In promoting Windows Vista, Microsoft (MSFT) says its new operating system will help you have "a PC protected from viruses, worms, [and] spyware." Alas, this statement is only partly true. Despite security improvements, Vista users, like those with Windows XP, need to run additional software to keep their PCs healthy and safe.
All operating systems—yes, even Apple's (AAPL) Mac OS X—have vulnerabilities. Moreover, the nature of the threat keeps changing. Instead of coming from maladjusted kids trying to make a point, security experts believe that most attacks these days are financially motivated efforts to steal data or take control of machines. And the old classification of threats as spyware, viruses, or worms has lost meaning as computer attacks have become multifaceted.
One consequence is that it no longer makes much sense to think in terms of a firewall to stop network intrusions, antispyware software to stop installations of nefarious software, and virus protection to block worms and viruses. Today's blended threats call for a more comprehensive approach.
Go for Integration
Vista comes with only some of the necessary tools. The major addition in Vista is Windows Defender, an antispyware program with no antivirus features. And contrary to what I wrote in a Jan. 22 column based on information Microsoft provided, the Vista firewall is not configured to stop so-called Trojan horses—unauthorized programs that transmit information from your PC. In fact, it's almost impossible for average users to set up the firewall to do that.
I think your best bet, whether you're using Windows Vista or XP, is an integrated package that combines spyware and virus protection with a firewall that watches both inbound and outbound network traffic. (Macs come with a decent firewall and have not been targeted by spyware, so users can get by with just an antivirus product.)
Security software companies such as firewall maker Zone Labs and spyware specialist Webroot Software are scrambling to assemble integrated suites, but so far their efforts have felt either stapled together or incomplete. The latest version of Webroot's Spy Sweeper, for example, adds virus protection but lacks a firewall.
The bigger players—Symantec (SYMC), McAfee, and a newcomer to this field, Microsoft—offer users a much better experience. I tried Symantec's Norton Internet Security 2007 ($70), McAfee Internet Security Suite 2007 ($50), and Microsoft OneCare ($50). All run on Vista or XP, include a year of updates, and can be used on up to three computers.
In my tests, Norton emerged as the winner. It was the best at doing its job unobtrusively. It was the only one that didn't pop up to ask obvious questions, such as whether a Web browser should be allowed to access the Internet. Nor did it brag, like a cat dragging in a dead bird, about the threats it had stopped. It has also corrected a problem in earlier versions of the Norton firewall, which blocked a lot of safe uses. McAfee also did a fine job, but it made a lot more noise in the process.
Be Sure About Updates
OneCare goes further than either of the others, adding data backup and performance tune-ups. (Norton 360, currently in a testing phase, will add similar features, as will the $70 McAfee Total Protection.) I found OneCare's performance and ease of use about equal to McAfee's, but I'm a bit nervous buying protection from the company that created the problems.
Test labs rate these programs based mainly on how quickly they respond to new threats. I'm not convinced this is important, since at any given time the newest threats account for only a tiny fraction of attacks. The important thing is to install the software, maintain the annual subscription, and make sure the program updates itself automatically.