Protection comes full circle

Norton 360 adds blazing speed to comprehensive security scans

Most Symantec-owned, Norton-branded products, especially the antivirus suites, have been like the tortoise of that famed animal-themed race. They are slower and less flashy than the hares of the world, but in the end, do a better job overall.

Over the years, Symantec has tried to overcome the negatives of this image, improving its user interface and getting scan and install times up-to-speed. However, doing so without harming the products' excellent performance record was critical, so the company has taken gradual steps. Users could probably forgive a version of Norton antivirus coming out with a slow interface ' in fact, they expect it to be a little slow. But a Norton antivirus product that misses a new version of the Netsky virus would be unforgivable, no matter the scan speed.

The last Symantec antivirus program we tested was Norton AntiVirus 2007. It found all sorts of malicious code that we had hidden on our test system, even programs that other antivirus packages in the August 2007 roundup missed. So in terms of performance, we were impressed. But speed was its Achilles' heel ' or at least a sticking point ' as the software took more than 44 minutes to run a full scan on our test system. And its user interface was a little difficult to navigate, too.

Now Symantec has released its 360 software package, which includes not only antivirus software but also a host of protection services. They include anti-spyware, identity protection, anti-phishing, rootkit detection, network monitoring, a firewall and a fairly robust support system that includes real-time in-program chat help at the click of a button ' or several clicks, as Symantec tries to solve your problem without tapping its help employees. The idea is that the new product offers full-circle protection for your computer, hence the 360 name.

Although we expected to find a robust security system, we did not think we would also find both an attractive and easy-to-use interface, or lightning quick scan times. Symantec has found a way to add a lot of extra, useful features, while speeding performance remarkably.

Let's start with how it did against viruses, because that is the key to any antivirus program, even a package deal that includes other forms of protection. As we did in 2007, we reached into our virus zoo and added a bunch of malicious programs to a plain vanilla test system. This happened to be the same system we used for the roundup last year, so scan times could be compared. Some of the viruses we planted had stealth technology, one was a rootkit and one was a new virus created by the lab staff. Don't worry, our new virus was not designed to replicate itself outside a host system.

When you first install Norton 360, it asks if you want to scan the system before installing the program. This is a huge plus, because it can eliminate problems before they have a chance to mess with the antivirus program. During this stage, all but one of the viruses we planted were destroyed. So our system was almost completely clean before the program even came online. That added to the install time, but not by much. In 7 minutes, 13 seconds, including the scan, the software was good to go.

Once installed, the program needs to update itself with all the latest virus profiles and program updates. This took 8 minutes, 15 seconds the first time and required a reboot.

Now it was time to run a full scan. We still had one piece of malicious code hiding on the system that managed to evade the quick scan during install. Given the speed of Norton 2007 and the fact that a lot more protection was added to the 360 program, we activated the scan and settled in for a long nap to await the results. But there was no time for even a couple winks because the full scan was complete, in just 4 minutes, 15 seconds. And yes, it found and eliminated the Slappy Virus, our own little stealthy creation.

During the full scan we ran every component in the 360 arsenal except for disk optimization, because we did not think it would be fair to add in a defragmentation process to the overall time. However, the 360 was able to perform a registry cleanup, adjust the browser settings, check the network address to avoid phishing scams, remove unused temporary files, erase our browser history, and, of course, run the antivirus and anti-spyware scans in just more than four minutes.

So we would certainly say that shaving 40 minutes off a scan time is a good thing. But beyond just getting speedy, Symantec also cleaned up the user interface. The control panel presents four large buttons that you really can't miss. Each button represents a different aspect of the program and leads to submenus when selected. It's about the best user interface we have seen on a personal protection product and a big surprise to find in a Norton bundle.

From that menu, you can also set tasks such as scans to be performed during idle periods, such as when a screen saver is running. If you are using the program on a laptop, it can automatically detect when you are running on batteries and won't run a big scan at that time, which would drain your limited power. In general, it does everything it can to stay out of the way, keeping you safe while working quietly in the background, another first for Norton software.

The $79 price tag might at first seem slightly high, but it's not unreasonable given all the protection you get in addition to antivirus and anti-spyware. That price comes with a year of free updates, another process that now mostly happens in the background.

Symantec has finally listened to its users and created an antivirus program that is speedy, less memory-intensive and has a great user interface. And because it doesn't skimp on protection, we can say that Norton 360 is a full-circle success story. As such, it earns our Reviewer's Choice designation.

Symantec, 408-517-8000, www.symantec.com

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