5 top security suites for teleworkers

According to a recent CDW Government study, 41 percent of federal employees say they often work from home or telecommute. That figure is up 19 percent from the same time last year. And with a 91 percent overall job satisfaction rating for telecommuters, as opposed to 80 percent for nontelecommuters, it’s no wonder these figures keep rising. However, despite the increase in telecommuting, the same CDW report states that 53 percent of federal information technology professionals feel that information security is the primary downside for telecommuting.

For the last four years, I have worked exclusively from home as a tech manager whose responsibilities include handling sensitive and private data. One of the challenges we have concerning information security in telecommuting is that, more often than not, a telecommuter’s own computer can run circles around the work-issued desktop or laptop PC, giving the telecommuter strong incentive to crunch data on an unauthorized machine. Another threat is that friends and family might have access to your work or home PC. But they ordinarily would be unable to access your agency’s office space, let alone your agency’s network.

The convergence between this increase in telecommuting and the dangers of working at home has blurred the lines between corporate security and home security software. As a result, many companies and agencies that are strong proponents of telework now require telecommuters to use robust home security software and password-protect and encrypt their home networks.

Selecting the best consumer antivirus suite for telecommuters is an arduous task because, at home, we don’t have the luxury of our network admins blocking our home computer’s ability to travel to certain sites on the Internet or blocking the use of our PC’s USB ports.

With these issues in mind, we tested five of the latest consumer security suites to determine the best overall candidate for a telecommuting environment. Although performance is paramount when conducting a review, in this case, all of our participants stopped every bug we ran into online and every bit of malware we could throw at it in the lab.

Given equal performance in stopping threats, we rated as the best security suite the one that delivers its performance in the easiest manner and most logical interface. We deducted points for programs that are intrusive and demand your “OK” every time you perform a function. We also looked for solutions that didn’t break the bank to purchase or to renew each year. We gave kudos to companies that offer multiyear renewals for a discount or, better yet, that offer free versions of their antivirus platforms. Finally, we paid attention to feature sets such as the ability to uncover malware in a cloud environment before it reaches your hard drive, or the ability to customize your antivirus suite to do things like shut down your computer after scans.

In terms of the telecommuting features, we looked for programs that are compatible with other forms of security software, including the embedded features found in most operating systems, such as the built-in Windows firewall. We think it's important for users to be able to choose their security functions, so security suites in this roundup were given extra points if they didn’t annoy the user who chose to use the embedded operating system firewall over the suite’s firewall or didn’t mind having another third-party company run the spam filter element of the protection suite.

What’s Not Included

One thing that differentiates this antivirus roundup from many others is that we do not test scan rates on a hard drive, for three reasons. First, most programs now give you the ability to scan your PC when you’re not using it, even if your PC is hibernating or on standby. Second, the ability of all modern antivirus tools to scan only the files that have either changed in structure or are new make all antivirus tool scans similar in speed. Finally, why rush something that is so important to your data, your work and your life? I often compare an antivirus scan to the physical your doctor gives you once a year. Would you rather go to a doctor who’s fast or one who’s accurate?

Several vendors give organizations the option to extend their solutions to home users who telecommute. For example, Sophos provides the option of extending its Sophos Endpoint Security and Data Protection license to agency users who work from home. Sophos does not sell to the consumer market, but it does extend its proactive protection to both the agency and its employees. This protection fully supports management over the Internet or virtual private network via the Sophos Remote Management System.

Sophos also supports a variety of methods of providing centralized updates, which can be hosted for both internal and external clients through formats including HTTP, Universal Naming Convention, Server Message Block and Advanced Function Presentation. These formats apply to home use installations, and updates are delivered through the standard Sophos Update Manager. However, because Sophos was not technically what we were looking for in terms of this review, it was not compared to the others here.

Avast There delivers great AV protection for the perfect price

Reviewers ChoiceIn the United States, the most well-known free antivirus program is AVG Technologies’ AVG Antivirus 9.0. But that’s about to change. Winning its first Reviewer’s Choice is Avast There by ALWIL Software of the Czech Republic. Avast has spread through viral marketing and good word of mouth to become a dominant player among free antivirus solutions, mostly because it protects your computer just as well as an expensive solution does, but also because it’s easy to install, use and pay for.

In a nutshell, everything about this program is terrific. It’s very unobtrusive yet quick to catch, quarantine and remove any bug we could find online or throw at it in the lab. And easy-to-access features, such as Real-Time Shields, which demonstrates the program monitoring your computer on an X-Y graph as you perform operations or surf the Web, add a peace-of-mind element to this antivirus tool.

The use of a high-end graphical user interface and well-positioned 3-D graphics make Avast a much cleaner and easier-to-use solution than most of the other participants in this roundup, particularly AVG.

