Editors' note: On September 11, 2008, we changed the rating of this product after including comparative testing data and ranking it against other 2009 Internet security suites.
The improvements within Check Point ZoneAlarm Internet Security 2009 are mostly under the hood, but they are nonetheless significant. Optimizing the resources for desktop and laptop Windows users is important within a suite of tools, and long-time ZoneAlarm users will notice the benefits almost immediately. There's a new user interface, but little else feature-wise. Unlike some everything-including-the-kitchen-sink suites we've seen lately, ZoneAlarm still covers just the basics, and continues to be best of breed in antivirus, antispam, and firewall protection. Missing, however, is its Web 2.0 safe-browsing protection, which Check Point has yielded to its new ForceField product. We think that's a mistake. The competition among Internet Security-suite vendors is heating up. In the fall we expect to see major improvements in Internet Security suites from Symantec Norton, McAfee, and Trend Micro, and so we will be adjusting our review of ZoneAlarm Internet Security 2009 accordingly. Right now, current users should be satisfied with the upgrade, and new users won't be disappointed, but we don't feel comfortable awarding ZoneAlarm Internet Security 2009 with our Editors' Choice award yet this year.
We downloaded the 44MB installation file and installed ZoneAlarm Internet Security 2009 without a hitch. ZoneAlarm requires the use of Windows 2000, XP, and Vista. There is a full-function, 15-day trail version available; at the end of the trail period, the program reverts to the free, basic ZoneAlarm firewall product.
With the install, after an initial reboot, we were asked a series of questions to help us set up the application. The first question is in regards to the ZoneAlarm program-control security setting, which controls the number of message alerts you'll see on your desktop. A Maximum setting flags everything until ZoneAlarm "learns" which security settings you prefer; an Auto-Learn setting starts the learning process earlier by temporarily lowering the security settings, resulting in fewer messages; and finally, a Minimum setting protects you against older, known alerts but no new threats, resulting in virtually no alerts. The default is Auto-Learn, and we left it at that setting. Next, you're asked to participate in DefenseNet, ZoneAlarm's security-threat center where new alerts are recorded anonymously; you can opt out, if you prefer. After that, you'll be asked whether you have antivirus protection and, if you don't, whether you want to enable protection within ZoneAlarm. For this, we advise you to choose ZoneAlarm's protection--not only will you then manage everything through the ZoneAlarm interface, but you'll receive state-of-the-art protection from Kaspersky Anti-Virus. Finally, the program will ask whether you want to scan your PC starting immediately. After these questions, you'll need to reboot once again.
Should you decide to uninstall, ZoneAlarm Internet Security 2009 includes an uninstall icon in the All Programs listing--something McAfee and Norton do not. The uninstall process is smooth, first verifying that you want to do this, then disconnecting from the Zone Labs servers and removing the application. Upon reboot, we found absolutely no trace of ZoneAlarm--not in the Registry, not in the system folders. We cannot say the same for McAfee, Norton, or Trend Micro.
The new interface within ZoneAlarm Internet Security 2009 is cleaner, less complicated, and more modern than the previous one. ZoneAlarm's interface remains the high bar for design, at once communicating plenty of information without a lot of clutter or silly icons. Gone are the tabs used in the past, replaced with an enhanced left-hand navigation. For example, under Program Control, there's an overview link of security settings, a tab for individual-program access, and a tab for component access. We like the ease of customization here, letting us to allow, block, or ask with each program. Other firewalls make us jump through hoops or create complicated rule sets to tweak a given application.
It's all here. ZoneAlarm Internet Security 2009 includes all the security tools you need to keep not only your desktop PC secure, but also your personal identity safe while surfing online. Boot time is much faster in this latest version, as are the individual scans for antivirus (using the Kaspersky Anti-Virus engine) and antispyware (Check Point's own engine). The suite includes spam protection from SonicWall, and, of course, Check Point's award-winning firewall. There's also a game mode, so that security scans and non-priority notices are suspended while you are playing your favorite online games--still a rarity among Internet-security suites. What's new are four antivirus scan modes (so the program won't interrupt your workflow), improved performance throughout, and free credit-monitoring reports.
Unlike other suites we've reviewed, ZoneAlarm has less noise; that is, it produces fewer alerts for applications already running on our desktop. That's because Zone Labs maintains a rather large database of legitimate applications and compares the signature of what's on your system with those in its database. For the most part, ZoneAlarm only flagged unusual activity, which is what you want a good firewall to do. For example, ZoneAlarm notified us of a user who persistently attempted to scan our wireless laptop, then allowed us to block that user. Other firewalls we've reviewed only recorded these attempts in their logs; it's up to you to review the logs and take action.
A real-world identity-theft program was announced with version 6.5 and has been tweaked yet again in the 2009 version. This year ZoneAlarm has branded its own Identity Fraud Protection Center, offering helpful how-tos on what is Identity Fraud and how to prevent it, including a new service to monitor activity on your credit report. There is also a service that helps you, should you become a victim, with personal assistance. No other Internet Security suite includes real-world security protection like ZoneAlarm. We think the ZoneAlarm suite's focus on identity theft in this version more than justifies the cost of the Pro version or suite.
Also, most vendors have opted out of including parental controls (or calling them such). ZoneAlarm includes a Parental Control feature in its left-hand column. While you don't have to have children in the house to want to filter Web sites and e-mail content, it's refreshing to see that ZoneAlarm continues to include it within its suite under a recognizable name.