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McAfee Internet Security 5.0
Norton Internet Security 2003
Two Internet security suites are strikingly similar—and that's not always good
McAfee Internet Security 5.0
Network Associates
Windows 95/98/NT/2000/Me/XP

Norton Internet Security 2003
Symantec
Windows 98/NT/2000/Me/XP
Back in the DOS era, there were two programs I considered essential to anyone using a PC: Norton Disk Utilities and McAfee VirusScan. Anywhere I worked, I would push them on customers and co-workers. After all, who wouldn't consider Norton Disk Utilities a worthwhile investment after recovering an important deleted file, or feel likewise about VirusScan after a potentially hard-disk-killing virus got stopped dead in its tracks?

I confess that I lost track of VirusScan by the time I hit Windows 98. By then, Norton Utilities was part of Symantec's more comprehensive Norton SystemWorks package—which included, among other things, a virus scanner.

And there it was: Symantec quietly moved in on McAfee's territory by expanding its mission—to keep your computer running smoothly—to include security. The icing on the cake was an easy-to-navigate interface, perfect for people who weren't technically savvy but knew they had to keep their computer safe.

With broadband access and wireless networks becoming ever more prevalent among home users and small offices, it's hardly surprising that both companies have renewed their efforts on the consumer battleground. The result so far: both Symantec and Network Associates (McAfee's parent company) have released suites that bundle the best of their security product lines— amusingly enough, both suites are named Internet Security.

Both programs are easy enough to install, with the usual options for typical, custom, or complete installations. I have to give extra points to Symantec, which easily glided around an existing installation of the same version of Norton AntiVirus; McAfee Internet Security, confronted with an existing installation of VirusScan—a more current one, at that!—wouldn't let me deselect the VirusScan option. Since there was no reassurance that my current setup would remain unmolested, I backed out of the setup program, uninstalled VirusScan, reinstalled Internet Security (which now let me deselect the VirusScan option), and then went back and installed the latest VirusScan. Difficult? Hardly. A pointless irritation? You betcha.

After installation, both suites collected everything into an easily accessible control panel. Another point for Symantec: on one system I was already running SystemWorks, and I ended up with one combined control panel that was complete without being overwhelming. (I admit that it's not really a fair test since I wasn't integrating two suites on the McAfee side, but I have to give Symantec credit for pulling together the two package's nine titles and their assorted programs so well.)

Beyond that, there are quite a few similarities between the two packages. Norton AntiVirus and McAfee VirusScan both run silently in the background, with icons in the system tray for easy access. Both catch virus-infected files while you work, including e-mail menaces like Klez and malicious scripts. As an extra precaution, Norton AntiVirus also scans outgoing e-mail.

The two firewall programs are also similar to each other; both have basic presets (McAfee Firewall has three presets, Norton Personal Firewall four) which work well enough on their own, but in either case you'd do well to spend a few extra minutes tweaking the settings to exactly what your system needs and how the program interacts with your software. For instance, if you're using an 802.11b network you'll want to make sure the firewall won't block legitimate traffic from your other computers and keep unauthorized users out. Most important, you'll want to learn how each firewall deals with installed software accessing the Internet and blocking Trojan horses.

In fact, that approach neatly sums up the best way to approach both packages. They're both designed to be user-friendly, and do a fairly good job of it (though I'm biased toward Symantec's products). To that end, both boast the ability to get everything up and running in short order, allowing you to work while the software does its thing and you forget about what's going on under the hood. While this is certainly possible, it's to your advantage to spend a little time going over each program's settings and adjusting everything to your liking.

One of the best examples of this is Norton Spam Alert. Like Personal Firewall, it has four default settings (Off, Low, Medium, and High) that you can adjust based on how much spam you usually get. Unlike what you'd think, Spam Alert doesn't delete spam; instead, it identifies it in your inbox by adding a "Spam Alert" prefix to the message's subject line. It's a nice balance, because it makes it easier to filter (or at least) spot spam without running the risk of losing useful e-mail. I ended up with a handful of legitimate messages (usually e-mail newsletters) tagged as spam, so for the first few days I customized Spam Alert's filters to let certain subjects and senders pass through. In just a few days, Spam Alert was correctly tagging about 75% of my incoming spam and making very few mistakes—no more than one or two a day, which is sure to drop as more exceptions are entered. (Network Associates has a similar application, SpamKiller, but it's not part of the Internet Security suite and I was unable to get my hands on it before press time.)

Continuing the trend of similar functionality, Both suites can block popups, banner ads and Web bugs. They also provide privacy protection. Most apparent is the cookie control. Like Spam Alert, it works best if you sacrifice a little time and convenience at first and train the cookie-killer to ignore beneficial cookies (the most common being personalization and shopping-cart cookies) and kill invasive ones (advertisers' cookies that follow you around and report your surfing habits). Both also include personal information protection, which prevent you from transmitting selected information (such as credit card numbers, your address, or your e-mail address) through e-mail or the Web.

Symantec and Network Associates have succeeded in making two suites that are so similar you might wonder how you could ever choose between them. Using both extensively, I couldn't come up with a clear winner either. If you already have a Symantec or McAfee product you're happy with, you might consider sticking with the brand you know; if anything, the user interface integration makes things a bit easier.

But after spending some time looking for significant differences I found quite a few that were subtle but important; enough that I don't think I could list them all here. I spent some time looking for the more significant differences and I found a few that stood out. True to its roots, McAfee VirusScan offers more comprehensive configuration options than Norton AntiVirus, but I found that Symantec's programs do a better job overall of explaining what different options do and how to set them. McAfee Internet Security provides for separate configurations for different users, whereas Symantec restricts such finessing to its Parental Control.

But there was one area where I was hoping to find a difference and I didn't. There's no function for saving all your presets. If you ever have to wipe your system clean and start all over again, you'll have to tweak every setting and retrain the programs all over again. If that's not enough to make you wince, consider that McAfee Internet Security has an option for storing your Web site passwords. How likely are you to use it when you can't easily back them up? Maybe there is a down side to both programs being so similar after all.

Originally appeared in The Computer Paper (January 2003)
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