Norton 2017

Norton's lineup of consumer Windows antivirus products combines top-notch malware detection with, in the most expensive product, backup software and 25GB of online storage. The software, however, saps system performance greatly during scans, and even the priciest Norton product lacks some of the creature comforts we've come to take for granted in high-end security suites, such as encryption and file shredding.

From the entry-level AntiVirus Basic through Norton Security Standard, Norton Security Deluxe and Norton Security Premium, Norton tries to give you the freedom to choose which features you need to protect a single computer or a whole digital family.But its pricing scheme is inflexible, forcing users with multiple devices or platforms to buy features they might not need.

We can't fault Norton's malware protection, which is excellent. But you can get many more useful features with comparably priced products from Bitdefender, Kaspersky or Trend Micro.

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Costs and What's Covered

All four Norton programs use the same underlying Windows malware scanning technology and software interface, but they form an inverted pyramid of features, cost and number of systems each program covers. Norton Security Standard, Deluxe and Premium also include licenses for Norton's Mac antivirus software, which we've reviewed separately.

Graphic: N. Bush/Tom's GuideGraphic: N. Bush/Tom's Guide
The $40 entry-level Norton AntiVirus Basic protects a single PC against malware. You'll get a password manager and extensions for web browsers, but AntiVirus Basic doesn't provide technical support except for activation, billing and subscription problems. In a crisis, you'll be on your own.

For $60, Norton Security Standard covers a single PC or Mac. It adds a two-way firewall to augment the native Windows one, plus a home network scanner. You also get 24/7 support and a money-back guarantee if the software fails to remove a threat.

The next step up is Norton Security Deluxe, which mirrors the Standard product's protection but covers five PCs, Macs or Android or iOS phones and tablets and gives you an online Norton account to manage them all. It costs $80. (We reviewed Norton Mobile Security separately.)

At the top of the heap is Norton's $90 Security Premium, which includes parental controls and automatic-backup software and covers up to 10 devices. You also get 25GB of encrypted online space to store your most precious items. There's no unlimited plan for large families or someone with a lot of devices.

All of Norton products can work with Windows XP (with Service Pack 3) through Windows 10. Macs are limited to the three latest versions of their OS (OS X 10.10 Yosemite through macOS 10.12 Sierra). You'll need Android version 4 or newer or iOS 8.0 or newer to cover your phone or tablet.

Antivirus Protection

Norton's Windows malware protection is based on traditional malware signature matching, in which software is checked against a database of known malware. To catch unknown malware, Norton adds a level of heuristic monitoring that watches the behavior and inspects the code of new programs.

If suspicious items are found, they get uploaded to the Symantec Online Network for Advanced Response (SONAR) lab for examination. (You can opt out of this automatic file-collection program.) SONAR creates a new signature for each piece of malware and distributes the signature to 65 million Norton users worldwide.

Norton software also checks on website reputations and includes intrusion alerts. But it's got fewer extra protections than some rival antivirus makers. There's no automatic blocking of applications on USB thumb drives, no virtual keyboard to defeat keylogging malware, no shielded folder to protect cherished files from encrypting ransomware, no secure browser for online shopping or banking, and no dedicated webcam protection to prevent creeps from watching you.

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Antivirus Performance

Norton's ability to catch and kill malware was second to none, as determined in evaluations conducted by German independent lab AV-TEST, although it did register a few annoying false positives. Norton's protection was on a par with that provided by Bitdefender, Kaspersky and Trend Micro, although none are perfect.

In AV-TEST's Windows 10 evaluations in September and October of 2016, Norton Security's heuristic detection caught 100 percent of previously unseen "zero-day" malware in each month. The signature-based scanners did equally well against widespread, well-known malware in those months. However, there were four false positives in September and six in October, which was on a par with the industry average of five.

On Windows 8.1 in May and June of 2016, Norton had a similarly clean sweep, with 100-percent scores across the board. It had zero false positives in May, but two in June.

In AV-TEST's July-August 2016 rounds of Windows 7 tests, Norton stopped only 99.9 percent of widespread malware in July, but 100 percent in August. It stopped all zero-day malware, and had a single false positive over both months. These really are excellent results, and you can be assured that Norton will stop almost any attack upon your computer.

We often use results from a second independent lab, AV-Comparatives of Austria, in our antivirus reviews. However, Symantec stopped submitting Norton products to AV-Comparatives for testing in 2011.

Security and Privacy Features

All of Norton's products use the same underlying malware-scanning technology. As you move up the price scale from Norton AntiVirus Basic to Norton Security Standard, Norton Security Deluxe and finally Norton Security Premium, each tier adds features and services that the previous one lacked — but fewer overall than you'll find with other brands.

AntiVirus Basic has the basics: defenses against malware, spam and spyware, and extensions for popular browsers that check each website's reputation before pages load. It's also got a password manager, which is still uncommon for entry-level antivirus software. But there is no tech-support plan — you'll have to rely on online resources to figure out a solution if anything goes wrong.

Norton Security Standard adds 24/7 support, with technicians waiting on your phone call, email or online chat session. That tech support also guarantees a full product refund if Norton can't keep your system clean. (Unlike with McAfee's similar guarantee, you don't need to subscribe to auto-renewal to get this.)

Security Standard has a Mac option as well, but it covers only a single machine either way. (Most other brands' low-priced offerings can cover three to five PCs.) It has a flexible and deeply configurable two-way Windows firewall that allows exceptions for network printing and file transfers.