And new performance enhancements that look at virus detection from a unique angle make Avast a leader among its competitors in this roundup. For example, if a file is electronically signed by a trusted publisher, Avast won’t scan it. And Avast remembers scanned files so it will not rescan old files unless it detects changes in their makeup or structure. Since the company maintains its own list of more than 50,000 safe applications, scanning time is further reduced.

A multithreaded design enables the software to scan individual processes, not just files, and split between many threads using all available CPU processor cores in order to scan at a more efficient rate. This program architecture increases the efficiency of scanning large files because now these large files are not solely assigned to a single core processor. This feature is particularly beneficial to telecommuters because viruses are typically spread within layers of old files, which is how they trick detectors. The multithread design makes malware detection faster and more secure when switching files from a work to home PC environment.

Avast has a new code emulator that acts as a virus buffer, taking suspicious executable code discovered during scanning and emulating it in an isolated environment. This code emulator also uses dynamic translation for both generic unpacking and in the heuristics engine, making this process a lot faster than the basic engine emulator.

With strong protection engines and features such as the wake-up for scan, which lets users schedule scans during PC sleeping or hibernation cycles, Avast establishes itself as one of the best antivirus solutions in the review.

ALWIL Software, www.avast.com

Avast There 5.0

Performance: A
Features: A
Ease of Use: A
Value: A
Price: Free
Pros: Free; won’t rescan the same files unless they change; can look at suspicious files in a virtual environment.
Cons: Nothing significant.

AVG 9.0’s antivirus is effective and free, but somewhat clunky

Although Avast outperformed AVG in this roundup, it doesn’t mean that AVG is a poor choice for antivirus protection, especially for teleworkers. AVG offers some features that apply specifically to that work environment. Most notably, AVG gives you the choice of tailoring the solution to protect either a static home PC or a mobile work computer.

The interface of the AVG console is still less easy to use and more outdated when compared to Avast, but it's still simple enough for you to find the basic features, such as running an update or scanning your PC. When the software finds a bug, it handles it effectively, although it doesn’t provide you with as much data or feedback as the other competitors in this roundup. As a result, you might be left wondering whether you really got the virus removed.

Another negative to the program was its constant intrusions. It seemed as though every move I made caused the program to interrupt my execution to inform me of what I had initiated, such as opening a Web portal.

Despite these drawbacks, the software scans well and fast and has some neat features such as Active Surf-Shield, which is a toolbar at the top of your Web portal that scans each site you go to for malware to ensure you’re always protected. The only drawback is that the toolbar comes with a Yahoo search engine portal, which I never use and which seems to clutter the window and take up a lot of space.

AVG does gain a big advantage over many of its competitors by offering identity theft protection, essentially blocking any activity to your data that seems suspicious. By protecting your computer at the data level from theft, AVG is a taking a huge step in the right direction in terms of thinking about the telecommuter’s need to protect sensitive data first and foremost.

AVG offers a scanning optimization feature that searches the Windows and Program file folders, where it saves the information on the current structure of key operating files into a centralized file called checksum. Your key files are then only scanned when the software notices change in the checksum file. The time we saved was considerable, but you have to perform an initial full-system scan, which can take more than 30 minutes to complete.

The heart of the AVG program is the Resident Shield, which gives your computer continuous protection by scanning every single file that is being opened, saved or copied. Resident Shield also guards the system areas of the computer. If a virus launches on your hard drive, Resident Shield stops the operation currently being performed by a virus and does not allow the virus to activate. Resident Shield also removes the threat.

Despite minor drawbacks, AVG does a good job of protecting your computer, and since its free, it’s hard to justify paying money for comparable protection.

AVG Technologies, www.avg.com

AVG 9.0

Performance: A
Features: B
Ease of Use: B
Value: A
Price: Free
Pros: Free; quick scanning; watches for identity theft.
Cons: Interface getting a little dated, not enough antivirus feedback.

Norton AntiVirus 2010 is easy to install, though a bit harder to use

Among the antivirus tools we tested, Norton has made by far the most changes from the previous version of its antivirus platform, most notably in the look and feel of the product. It has the most modern interface in the review, although that isn’t always a good thing. But before I get to what I didn’t like about the new look, let me mention what did work in Norton 2010.

Norton had the easiest install in the roundup. It was literally one click, and it only took about two minutes to get it up and running. Priced at $39 per year for protection, Norton’s new features make it worth every penny if you are a techie or a heavy Internet user. One of the most common ways to get a virus is to jump to a site from a search engine as you navigate the Internet. With Norton 2010, an easy-to-see color coding of red or green makes it easy for you to avoid Web sites with potential malware waiting to install on your computer.

Another important feature with Norton 2010 is its ability to centrally store, encrypt and control any log-on info or even credit card data that you commonly use on the Internet, including the ability to safely transfer your personal Web data to a USB drive for use on a separate machine using a second version of Norton 2010. For telecommuting users, this can save time and your data, particularly as you transfer personal files from your work PC to your home PC.

