Symantec’s Norton 360 is probably the most well known security suite, not least because it comes installed on virtually every new PC. Pitched at novices not wanting the complexities of managing their computer’s safety, the package includes a personal firewall, phishing protection and of course the ability to detect and remove viruses. Separating the suite from Norton Internet Security is the inclusion of file backup and PC maintenance capabilities. Additional functions include parental controls and e-mail spam filtering, the former of which is available as an extension.

Competing with the likes of McAfee Total Protection, Kaspersky Internet Security 2009 and Webroot Essentials Internet Security, Norton 360 v3.0 (£59/$79) is compatible with both 32-bit editions of Windows XP and Vista. One copy of Norton 360 can be used on up to three different machines, so you could protect all your family PCs in one package, rather than having to buy three separate copies (licences). More good news for existing Norton 360 v2.0 users is that they can upgrade their existing package for free. But, the upgrade is only available providing you have an existing, working subscription. It doesn’t matter how much time is left on the subscription though. If the subscription has expired, the software upgrade will not work, and you will be left unprotected.

New features
The third version sports an array of fixes, improvements and new features, many of which follow on from the design of other Norton 2009 packages. The biggest enhancement is that Norton 360 is now faster and runs with light performance, using significantly fewer system resources compared to previous versions. Just like the Norton 2009 packages, Norton 360 uses Pulse Update which provides continuous, non-stop protection against new threats automatically during your subscription period. It checks in for updates every 5 to 15 minutes, but without bothering you to do so.

Norton Insight scans only those files that are at risk to save time with faster, fewer, and shorter scans, and Silent Mode suspends the alerts and updates to prevent interrupting or slowing games and movies. Real-Time SONAR (Symantec Online Network for Advanced Response) Technology detects emerging viruses without the need for traditional updates or signature-based definitions, Wireless Network Security automatically connects, conceals, and secures your PC on public Wi-Fi networks, and Smart Startup Manager turns off unnecessary programs to accelerate PC startup time. You’ll also appreciate the Norton Drive feature which queues up important files to be backed up whenever your computer is idle, so backups do not get in the way of your computing experience, along with the ability to monitor overall system CPU usage along with Norton-specific CPU usage and memory usage.

Symantec hasn’t forgotten about the most important feature, either – security. The improved Norton Identity Safe (installs a toolbar into your browser) helps to protect your identity when you buy, bank, and browse online, and the improved Password Manager automatically detects, stores, and secures logins and passwords so you can have highly secure passwords without ever having to remember them again. A brand new feature is Norton Safe Web, which identifies unsafe Web sites and suspicious sellers so you can browse and shop with a little more confidence. Of course, commonsense is still the best protection against online threats. Previously, spam filtering and parental control were relegated to an optional add-on pack, along with a privacy protection module that’s effectively obsolete, now that the product includes Identity Safe. In Version 3, anti-spam moves into the main product, though it’s turned off by default. Parental control is still a separate download.

Ease of use
Using Norton 360 is relatively painless because once installed and updated you don’t have to delve into complicated settings to secure your PC. The software is also completely automated out of the box, including the new Pulse Update feature which updates itself to provide up-to-the-minute protection against new threats. The uncluttered main window acts as a management interface, providing you with access to the software’s main features and also allowing you to monitor the performance of your computer.

As expected, there is also an icon that resides in the notification area at the far right of the Windows taskbar to reassure you that your protection is up to date. The icon changes its color if any change in status occurs. The messages that appear in the notification area may require a response from you, such as opening a window. More often, messages inform you about current activities, and they disappear after a few seconds.

As you use your computer, Norton 360 monitors how well your computer and activities are protected from threats, risks, and damage. The software displays the protection status of your computer in the main window. Depending on your PC’s security status, the status areas of the four protection categories appear in red (at risk), orange (attention), or green (protected). Symantec doesn’t leave you completely in the dark – you can view more details about each category to identify the issues that might affect your status.

Scanning for viruses is quick and easy
The four main program options that are available in the main window summarise your computer’s most essential security and productivity issues. PC Security is the most important area and includes all virus, spyware, firewall, and other security features. This is followed by Identity Protection, which includes protection against phishing and fraudulent Web sites. The last two areas are focussed on managing your PC’s performance. Backup includes automatic and customisable backup and restore capabilities to a variety of storage locations, while PC Tuneup includes performance tuning features such as finding common computer problems, cleaning up unwanted cookies and files, and defragmenting the hard disk to optimise PC performance.

From the main interface you can also run LiveUpdate to check for protection and program updates, as well as runs a quick scan, comprehensive scan, or a customised scan. Another useful link is Get Support, which includes support and troubleshooting options to fix any problems automatically or by using Support Assistants. In addition, various other links that are available at the top of the main window provide access to tasks, detailed settings, product feedback, and your account information.

If you suspect that your computer is infected, you can run different types of scans manually and prevent virus infections on your computer. For example, you can manually scan a folder into which you download the Internet files. You can also manually run two types of scans. Quick Scan is the most commonly used and searches for possible virus-infected areas of your computer. Because this scan does not scan your entire computer, it takes lesser time to run than a Comprehensive Scan. Comprehensive Scan checks all boot records, files, and running programs to protect your computer from viruses and spyware. It also runs other tasks (such as LiveUpdate, Cleanup, Disk Optimization, and Backup) to provide a high level of protection and improve the performance of your computer. A Comprehensive Scan that an Administrator runs scans more files than a scan that a user who does not have Administrator privileges runs.

Norton 360 v3.0 stands up well against most of its rivals, especially in terms of features. The software is also easy to use and there’s very little management duties required. It’s not the prettiest software, but it’s not the ugliest either. Most importantly, because it uses same engine as Norton Internet Security 2009 it does a reasonable job of stopping malware and keeping your computer safe. It’s also relatively light on CPU and memory.

My biggest gripes are that Symantec only provides 2GB of online storage space, which is pathetic given today’s monster hard drives, but there is a Premier edition with 25GB storage available for £10 extra. The built-in backup component doesn’t support passwords, file compression, or drive cloning either, and the tune-up software is superfluous because it’s nowhere near as good as individual programs dedicated to serving a specific purpose.

Another problem I encountered was that the Norton Identity Safe feature, which installed a toolbar into my browser and totally kept crashing Firefox 3.0.10 – at least until I uninstalled the plug-in and restarted my computer. Overall I didn’t really like Norton 360 v3.0, mainly because of the browser (and machine) crashes and the number of unnecessary features (backup and tuneup). And why on earth do you need to restart your computer after a virus database update? As far as I’m concerned, for pure security there are better offerings from the likes of ZoneAlarm, ESET and Webroot Software. Concluding on a plus note, the new version is definitely faster, less intrusive, and easier to use than previous versions, which will please many looking to upgrade.