The features of Norton Security Deluxe are the same as Standard's, but the license extends to five devices and bundles in the premium versions of Norton Mobile Security for Android and iOS. You'll also get a Norton account so that you can manage all your devices' protection from a single web page.

The flagship Security Premium, which can be installed on up to 10 devices, adds Norton Family Premier parental controls and backup software; both, however, are Windows-only. Family Premier needs to be installed separately, but lets you restrict when kids are allowed to go online, and where they can go when they're there.

Meanwhile, Norton's backup program can save archives locally and includes 25GB of encrypted online storage for your most precious digital items. On the downside, you can't save material to DVDs.

Norton's Bootable Recovery Tool is a separate download and can restart a system in a secure Linux environment to perform an advanced scan. It works with DVDs or thumb drives, but it can't help a system with Microsoft Secure Boot enabled.

The overall scheme leaves several holes unfilled compared to Norton's more generous peers. We've already mentioned the lack of a virtual keyboard or a hardened browser, which we consider frontline security features.

Norton also falls short of the mark by not offering nonessential extras commonplace in other brands' premium products. There's no file encryptor, file shredder, vulnerability scanner or system optimizer. (Norton does have separate utilities for defragmenting disks, cleaning up old files and reducing boot-up time.) Nor is there any virtual private network service for computers, but Norton's Wi-Fi Privacy app protects an iPhone, iPad or Android system for $30 a year.

This lack of features offers little incentive for a user to choose a pricier Norton product over a less expensive one, other than to support more devices. In terms of pure protection, Norton Security Standard already includes everything a Windows user would need.

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Performance and System Impact

To gauge Norton Security Premium's impact on system performance, we used our OpenOffice-based performance test, which matches 20,000 names and addresses in a spreadsheet. Our test system was an Asus X555LA notebook running Windows 10 with 6GB of RAM, a 2-GHz Intel Core i3 processer and 36GB of data on a 500GB hard drive.

We compared how long the OpenOffice test took to complete its task during four different scenarios. First, to set a baseline, we ran it with no third-party antivirus software installed; then, after Norton Security Premium had been installed; then during full scans; and finally, during quick scans.

Overall, Norton slowed down the Asus quite a lot. With no software installed (but with Microsoft's obligatory Windows Defender running in the background), the OpenOffice test completed in 7 minutes and 1 second. After Security Premium was installed, the system ran through the same routine in 9:13. This amounts to a 31-percent decline in system performance, which is a strikingly large passive impact, particularly compared to Kaspersky Total Security's zero passive impact.

With the system going through a quick scan, the OpenOffice benchmark finished in 9:31, 36 percent longer than the baseline. With a full scan, the benchmark time rose to 11:34, a full 65 percent longer than without any third-party antivirus software installed.

You would notice such a performance hit, even during normal computer use. This is well off the pace set by ESET Smart Security Premium, which slowed down the same machine by 12 percent and 16 percent during a quick scan and a full scan, respectively.

It took Norton 55:32 to churn through its first full scan of 412,195 files, which declined to 18 minutes and 34 seconds (looking at 160,829 files) after its third scan. (Most antivirus products index all files on a system during the first pass.) It took 3:54 to run a quick scan of 8,159 files. Both completion times were within the normal range for our test machine.

Interface

Norton Security Premium's interface hasn't changed much since last year. The main screen's PC illustration bears a large green checkmark when the system is protected, and a red X when something's amiss. To the right, you can see when the system was last scanned and initiate a quick scan.

There are major categories for Security, Identity, Backup, Performance and a catch-all for More, which lets you widen the coverage to phones, tablets and other computers. If you click on Security, a line pops up for Scans, LiveUpdate, History and Advanced. At the bottom of the main screen is the number of days remaining in your coverage and a link to renew it.

There's a handy Quick Scan link front and center for the most pressing dangers. To start a Full Scan, you need to dig a little deeper with three clicks. You can run custom scans of any file or folder from the interface, or right-click on an item in File Explorer. Norton lets you schedule daily, weekly or monthly scans, but you can also just let the program scan while the machine is idle.

Setup and Installation

Installation involves running the product disk or going to the Norton website and downloading the software. The first download is a tiny 1MB beachhead installer, which asks you to consent to the software's license before the full installation begins. You can opt out of the company's automatic malware collection at this point, or do it post-installation in the Settings. 

The full installer does a quick update and then requires you to create an account. You'll need to prove you're not an automated bot by filling in a mix of numbers and letters, but that test requires a bit of scrolling to find.

Norton sets you up for auto-renewal when your subscription expires. This practice keeps you protected, but also keeps money flowing into Norton's coffers. It's easy to opt out of it in Settings. It took 17 minutes and 45 seconds to fully install Norton Security Premium over a home broadband connection. That's about three times as long as most other antivirus products have taken.

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Bottom Line

Norton's Security Premium effectively protects Windows PCs while including backup and parental controls and licenses for comparable Norton Mac, iOS and Android software. But it slowed down our system significantly, and it lacks many of the extra protections and comforts we've come to expect from a flagship security product.

If that's not worth the premium cost, there are the lower-priced Deluxe and Standard Security packages, as well as the bare-bones AntiVirus Basic program. But you can get the same excellent protection, and far many more useful features, with comparable programs from Kaspersky, Trend Micro and especially Bitdefender.

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