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Norton Antivirus: When did it get good?

It seems that thinning down your application for greater performance has finally caught on, and bloat is being stripped away. This year's surprise contender: Norton.

It's been about 13 years since I've installed a Symantec antivirus product. The legendary system slowdowns, the amazing resource hogging, the way the pop-ups would get in your face, and never being able to unlock the false positives — it was simply a recipe for disaster.

Truth be told, most of the time I cruise with no virus protection whatsoever. Travel smartly and you can avoid most of the nasties on the internet. The last time I got a virus was Blaster in 2003, and before that Chernobyl in 1999. Both were unavoidable at the time of activation, even if you had an antivirus suite.

Blaster was frustrating, widespread, but mostly harmless from an end-user point of view. Chernobyl was nasty, and I ended up wiping my 10GB IBM system drive at the time in order to get my PC back up to usable status again. Far too late, a tool was released to fix it.

Apart from these diversions, my PC has been untouched, and so I've not felt the need to get a commercial antivirus suite. Occasionally, whenever the latest threat is in vogue I'll install Avira or Avast, confident that the free software will protect me just as well against current threats as the commercial equivalent.

Some time ago I met with a Symantec Exec showing off an early build of Internet Security 2009 — he promised that it was faster, leaner and less annoying than before, and that this time, Symantec had really listened to what customers wanted. Given that this had been the story for the last few releases, and according to the reviews, it never turned out to be true, so this time it was greeted with a healthy dose of scepticism.

When the Norton AntiVirus 2009 Gaming Edition package turned up on my desk, it stayed there for at least a month, maybe more. Eventually after being gently reminded of its existence by the local PR rep, I decided to give it a go, expecting the worst. Pleasantly surprised would be an understatement as far as reactions go.

The install took around two minutes (including a driver installation — Adobe, are you watching?), after which it then updated the program and the definitions. It requested a restart, but allowed me to delay it and set the reminder for up to 24 hours (Microsoft, are you watching?).

On an Athlon X2 4400 with a Western Digital Raptor WD1500ADFD, 2GB DDR2-6400 and running on Windows Vista Ultimate 32-bit, BIOS to log-in window time (plus wait time for hard drive to stop thrashing) increased on average by 13 seconds. Not too bad, but a fair bit above Symantec's quoted three seconds. Admittedly I'm running on four-year-old hardware, so I'm happy to let that one slide.

Log-in to Windows desktop time (plus wait time for hard drive to stop thrashing) actually decreased 10 seconds by virtue of the antivirus suite discovering I had a worm and was removing it. Looks like I'm up to three viruses in my lifetime.

More impressively, when idle it uses a minuscule 5MB RAM, as confirmed by Windows' built-in Resource Monitor and the CPU usage monitor included within the antivirus software. Come SSDs with almost 0ms random access time and antivirus suites at this rate will have almost no perceptible system impact whatsoever.

Scheduled scanning is gone too. In its place is a system that waits until it is idle for a predefined period of time before the program does anything, with the default set at 10 minutes. Once the user starts using the PC again, the scanning process stops almost immediately.

While I purposely baited it with a few false positives, all the files were happily recovered from quarantine without complaint, although the process was more arduous than it needed to be, requiring the user to hit a "More Details" button to restore the file after entering the Quarantine section of the program.

The most serious strike against it is that it installed a Firefox plug-in without permission. Called "Norton IPS 1.0", it gave absolutely no hints as to what it did. Some web searching later revealed it to be part of the Intrusion Prevention System, which according to a forum post on Symantec's site "is the Firefox 'Unauthorized Download Protection' component". Despite being every corporation's favourite hijack, no toolbar was added to Internet Explorer 7, although an IPS Browser Helper Object was installed.

The promoted feature of the "Gaming Edition" is the new Gamer Mode, which allows you to either manually silence the antivirus for one, two, four or six hours, or engages whenever it detects an application going into full-screen mode, whether it be a game or a movie.

This is just an extension of Norton Internet Security's silent mode, where it doesn't bug you with messages should it find something. Gaming Edition pushes this further by disabling a number of scanning engines, to a user-definable level. This ensures your game will never be interrupted by your antivirus suite. After a week of playing Left 4 Dead and World of Goo as well as Battlestar Galactica watching, I can confirm that Norton didn't get in my way once.

I've never been a fan of subscription services, however, it's probably fair to say the "pay once" format is dying in favour of a service-driven model, and that's something I'm going to have to deal with. At AU$49.95 for a year for up to three PCs though (and the software includes remote management tools as well), it's rather good value. And before the geebans ride the comment train to its inevitable combustion, I'd urge you just like the embattled product manager urged me to try the software before you pass judgement based on previous experiences.

At risk of opening myself to a deluge of antivirus vendors claiming their product is better, I'll simply say this: Symantec has finally proven good on its word, and I'm perfectly happy to leave Norton AntiVirus 2009 Gaming Edition installed on my PC due to its incredibly small footprint and usability.

With Windows 7 and Snow Leopard set to continue the trend of "thinning down" applications, perhaps we're entering an era of lean, high performance software, thanks to the explosive popularity of "good enough" hardware like netbooks and CULV/Neo-based machines. Perhaps, finally, the excuse of letting high-end hardware hide the bloat of poorly programmed software is coming to an end.