Norton Security (2018) Review: Great Protection, Limited Features

The Norton Security lineup of antivirus programs offers some of the best malware protection around, with not too much impact on system performance during scans.

But while Norton's most expensive program, Norton Security Premium, includes backup software and 25GB of online storage, and all of its programs prompt you to add Norton's free password manager, the entire Norton line lacks the extras we've com e to appreciate in other antivirus suites, such as file encryption, file shredding or a secure web browser.

To get those items, we recommend you choose Kaspersky's higher-end programs; to get most of them at a lower price, try Bitdefender Antivirus Plus. But if you just want an excellent antivirus program, Norton is their match.

Costs and What's Covered

Despite lacking a free antivirus product, Norton has four levels of paid malware protection that start with Norton AntiVirus Basic (listed at $50 per year for a single PC), which includes defenses against spam, phishing attempts and the latest ransomware exploits.

AntiVirus Basic is only for Windows, but it includes a tune-up utility and, as a separate download, the Norton Identity Safe password manager, two features more often encountered in more expensive antivirus suites. Alas, customer support via phone and email for Norton AntiVirus Basic are limited to setup and billing problems.

To get protection for Macs and mobile devices, as well as full customer support, you'll need to jump up to Norton Security Standard ($70 per year for a single device). This package also adds a two-way firewall and Norton's money-back guarantee to keep your device malware-free (after you get customer support involved).

Norton Security Deluxe covers up to five devices and lets you manage them all at once with the company's My Norton online portal. It costs $90 per year. (Three-device packages can be found online for a bit less.)

Norton Security Premium is at the top of the heap, with backup software for both online and local drives, as well as 25GB of cloud storage and parental controls. Security Premium costs $110 per year for up to 10 computers. Steep discounts for Norton antivirus products can often be found online, at third-party retailers and on the Norton site itself.

While Norton now owns a virtual private network provider and offers a mobile VPN product (WiFi Privacy, listed as starting at $50 per year), there's no VPN client or service included in any Norton Security product. You can get discounted bundles of Norton Security and WiFi Privacy, however.

Norton does not offer anything like Bitdefender's $120 Family Pack license, which covers an unlimited number of user devices. To cover more than 10 devices, the only game in Norton's town is the $260 Core router, which includes a one-year unlimited license for an antivirus suite very similar to Norton Security Premium.

Each member of the Norton antivirus family can run on any Windows machine running Windows XP (with Service Pack 3) and later. Norton Security Standard, Deluxe and Premium include licenses for Norton's Mac antivirus software (compatible with OS X 10.11 El Capitan and later), Norton Mobile Security for Android (4.03 Ice Cream Sandwich and later) and Norton Mobile Security for iPhones or iPads (iOS 9 or later). However, users should know that, like all iOS security apps, the last offers no antivirus protection.

If you're running a 64-bit version of Windows Vista or later, your Norton product will be a 64-bit native application that can run faster with less overhead on the latest hardware. The Mac product remains 32-bit.

Unlike some other antivirus vendors, Norton no longer brands its products with model-year indicators. There's no "Norton Security 2018," but Norton customers can rest assured that they'll get the latest versions of their Norton products as long as their subscriptions continue.

Antivirus Protection

Like other antivirus brands, Norton has three overlapping defensive layers, starting with traditional signature matching that compares new software to a database of known malware characteristics. This is augmented by heuristic analysis, which monitors the behavior and reads the code of new software to spot unknown malware before damage is done.

These are topped off with analysis of new samples sent up to Norton's cloud servers from the company's 50 million customer machines. If anything is deemed potentially dangerous, a new signature goes out with the next batch of signature updates, which are pushed out several times a day. You can opt out of Norton's sample-collection program at any time and still receive signature updates.

Norton provides browser extensions for Microsoft Internet Explorer, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox. The extensions check the destination headers for encrypted web packets for any sign of contact with known malicious websites.

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Norton doesn't offer a "game mode" per se, but it can be set to go into Silent Mode, which reduces signature updates and user notifications whenever another program uses the full screen and 3D graphics, as a game or movie would. It does something similar when you power up a PC after a long period of inactivity, postponing all but the most vital updates and letting you catch up on email and social obligations without slowdowns or interruptions.

Antivirus Performance

All four Norton Windows antivirus products use the same detection engine to scan for and eradicate malware. In real-world tests, they performed nearly perfectly and stand among the best antivirus programs.

In the latest two-month rounds of evaluations conducted by German independent lab AV-TEST, Norton Security scored perfect 100-percent results across the board against both known widespread malware and unknown zero-day malware on Windows 10 in September and October 2017. It did just as well on Windows 7 in July and August 2017.

Among the 20-odd other antivirus brands tested, only Bitdefender and Kaspersky Lab matched Norton's spotless performance on both Windows versions. Norton also had only two false positives (benign software mistakenly flagged as malware) in both rounds, although Kaspersky outdid it, with just one. By contrast, Bitdefender had a total of 13 false positives.

According to AV-TEST, Norton Security scored perfect 100-percent results across the board against both known widespread malware and unknown zero-day malware.

A different testing lab, AV-Comparatives in Austria, gave Norton Security pretty impressive marks. In August 2017, Norton caught and neutralized 100 percent of "real-world" web-based malware but stopped only 99.4 percent in September and 99.7 in October.

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To be fair, all of the malware Norton missed was "user dependent" and needed to fool the user to infect a machine, but Bitdefender and Panda got it all. Norton scored 12 false positives over all three months.

Security and Privacy

Regardless of which Norton antivirus product you get, you'll have protection against spyware, phishing emails and ransomware. Norton recently added the ability to stop nefarious changes to the system's Registry file, as well as an enhanced exploit blocker to stop potentially unwanted apps from being installed.

