Norton Mobile Security: Excellence with a Price

Symantec is a powerhouse in the world of PC security, and the company's Norton Mobile Security for Android, also known as Norton Security and Antivirus, is no slouch, with more than 10 million installs from Google Play. The Norton app doesn't offer the most features of any Android security app, but it has excellent malware detection and a couple of unique, useful tools, even in the free version.

Norton Mobile Security goes for a clean, accessible look, but its system-performance impact is heavy, and its premium features are expensive. Norton also has stand-alone app locker and password manager apps, both of which are free. When combined with those, Norton Mobile Security is a recommended product, especially for users with more than one device to protect.

Costs and What's Covered

Norton Mobile Security has stuck with the common freemium model, granting users a limited feature set at no cost and charging for the fully featured, premium version.

The yearly cost of that premium option has dropped $5, from $29.99 to $24.99, since we reviewed the app last year. This is still $10 more expensive than most other premium Android security apps. However, the single license covers up to 10 devices, and discounts are often available: At the time of this review, Norton was offering $10 off.

What Norton's call blocker lacks in options, it makes up for in effectiveness.

Norton also offers a full Mac and Windows antivirus suite, which can be purchased with licenses that apply to Android as well. Norton Security Deluxe covers five devices for $89.99 per year, and Norton Security Premium covers 10 devices for $109.99. They were discounted by $40 and $50, respectively, at the time of this review.

Norton has a number of add-on apps available in Google Play. Three of them (Norton App Lock, the Norton Identity Safe password manager and the Norton Clean optimizer) are free.

These apps can all be used without Norton Mobile Security, and, in fact, only Norton App Lock is accessible within the core app. And they all share the same design language and interface, so once you are comfortable with one, the rest will feel familiar. It would be nice to see Norton get these apps working more cohesively together, as competitors like Avast have managed to do.

MORE: Best Android Antivirus Software

Norton does have one final app, Norton Wi-Fi Privacy Secure VPN, which provides users with VPN connections on their smartphones for $29.99 a year. Unless the integration or Norton styling are important to you, there are more-affordable options with comparable feature sets available, including the free, basic CyberGhost VPN plan we reviewed in Best VPN Services and Apps.

Malware Protection

Norton continues to offer a fairly minimal, but effective set of anti-malware features. The app has notably done away with the concept of a quick or a full scan, and merely presents you with the option to Scan Now. The user can select in the settings whether they wish to include the contents of their SD card in the scan.

Norton App Advisor remains a real differentiator from competing security apps.

A beta feature available during this review was the ability to include preinstalled apps in the scan as well. Scans typically took about 10 seconds to complete if opting for just the third-party apps, and closer to 25 seconds when including the SD card and preinstalled apps.

Users can choose to schedule scans daily, weekly or monthly, but there's no option to get more granular about scheduling.

During web browsing, Norton keeps you protected from potential phishing sites and will work with Chrome, the Android standard browser, Firefox, Opera, the Samsung standard browser and UC Browser. This feature functioned flawlessly in our testing, blocking known phishing sites in both Chrome and the Samsung standard browser.

Malware Performance

Norton Mobile Security got a perfect record in German independent lab AV-TEST's most recent evaluations of Android security products, conducted in September 2017. The app detected 100 percent of the 3,016 "real-time" malware threats used, as well as 100 percent of the 2,917 samples that had been collected in the previous four weeks.

These results bested the average detection rates of 95.7 of real-time and 98.4 percent of recently discovered threats among the 21 Android security products AV-TEST examined. Among the four other Android antivirus apps we reviewed that submit to AV-TEST, Bitdefender Mobile Security and CM Security Master matched Norton's 100/100 percent detection rate, followed by Avast Mobile Security (99.8/100 percent) and PSafe DFNDR (99.7/100 percent).

MORE: Best PC Antivirus Software

Some antivirus apps fluctuate in their lab-test detection rates, but not Norton Mobile Security. In bimonthly AV-TEST evaluations over the past three years, Norton has almost always scored 100/100 percent, with only occasional dips to 99.7 or 99.8 percent. Only Bitdefender Mobile Security has a better track record.

Lookout Security & Antivirus is the lone antivirus app we tested that is not currently submitted to AV-TEST for evaluation.

Free Security Features and Tools

Anti-Theft
Norton's Anti-Theft features cover all of the most important functions that most users will be looking for. Notably, the anti-theft features appear to have sped up since we last reviewed the app.

One notable update is the ability to automatically lock your device if the SIM card is removed, an obvious move for a potential smartphone thief. Commands are still issued either via the Norton web portal, which is My.Norton.com/MobileSecurity, or via SMS.

For SMS commands, you set a passcode that becomes part of every command, allowing you to send commands to your device from any cellphone. SMS commands include Lock, Locate, Scream and Wipe.

