Readers share their Security Baseline nominees

Ryan russell By Ryan Russell

Windows Secrets readers have been giving me their feedback loud and clear: they hate Norton all-in-one products and love standalone antivirus, antispyware, and firewall apps.

Still, I have to say that security suites do remain a valid option for people looking for no-muss, no-fuss protection for their PCs.

We got lots of con and little pro on Symantec’s Norton Internet Security 2009. I reported in a Feb. 26 Top Story that reviewers from, PC World, and Maximum PC had made NIS 2009 their No. 1 choice as the best security suite. Not all of you agree.

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WS readers are clearly more tech-savvy than the average PC user. In fact, chances are good that you manage several PCs — or several hundred. Many of these machines are used by people who don’t know Safe Mode from apple pie à la mode.

As editorial director Brian Livingston explained in his Mar. 5 column, the WS Security Baseline summarizes the latest ratings on just the minimum PC security measures: a hardware firewall, a security suite, and a software updater. This is for people who have no security perimeter and need to know at least the first things to do. Most PC users will augment the baseline, depending on how and where they use their system.

The veteran system tweakers who comprise a large percentage of our readership clearly say they’re not well served by any all-in-one security suite. Most of you have tried different suites or antivirus programs over the years and have a strong opinion about which security mix you prefer. A security suite is a no-brainer, no-hassle option intended for folks who don’t want the bother of investigating all the standalone possibilities.

The biggest problems readers reported with the product are difficult installation, poor malware detection, and Symantec support personnel trying to charge U.S. $99 to troubleshoot installation woes or help remove a piece of malware. Readers who got the suite installed without incident do report, however, that the reviewers’ claims of performance gains in the new version are accurate.

For the conspiracy-minded, I can assure you that I have absolutely no financial incentive to push Symantec products. My employer, BigFix Inc., could be considered a competitor of Symantec. Windows Secrets has never asked me to recommend a product or to slam one. Finally, I have no idea who will be advertising in any given edition of the newsletter.

I was surprised that so many readers assumed that the ratings in the magazines we referred to were bought and paid for. Without direct evidence to the contrary, I trust the integrity of their editors and don’t believe they’re controlled by advertisers.

Your nominees in the best-antivirus category

Since I received so much reader feedback, I’m not going to let it go to waste. I hereby declare the following to be your completely nonscientific, highly biased, totally reader-selected nominees for best-of-breed security software.

Number one on the list of components readers care about is antivirus software. I received recommendations for 13 different AV products. The most popular was ESET’s NOD32, the second-most popular was Comodo AntiVirus, and tied for third were PC Tools AntiVirus Free Edition and AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition. All four programs have free versions except NOD32, which has a 30-day free trial.

For more information on the nominated products, visit:

Comodo AntiVirus
PC Tools AntiVirus Free Edition
AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition
Virus Bulletin
AV Comparatives

Favorite software firewalls come down to two

A handful of readers took the time to comment on their choices for best software firewall. The most popular — Comodo Internet Security — is free and includes the company’s antivirus engine as well. The free ZoneAlarm Firewall was also lauded by one reader, but two others told us of their problems with the program.

Windows Vista and XP SP2 and later come with a basic firewall that’s better than no firewall at all, but not much. (I don’t consider earlier versions of the Windows Firewall workable because of these versions’ terrible interfaces.)

Comodo Internet Security
ZoneAlarm Free

Familiar names cited as best spyware fighters

I received more nominations for anti-spyware tools than I did firewall recommendations. This may reflect the growing number of spyware threats assaulting our systems.

Spybot Search & Destroy is a free tool supporting every version of Windows back to Windows 95. A couple of readers complained about the newest tools not running on old operating systems, which is why I point this out.

Windows Defender is a free tool from Microsoft that requires Windows Genuine Advantage to download and use.

The only reader-recommended anti-spyware tool lacking a free version is Webroot Spy Sweeper, which costs $30 per year (discounts available for two or three years).

Finally, PC Tools Spyware Doctor has free and fee-based editions that work on versions of Windows from 98 up.

Spybot Search & Destroy
Microsoft Windows Defender
Webroot Spy Sweeper
PC Tools Spyware Doctor

Choosing the security programs we review

Trying to name the single best security program is futile. There’s simply too much variation in user preferences and PC configurations to find a single application that fits the bill for everyone. But that doesn’t mean we can’t review the results from respected test labs and report back to you on what we find.

Reader Derek Swift comments that, if I’d like to see some real AV testing, I should look at the results from Virus Bulletin and AV Comparatives, which emphasize the detection rates of the antivirus apps they test.

Do you want to know which standalone security apps work well together? Send us your recommendations in these categories and any other manner of PC security program you’re curious about. This information will be useful as we revise the procedures that go into our analysis of the minimum security products that all PCs should be running.

Give me some feedback, and I promise: you won’t be able to shut me up. Get in touch with me via the Windows Secrets contact form.

Ryan Russell is a Windows Secrets contributing editor and the quality assurance manager at BigFix Inc., a configuration management company. He moderated the vuln-dev mailing list for three years under the alias “Blue Boar.” He was the lead author of Hack-Proofing Your Network, 2nd Ed., and the technical editor of the Stealing the Network book series.
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2009-03-26:

Ryan Russell

About Ryan Russell

Ryan Russell is a quality assurance manager at BigFix Inc., a configuration management company. He moderated the vuln-dev mailing list for three years under the alias "Blue Boar." He was the lead author of Hack-Proofing Your Network, 2nd Ed., and the technical editor of the Stealing the Network book series.