The Norton firewall, available with Norton Security Standard and up, is easy to adjust and set rules for. You can even create network policies to choose between the fastest or the cheapest method of getting online.

The Norton Family program ($50 per year as a stand-alone) is included with Norton Security Premium for PCs, but not Macs. You can use Norton Family to block web usage based on time, review what kids have been watching online, filter out offensive material and lock all covered devices for a media-free dinnertime or family meeting.

However, parental controls usually come with the intermediate product in other antivirus suites. It's unusual that Norton would reserve this feature for its priciest tier.

Norton lacks some commonplace tools, such as a local network scanner, a file shredder, file-encryption software and a hardened browser for online banking or shopping.

If you've got a Windows machine that's too infested with malware to run properly, you can download the Norton Bootable Recovery Tool and restart the machine from a USB flash drive or DVD. But before you do, Norton recommends two lighter-footed approaches to dealing with tough malware: its Security Scan and Power Eraser tools, both of which require installing small downloadable files.

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Nevertheless, Norton's products lack many of the useful extras we've come to expect from antivirus suites. They lack Bitdefender and Kaspersky's webcam protection and ESET's firmware shield. They also do without more commonplace tools, such as a file shredder, file-encryption software, a hardened browser for online banking or shopping, or a local network scanner to ferret out security weaknesses on connected devices.

Performance and System Impact

Norton antivirus software was once notorious for slowing computers to a crawl during malware scans. That problem has been resolved, and Norton's system-performance impact now falls on the light end of the spectrum.

We installed Norton Security Premium on an Asus X555LA notebook running the Windows 10 Creators Update. The notebook had an Intel Core i3-5005U processor, 6GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive containing 36GB of assorted files.

To measure system performance, we used our custom OpenOffice-based benchmark test, which matches 20,000 names and addresses on a spreadsheet. The task takes longer to complete when a processor is under a heavier load.

Before we loaded the Norton software, the OpenOffice matching task took 7 minutes and 2 seconds to complete. This grew by 11 seconds, or 2.6 percent, to 7:13 after we installed Norton Security Premium. This small passive performance impact is pretty good, and it's doubtful you'd notice it, particularly when compared to Trend Micro Maximum Security's increase of 23 percent for the same test.

During a full system scan, our OpenOffice task's completion time dropped to 9:09, indicating a 30 percent slowdown. That puts Norton Security right in the middle of the six antivirus brands we recently reviewed and easily beats Trend Micro Maximum Security's whopping 63 percent full-scan system impact.

During a Norton quick scan, the OpenOffice results were 7:39, or 8.8 percent slower than the baseline. This was one of the smallest quick-scan-time slowdowns we saw.

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The trade-off for this relatively light touch is that Norton Security takes a long time to scan a hard drive. Full scans took an average of 1 hour, 9 minutes and 40 seconds, and quick scans took an average of 3 minutes and 21 seconds.

You can speed things up by using the Norton Insight feature to whitelist known trustworthy files and limit scans to the most dangerous files. After we did so, Norton Security performed a modified full scan in 21 minutes and 24 seconds.

User Interface

With few changes over the past several years, Norton's interface continues to be functional and bright. When things are safe, the front page bears a green check mark; that degrades to a red "X" when there's a threat.

Quick-glance items show whether everything is up-to-date, when the last scan occurred and a link for a quick scan.

Below those are the major protection categories (Security, Identity, Backup and Performance) as well as More Norton, which takes you to the online portal. The top row of the main screen has links for Settings and Help, plus a search bar. At the bottom is a reminder of how many days remain in your subscription and a link for renewal.

Security is the default home page and lets you start a scan (full, quick or custom), manually update the malware definitions and check the logs. The option to schedule scans is hidden in the Custom Scan section.

Scan options include tapping into Power Eraser and seeing a thorough diagnostic report. An Advanced section lets you choose protection details, from the firewall to email protection.

Norton's interface continues to be functional and bright.

Identity covers Safe Web, anti-phishing protection, the Identity Safe password manager and configuration of the Norton Toolbar. Backup lets you archive files and folders to an external hard drive or to your Norton online storage allotment.

Automatic backups can run weekly, monthly or when the system is idle; daily scheduled backups are hidden inside the Weekly Scan option. The software now can save older versions of files as part of a journaling system, and such files don't count toward your 25GB online-storage limit.

The Settings link opens to major categories, including Antivirus, Antispam and Backup settings. The right lists specifics, such as Identity Safe and Silent Mode. Right-click on Norton's taskbar icon, and you'll be able to do anything from checking for a new version to updating the malware signatures.

Installation and Support

Norton's installation starts with a 1.1MB dropper file that leads to a 175MB download. Once I typed in the long product key correctly (on the third try), the installation got going.

The program asks if you want to participate in the data-collection effort at Norton, called Community Watch. You can opt out later in the Settings section if you miss it.

If you get Norton AntiVirus Basic, your tech-support calls are limited to installation issues. Everything else needs to be done through the forums, FAQs, tips and videos. Security Standard, Deluxe and Premium customers get full 24/7 support via email, phone or chat.

Bottom Line

Norton Security offers excellent protection from malware, with at most a moderate impact on system performance. If you're looking purely to shield your system from attack, you couldn't do better.  

However, none of the Norton products offer the wide range of extra features and tools that have become common in antivirus software. If you want a hardened browser, a file shredder,  a network scanner or webcam protection, check out Kaspersky's or Bitdefender's lines of antivirus programs. 

Credit: Tom's Guide

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