With all the extra protection features and a robust detection and prevention engine, Norton was one of this review’s most effective antivirus tools in keeping our test systems safe from malware and bugs.

Unfortunately, the redesign of the interface, although sleek and modern, left us scratching our heads. One of the most difficult things to do in user interface design is find the balance between providing features that appeal to advanced and tech-savvy users and presenting an interface simple enough to be universal. In 2010, Norton has erred on the side of the advanced users. The cluttered and complex interface took me several minutes to figure out, and I kept overlooking some of the basic features, such as a scan or update.

These interface issues in the new design of Norton 2010 preclude us from giving it a Reviewer’s Choice designation in this roundup, but new features, including its much improved scanning speeds, make this program ideal for any telecommuter not easily intimidated by high-tech interfaces.

Symantec, www.symantec.com

Norton AntiVirus 2010

Performance: A
Features: A+
Ease of Use: B+
Value: B
Price: $39 per year
Pros: Protects personal information; easiest to install; good Web protection.
Cons: Interface is modern but confusing.

Trend Micro’s antivirus has good features in an outdated interface

The user interface of latest version of Trend Micro Internet Security Pro is almost the direct opposite of Norton 2010. It’s simple to use and makes it easy to find the main features of the antivirus portion of the product, but the graphics and feel of the product are outdated.

An easy-to-use “Overview” tab lets you perform the two most common features, scanning or updating the antivirus engine, and tabs below let you navigate to other features, such as the Internet and e-mail sections, where the spam engine controls are, or the firewall section. All of these features perform well, but we experienced problems accessing some of the features because the outdated interface eventually cluttered some of the bells and whistles of this security suite.

We also recommend you save money by using the plain $39 Trend Micro antivirus as opposed to the $69 Internet security suite and use a free or less expensive third-party spam engine and operating system-embedded firewall, since we saw no difference in performance between these options.

Despite these drawbacks, Trend Micro Internet Security Pro has some impressive capabilities that are very appealing to the telecommuting environment. A Wi-Fi Adviser verifies whether a hot spot is legitimate and identifies safe hot spots, allowing you to avoid twin attacks, in which a user masquerades as a hot spot to steal your data.

A proactive intrusion feature protects your computer from unauthorized changes to your operating system and important programs. More important, an enhanced parental control feature provides both machine-based and user-based policy creation, which can be very appealing to network administrators. Also, custom and predesigned URL filtering, combined with Internet access by time of day or day of week, let you limit the sites you or your guests visit.

Trend Micro’s antivirus suite has some of the best features for a teleworker. Unfortunately, the outdated interface makes it hard to use and therefore hard to justify the higher price tag. It does a good job of protecting your system, but you'll have an easier time with another product.

Trend Micro, www.trendmicro.com

Trend Micro Internet Security Pro

Performance: A
Features: A-
Ease of Use: B-
Value: B-
Price: $39 per year for base package, $69 for full suite
Pros: Can identify real or spoofed wireless hot spots; locks down critical parts of the OS.
Cons: Very dated user interface; full suite is not worth the extra $30.

McAfee Antivirus Plus balances advanced features and ease of use

Reviewers ChoiceMcAfee has by far the best overall solution in the roundup for paid antivirus software. The install was effortless and quick, the scanning was fast and nonintrusive, and the user interface hits a balance between high-tech and user-friendly that we rarely if ever find in antivirus suites.

On a single window, you can see the latest status of your computer and each feature at your disposal. A well-designed sequence of drop boxes lets you explore your features in greater detail, which includes virus and spyware protection, e-mail and Web protection, data protection, home network protection, and PC optimization. The best part of this design is that the simple task of moving your cursor over the drop-down menu will tell you whether you are protected or missing a step in your security.

Under PC optimization, McAfee includes a program called QuickClean that lets you improve your PC’s performance by giving you quick access to files you can safely erase, such as old ActiveX programs. The home network feature centralizes the security of all PCs running McAfee on your network. Finally, Shredder is a program in the data protection drop-down menu that lets you permanently erase sensitive files.

The bread and butter of the McAfee antivirus program are the Web and e-mail and virus and spyware protection drop-down boxes. The virus and spyware boxes are basic and similar to the programs in the rest of the review, in that they scan your computer in real-time and monitor for system changes. The Web and e-mail protection, on the other hand, offers a robust firewall and a site adviser that provides Web site ratings to ensure you never stumble on a dangerous site.

With McAfee’s top-of-the-line total solution priced at $39, it’s no wonder it merits a Reviewer’s Choice designation.

McAfee, www.mcafee.com

McAfee Antivirus Plus

Performance: A
Features: A
Ease of Use: A
Value: A
Price: $39 per year
Pros: Best user interface; can also optimize a PC; can permanently delete files; firewall and anti-spyware scanner included.


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