The Best Security Suites for 2009
Which suite will be best for keeping you safe and not slowing you down this year? We've tested them all, and the answer might surprise you.
The list of available 2009-model security suites is now essentially complete. A running theme in this year's suites is the promise that these new versions will do more for your security while tying up fewer system resources. It's about time: Users have had it with suites that offer security but bog down the computer. Several vendors have introduced new "in the cloud" technologies to keep up with the accelerating growth of new malware. And many have redesigned their user interfaces to be more attractive and look lighter and faster. Some are new, innovative, and speedy. Others haven't kept pace. Which are which? I put them all through grueling tests to find out.
Starting with the 2009 crop of suites, I added an entire day of performance testing per suite to my already lengthy set of evaluations. I wrote and gathered a collection of batch files, scripts, and freeware components to measure how long a number of common activities take on the computer. I ran the scripts many times on a system with no suite installed and then on that same system with each suite installed. Averaging the results let me see just how much each suite affected system performance.
I get a lot of complaints about how long PCs take to boot up in the morning, and many users blame their security suites for lengthening the process. The first part of my test script, therefore, calculates the time it takes from the start of the boot process (as reported internally by Windows) to the time when the system is completely ready to use. "Ready" is a fluid concept—I defined it as meaning that 10 seconds have passed with CPU usage under 5 percent. I ran this test 50 to 100 times and averaged the results; the test system with no suite installed takes almost exactly 60 seconds to boot. Norton Internet Security 2009 and Kaspersky Internet Security 2009 added only about 15 seconds to the boot time. That's not bad!
Some of the other suites added significantly to boot time. F-Secure Internet Security 2009 and McAfee Total Protection 2009 nearly doubled it, and BitDefender Total Security 2009 more than doubled it. The timings for Webroot Internet Security Essentials (WISE) averaged even higher—almost 2.5 times the baseline. However, the data set included a number of unexplained instances when booting up took 5 or even 10 minutes. Eliminating those quirky outliers brought the average boot time for WISE (the smallest suite) a bit below that of McAfee (the largest suite)—still not impressive.
Real-time malware scanners can kick in on any kind of file access and can slow ordinary file operations, especially if they redundantly scan the same file more than once during the operation. I set up a series of file move and copy actions using a variety of file types and timed how long it took with and without a security suite. Kaspersky added just 2 percent to the time required for this test, and Trend Micro Internet Security Pro added 6 percent. Norton and Panda Global Protection 2009 came in between those two. On the slow side, the system running ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite 2009 took half again as long to perform the test.
Another of my new tests zips and unzips large groups of files, and my testing showed that this activity takes more of a performance hit from most security suites than moving and copying do. Panda had the lightest touch here, adding just 8 percent to the baseline time. Norton, Kaspersky, Trend Pro, and Webroot all added in the neighborhood of 25 percent to the time. Under ZoneAlarm the zip test took twice as long, and under BitDefender it took 2.5 times as long. That's dreadful!
Your suite has to keep careful track of software installations so it can prevent malware from installing. I measured the time required for repeated automatic installation and uninstallation of several large Windows Installer packages. Most of the suites added from 20 to 30 percent to this test's time. Panda excelled again, adding just 6 percent. ZoneAlarm and WISE caused the most drag, adding 63 percent and 71 percent, respectively.
Acting on some reports of problems with media files, I included a test that times some elaborate media file format conversions. None of the suites slowed this test significantly. Their effects ranged from a negligible 1 percent increase by WISE, Panda, and Norton to a still minor 8 percent hit from ZoneAlarm.
Modern suites look at your browsing activity in a number of different ways. They block drive-by downloads, check for fraud, and perhaps block inappropriate content for your kids. To see whether this analysis slows down the browsing experience, I used an ActiveX control that measures when a page has completely loaded, along with a script that launches dozens of URLs with lots of content.
Norton had the least impact on surfing speed, adding 13 percent to the time required for this test. WISE doesn't do any page analysis beyond checking a blacklist, but it still added 25 percent. Kaspersky and Panda, which did well on most of my other performance tests, slowed browsing by 64 percent and 92 percent, respectively. But McAfee had the worst impact, more than doubling the time required for the surfing test. Given the amount of time the average person spends surfing the Web, this is a bad test to fail.
Check our security suite performance test chart to get full details on each product's individual scores. Note, though, that in addition to these tests, I considered various other factors. Does the product make a good impression with a speedy and undemanding install process? Is the scan for malware especially fast or slow? Does the spam filter appreciably slow down the process of downloading mail? Are there special features that demonstrably work to minimize performance impact? All these factors go into the final score. In next year's round of testing I hope to add even more performance tests. In the meanwhile, I'm very interested in getting your feedback on this year's tests. —next: Security in the Cloud >
Featured in this Roundup:
BitDefender Internet Security 2009
$69.95 direct; 3-pack, $79.95
BitDefender has added a ton of new features—online backup and remote configuration, for example. It includes all the expected security elements, with decent performance from most of them. It's a reasonable choice if you're excited by those extra features.
F-Secure Internet Security 2009
$75.90 direct; 3-pack, $79.90
F-Secure Internet Security 2009 is easy to use, without complicated settings and extras. But installing it was a nightmare, and it took too long deleting inactive malware. The firewall is old-fashioned, and the antispam and parental-control apps are ineffective. The suite hasn't kept up with the times.
Kaspersky Internet Security 2009
3-pack, $79.95 direct
Kaspersky Internet Security's new user interface hides messy security details but leaves them accessible to power users. The new application-filtering feature renders the suite smart enough to make its own decisions without hassling the user. As long as you don't plan to rely on it for spam filtering or parental control, Kasperksy's suite is a good choice.
McAfee Total Protection 2009
3-pack, $79.99 direct
McAfee's latest suite has improved malware detection, and its spam filter is also much better. But its overabundance of features hasn't changed at all; its UI is sluggish; and it saps system performance.
Norton Internet Security 2009
3-pack, $69.99 direct
This is definitely the slimmest, most unobtrusive Norton ever. Its protection is top-notch where it counts, though antispam and parental controls are still weak. As the best all-around security suite to date (I'll be installing it myself), it's our new Editors' Choice.
Panda Global Protection 2009
$69.95 direct; 3-pack, $89.95
Except for the new main screen, Panda's 2009 suite doesn't look much different. Its collective intelligence promises better protection, but its action is spotty: Spam filtering got much better; spyware protection got worse. And it's expensive! Wait for next year's version if you're thinking of switching to Panda.