I didn't conduct a full wipe, but the rest of the SMS functions worked exactly as expected. Lock disabled the device; Locate provided the device's coordinates, and Scream triggered an increasingly louder siren. (Norton representatives told us that SMS commands can't be hidden in Android 4.0.3 or later. The user should first send the Lock command to stop anyone else from seeing the SMS passcode.)

MORE: Mobile Security Guide: Everything You Need to Know

When using the web portal, you gain two additional options: Lost mode and Sneak Peek. You'll also get the ability to add a custom message that will display on the device when you issue the Lock command or put the phone into Lost mode. Locate functionality is, naturally, more robust in the web portal, where you also get to view the current location of your device and its location history.

Norton App Lock allows you to add an additional layer of security to your device.

Lost mode triggers the Lock, Locate, Scream and Sneak Peek commands all at once. Sneak Peek captures an image from the front-facing camera of the device, either manually when the user hits Take Photo in the web portal, or whenever activity is detected after the Lock or Lost command has been issued. Sneak Peek doesn't alert the phone's current holder that a photo is being taken or save any of the photos to the device; the last 10 images are uploaded and saved to your Norton web portal.

While the feature set remains largely unchanged from our last review, we were impressed with the speed with which the commands are now executed. Last year, we saw a 5-10 second delay; this year, some commands were complete in a second, with even Sneak Peek photos coming through on the web portal in less than 5 seconds. The web portal itself could still use a redesign, but it's straightforward and effective, so this is purely an aesthetic complaint.

Contact Backup
For Android users who don't want to rely on Google alone to back up their contacts, this feature has the ability to trigger a backup from your device or from the Norton web portal. The initial backup happened automatically during setup, and users can opt to have an updated backup performed daily, weekly or monthly.

Once your contacts are backed up, you can view or search them from the web portal. The display and organization aren't ideal, but you can download your contacts as a CSV file in the event of catastrophe.

Call and SMS Blocker
Norton Mobile Security has a minimal call-blocking feature. It's just a block list and block history, plus the ability to block all unknown callers, specific numbers from your call log, a number from your contacts or any phone number.

This isn't as flexible as some of the other Android security apps, but what Norton's call blocker lacks in options, it makes up for in effectiveness. I didn't have a single blocked call come through in testing. Not all the Android antivirus apps we tested were so thorough.

Safe Search
If you want more pre-emptive safety in your web surfing, Norton's Safe Search, powered by Ask.com, is a potentially useful tool. The feature relies on data from Norton's Safe Web technology to identify whether a site is considered safe. You'll see either an OK in a green box or a Norton logo identifying sites that can be trusted.

Our main complaint with this feature is simply the number of ads displayed in the search results. There are four ads displayed in a box at the top of the search-results page and four additional ads in a box at the bottom of the results page, with 10 organic search results in the middle and just a small "Ads" in grey text at the top right corner of each ad box to call them out as such.

Considering that the audience that is likely to lean on such a feature may not be the most web-savvy, this feels a little predatory. However, it is a free feature and it stands to reason that Norton will try to profit from the free version of the app in some way.

Premium Security Features and Tools

App Advisor
This feature was one of our favorites when reviewing Norton Mobile Security last year, and it remains a real differentiator from competing security apps for Norton. There are two distinct pieces to the feature: App Advisor gives you information on your currently installed apps, while the separate App Advisor for Google Play scans and provides recommendation for apps as you view them in Google Play.

Last year, we had some complaints regarding the App Advisor functionality, as it seemed to be a bit aggressive in its categorization of certain apps, but Norton appears to have addressed these problems. Apps are still put into three distinct risk categories (High/Medium/No), but the ratings are now applicable only to individual criteria, and the program no longer paints apps with a broad brush.

For example, an app such as Sky Map shows up in App Advisor as a high risk for background battery usage, but is otherwise categorized as safe and prominently displayed as such. These changes make the new incarnation of App Advisor much more valuable, as you're better able to discern what are real threats and what are simply aspects of an app to watch out for.

While the threat of downloading malware-infected apps from within Google Play can be overblown, it is nonetheless a concern. The specialized App Advisor for Google Play provides a convenient and seamless way to defend yourself.

Users can navigate Google Play as they normally would, and when an app is viewed, a small pop-up appears at the bottom of the screen after about 2-3 seconds, indicating whether the app is deemed to be safe. While we still encountered some apps that popped up with "No Info," this was considerably less common than last year.

Privacy Report
This functionality has been broken out from App Advisor to some degree this year, with a Privacy Report score appearing on the main screen based on your installed apps. Privacy Report monitors whether your apps are sharing any of your personal data, and, if they are, Norton will try to indicate where that data is being sent.

This seems like a good re-prioritization of purpose. Excessive cellular-data usage is a potential concern for some, but it isn't as critical as a breach of personal data, and separating the two makes sense.

