let alone elegant.
The main window also hides one of the key features of a security suite--the scan. You can initiate a scan from the main window, but it's secreted at the bottom left corner of the window, not an easy place to find it. Other features that are hidden in the bottom left corner include gaming mode, which deactivates pop-ups and queries when gaming or watching videos, checking for updates, and entering in your license key. It's an incongruous collection of features, and they're hard to see because they only appear as text links--they look to be about 10-point.
There's a right nav as well, which contains links to ancillary features. Four options are available here: encrypted online backup, system tools, identity theft protections, and hard-drive encryption. It's odd that these are more prominent core features such as scanning and a nonintrusive gaming mode, and we have to question whether it suits users' needs best.
The layout makes it harder than it should to access them, but ZoneAlarm Extreme Security sports a robust selection of features. The firewall is highly customizable, including toggling incoming and outgoing DHCP, IGMP, and UDP ports, among others. There's an antivirus scan scheduler and four levels of scans including Quick, Normal, Deep, and Ultra Deep--Deep won't scan archives by default, but Ultra Deep will.
It also contains multiple features that its slimmer sibling ZoneAlarm Internet Security 2010 lacks, including access to a free add-on for laptop hard-drive encryption, keylogger protection, browser-based safeguards, and more antiphishing options. Other sweeteners used to make Extreme Security more attractive include an identity protection module to encrypt personal information and alert you when it leaves your computer--as well as helping you set up an eBay fraud report, if you're an eBay user. These all appeared to work well enough, but suffered from the same interface design that plague the major features. There's also an outbound e-mail alert in case your account gets hacked, parental controls, and a browser toolbar for Firefox and Internet Explorer.
Unfortunately, the browser protections only work in those two browsers. The toolbar comes with a private browsing option, but it's not entirely clear how it's different from the ones that already come with the host browser. ZoneAlarm's trial period is shorter by half than its competitors, but if you're looking for brand-name protection, ZoneAlarm isn't a bad place to start.
ZoneAlarm's publisher, CheckPoint, sources its virus detection engine from Kaspersky, but adds its own antispyware detection. In terms of threat detection and removal efficacy, independent data isn't available yet for the 2010 version. According to virus and malware detection results at AV-Test.org, ZoneAlarm Extreme Security 2009 scored better than average but not in the upper percentiles on malware detection, removal, response times, and only average on false positives.
In my empirical testing of scan times, I noticed that the quick scan was extremely fast--it took less than 30 seconds. The full scan was fairly quick, too, taking about 20 minutes. The two deep scans that are available scan all data on the computer including archives, and appropriately they both took upward of 90 minutes.
CNET Labs' benchmarks revealed that ZoneAlarm lags behind many of its competitors in most of our tests. ZoneAlarm Security Suite 2010 added more than 14 seconds to the boot time of the test computer, while ZoneAlarm Extreme Security 2010 added more than 19 seconds. The impact of the programs on shutdown times was less dramatic in both cases, with the Security Suite adding just over four seconds and Extreme Security adding just over two seconds.
In our basic scan test, Security Suite was only 20 seconds slower than the fastest engine we tested, Kaspersky Internet Security 2010. Extreme Security clocked in at 1,261 seconds--481 seconds slower than KIS. Security Suite notched 555 seconds on the Microsoft Office test and Extreme Security hit 576 seconds, compared to the baseline of 483 seconds. The iTunes decoding test showcased a small range of scores, between 194 and 197 seconds compared to the baseline of 187. Security Suite 2010 scored 195 seconds, and Extreme Security finished in 196 seconds, but Extreme Security was 34 seconds faster than Security Suite in the media multitasking test. Our Cinebench test, where higher scores are better, showed Security Suite at 4180 and Extreme Security at 4184, compared to the baseline of 4217.
The poor design problems that plague the features of ZoneAlarm also befall its support access. Clicking the Help link in the bottom-left corner of the program window only opens a locally based help system. If you go through the Product Info link below the Overview nav option, there's a link under Support and Update Information that should take you to the Check Point Web site, but the link wasn't working in our version.
From the Web site, you can access Live Chat technical support during daytime hours, the support center knowledge base, user forums, and FAQ. A premium support service costs an additional $49.95 that allows a technician to remotely fix your PC.
There's a lot that people can get out of ZoneAlarm Extreme Security 2010, from its competent antivirus and firewall systems to ancillary system tools to an installation that is quite user-friendly. However, usability flaws create an unnecessarily steep learning curve, the program has a lot of room to improve on its performance, and average users will probably find the support system frustrating to access. Give ZoneAlarm Extreme Security 2010 a pass unless you're a ZoneAlarm fan.