Panda shredded every threat we threw at it with the ferocity of, well, anything but a panda bear. Spyware, Trojans, potentially unwanted programs (PUPs)—you name it, Panda pounced on it like a hungry dog that had been thrown a meaty bone.
This particular Panda can also be a little bit needy. By default, Panda alerts you to every activity under the sun, even benign attempts by your home network to connect to your PC. Over time, the pop-ups settle down considerably, and for the ones of a more serious nature—like those alerting you to a real threat or virus attack—Panda makes it easy to adjust both the transparency and longevity of the pop-ups. Still, we wish Panda would take more initiative and not bother us with so many alerts.
Ever been blindsided by what you thought was love at first sight, but turned out to be just another pretty face? Eventually you find yourself at a crossroads having to decide whether to break things off, or stick around for the fast ride and ignore the flaws.
Such is the position BitDefender puts you in, and you’ll ultimately have to make the same decision. Right off the bat we encountered a couple red flags of things to come, including a somewhat lengthy install time requiring a restart, and mandatory registration in order to activate the license.
Once we got past the initial awkwardness, BitDefender proceeded to sweep us off our feet by tailoring itself to our needs. BitDefender’s configuration wizard asks you to select from four different layouts based on what type of user you are, including Typical, Parent, Gamer, or Custom. Should you later change your mind, you can rerun the wizard with a click of the mouse.
Trend Micro should come with a warning label that reads, “Caution: May be hazardous to your system’s boot time, overall performance, and system security. Use at your own risk.”
Instead, Trend Micro promises “the most comprehensive, easy-to-use protection for your personal data,” which just isn’t true. We have so many complaints its tough to decide where to begin, so let’s start with system performance.
Trend Micro added more than half a minute to our test bed’s boot time—long enough for some PC components to become obsolete. It also turned in the lowest PCMark score, although there were other products with scores nearly as bad.
When McAfee told us it completely re-engineered its security suite from top to bottom, we agreed to include it in this roundup knowing full well we had probably been duped like the guy who drives off the used-car lot without a warranty. We were wrong.
To our eyes, this is a completely revamped McAfee. MIS 2010 rolls off the lot with a much-improved UI over previous versions, and manages to balance ease of use with a high level of customization. For those who care to do so, McAfee makes it easy to dig deeper into each of the main menu’s modules, but you’ll never feel lost or overwhelmed.
Underneath the hood sits a more performance-oriented engine than what you would expect from a McAfee product. Where last year’s version felt like a dilapidated Pinto, the 2010 model has all the makings of a sporty sedan. To reduce the time it takes to scan a system, McAfee caches files and puts together a white list of files it can safely skip. Depending on how clogged your hard drive is, McAfee claims this can result in up to eight-times-faster scans (we saw a 50 percent improvement).
Our last experience with Avast! left us utterly annoyed, and for good reason. It was slow, resource-heavy, and seemed to suffer from an identity crisis, with a quirky user interface that looked more like a media player than an AV scanner.
That was the free version we looked at, and this year, we put Avast!’s full-blown security suite under the microscope. A close inspection reveals that some of our previous complaints remain, but there have also been a handful of welcome improvements.
For starters, Avast! sports brand-new digs, and it’s never looked better. Gone is the goofy media-player façade, replaced by a sleek UI that’s easy to navigate. All the controls are clearly labeled, so you won’t spend time fumbling around looking for things like the IM shield or firewall.
Someone over at Microsoft must watch a lot of hockey, because it’s the only way to explain the company’s recent hat trick. First there was Bing, the much-improved “decision” engine that replaced Live Search. Then Windows 7 launched, atoning for Vista. Now we have Microsoft Security Essentials, one of the latest entries into the field of AV, and another winning product from Microsoft.
Essentials scored points with us right off the bat with its supersonic 10-second install time. Even after downloading the latest update, we still hadn’t invested more than a minute or so of our time. And while Vista, Internet Explorer, and other Microsoft software made it easy at times to rag on Redmond for poor resource management, there would be none of that with Essentials, which disappeared quietly into the background.
When it came time to test Essentials, we checked our expectations at the door but were nevertheless pleasantly surprised. Essentials sailed through our synthetic spyware and virus testing without so much as flinching and fared equally well at thwarting our attempts to inflict damage with genuine payloads.
Ask any penny-pinching power user what he thinks about non-free security suites, and he’ll tell you it’s a fool’s solution, plain and simple. After all, what’s the point of paying for AV software when programs like AntiVir offer the same protection sans a price tag?
A valid question, so we set out to answer it. We combed through the data available from two well-known independent testing labs—Virus Bulletin and AV-Comparatives—and in both cases, we found that AntiVir historically performs well, boasting high detection rates. So far, so good.
Even better, AntiVir added a bit of basic spyware protection to this year’s version, addressing one of our primary complaints about AntiVir in 2009. Repeating some of the same tests we used last year, this year’s AntiVir did a much better job protecting IE from rogue code and prevented a few other spyware shenanigans, such as altering our host file.
Like Norton, ESET Smart Security walked away with a Kick Ass award in last year’s roundup, so we were eager to see how the two security suites would compare when pitted against each other in our second annual AV battle royal.
Through the first few rounds of testing, it was near impossible to declare a winner. Both apps remained light on their feet by barely sipping system resources before the two began trading blows. ESET won a round by adding six fewer seconds than Norton did to our system boot time (+14 seconds versus +20 seconds, respectively), but Norton’s a more polished fighter. What do we mean?
ESET lacks a few features found in Norton, including identity protection and parental controls. And while ESET managed to scan our test bed in a little less than eight minutes, which is half the time it took Norton during its first run, ESET doesn’t skip over trusted files to reduce subsequent sweeps, so it’s not nearly as fast in the long run.
We took some heat after awarding last year’s version of Norton Internet Security our coveted Kick Ass award. Some of you were baffled at how Norton, a notorious resource hog and semi-effective scanner, could turn things around in such dramatic fashion. Others questioned our geek cred, while a few of you even accused us of being on the take—ouch. But the truth is, Symantec deserved every accolade it received. Could this be the dawn of a new AV dynasty in the Norton camp?
We’re not yet ready to anoint Norton the savior of security software, and we’ll tell you why in a moment. First, let’s focus on what NIS 2010 does right. This year’s update continues NIS’s reborn legacy as a lean and fast scanner. We remain particularly impressed with Norton Insight, which dramatically reduces system scans. The first time NIS sweeps through your system, it examines every file. Each time thereafter, the scanner skips files that have been validated by Symantec and deemed trustworthy. The result? After an initial scan time of 16 minutes, 18 seconds, NIS then scurried through our data in just four minutes, 47 seconds, finishing long before our coffee break did.
We suppose one way to protect users from a malware infestation is to prevent Windows from loading in the first place, and that's exactly what BitDefender did, though not on purpose. Borked WIndows installations were the inadvertent result of an overzealous definitions update that mistakenly detected several windows and BitDefender files as infected with Trojan.FakeAlert.5.
"We apologize for the issues that you are experiencing because of an update released today for Windows 64-bit systems," BitDefender told its customers. "The faulty update has been removed and we are quickly working on a fix for the issue experienced by the users that downloaded the update."
BitDefender has since issued a software patch along with instructions on how to apply it if your system refuses to boot. The company also warns that "there have been several 'self help' articles on the Internet that do not fully solve the problem" and is instructing users to only follow BD's official instructions.
We talked to BitDefender about this issue and were told that "due to the fast reaction with a reversed update after the faulty one, there has only been a few hundred machiens that were critically affected; however at this moment many of them have had one-to-one support.