I think there are still some kinks to work out with Privacy Report, as the My Verizon app caused all of the report's red flags to go up. While I understand that this app has my personal and smartphone information, that's akin to flagging my banking app for having my banking information.

Link Guard
Link Guard is a new feature, and a welcome pre-emptive defense against the all-too-common malicious links sent via email or SMS.

Link Guard analyzes each web link you receive, similar to what users see with App Advisor in Google Play. It then either indicates that the link is safe or produces a warning. Be aware that you need to pair your default browser with Link Guard in settings to enable this feature.

Add-On Apps

Norton App Lock
Norton App Lock allows you to add an additional layer of security to your device, or if you prefer not to put a general lock on your device, you can restrict access to specific apps. The free app is stand-alone, but matches the look and user interface of the core Norton app and is accessible from within the core app.

When you first set up App Lock, you need to create a pattern or four-digit PIN. After doing so, you can use your fingerprint to unlock apps if your device supports that functionality, a much-needed upgrade from last year.

Norton makes recommendations regarding which apps it believes you might want to lock. Just tap the overflow button in the upper-right corner and select Lock Recommended Apps to lock them all. You can also scroll through apps and tap those that you would like to lock.

Norton Identity Safe
Another stand-alone offering from Norton, Norton Identity Safe is a free password manager and "cloud-based vault." It safely stores your critical data, such as addresses, credit cards and banking information. Once you have entered this data into the app and enabled the accessibility setting for Identity Safe, it can then autofill this secure data when necessary, with your approval.

You can opt to use the browser built into Identity Safe, but thankfully, it now works outside of the app as well. I was able to take advantage of it when logging into services in Chrome.

Identity Safe is the one piece of Norton's mobile suite that stands apart from the rest, with a different user interface and design. That's not exactly a problem, but it does seem oddly out of place when you've become accustomed to the look and feel of the rest of Norton's apps.

System Impact

To evaluate the impact of running Norton Mobile Security, I ran multiple tests using the Geekbench 4 Android benchmarking tool on our Samsung Galaxy S8 running Android 7.0 Nougat.

Following installation of the app, the phone's performance scored 5.35 percent lower than its baseline average on the Geekbench 4 test. During a full scan, it scored 2.35 percent below its baseline performance.

These results put Norton Mobile Security in last place for performance impact with the app installed and in third place for performance during a malware scan. While Norton still takes its toll on your system, this was far better than what we saw last year and is not likely to be noticeable during daily tasks for most users.

Setup and Support

Downloading Norton Mobile Security from Google Play was quick, with installation of the core app, including the initial scan, completing in approximately 90 seconds. You have to create an  account at My.Norton.com/MobileSecurity; I would have preferred that the entire process happen in-app. But given that you'll have to familiarize yourself with the web portal for the anti-theft features anyway, this seems like a reasonable procedure.

Norton support is largely built around the Norton Community site at community.norton.com, which has active forums and a blog to help answer your questions. If you have a specific question, there is an online chat feature.

Norton also offers 24/7 telephone support, but you'll have to fill out an online form describing your issue before you are entered into the queue for online chat. Norton's site indicates that you receive faster assistance if you supply this information prior to telephone chat as well.

Interface

I was impressed with the clean, minimal design of Norton Mobile Security last year, so I was pleased to see that little had changed this year.

MORE: What is Smartphone Encryption and Why Should You Care?

While a few of the features, such as App Advisor, had some minor visual tweaks, the majority remained identical. Most importantly, it appears that with those that underwent changes, the intent was just to make them a little more visually appealing while retaining the same simple interface and design language.

Bottom Line

Norton turned a corner with its app last year, with a Material Design refresh and the addition of the truly unique App Advisor for Google Play. The app maker didn't rest on its laurels and has made some changes to App Advisor that keep the feature relevant. We felt that many competing apps' privacy features fell down this year by ignoring permissions-management changes in Android 6.0 Marshmallow and later.

While Norton Mobile Security's premium version remains pricey, at $24.99 a year, it is at least moving in the right direction by getting cheaper and can be had for $14.99 for the first year at the time of this writing. It's also worth remembering that the yearly license can cover up to 10 devices, something not offered by other Android antivirus manufacturers. If you can make use of it on even a couple of phones or tablets, the price quickly becomes palatable.

An even better deal is Norton Mobile Security's free version. When you add on the free password manager and app locker, it rivals the feature lineup of Avast Mobile Security or CM Security Master, but with much better malware protection.

Bitdefender Mobile Security retains our top recommendation, due to slightly better malware detection, a cheaper paid price and a lighter system impact. But if you want a clean and simple antivirus app with pleasing visuals and a reliable feature set, Norton Mobile Security remains one of the best options on the market.

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