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Norton Internet Security 2009 beta hits the accelerator

Symantec's latest iteration of NIS tries to do its job without overloading your system -- and it seems to be succeeding.

By Lisa Vaas
July 29, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Security software customers are speaking with their feet: They want security updates and other security interruptions out of their faces, and they won't hesitate to dump their security suites because of performance drag — whether or not it's actually the security software that's to blame.

That's why Symantec is working on the next iteration of Norton Internet Security, NIS 2009, with the mantra of what it's calling Zero Impact Performance: "Security so light and fast you never even know it's there — until you need it."

We're talking about more than 300 major overhauls that the company asserts will affect almost every aspect of the security suite, from scanning engines to user interface. Symantec says that NIS 2009, released to public beta on July 14 and due to ship in the fall, will include the industry's fastest protection updates, half the memory usage of its next-most-memory-stingy competitor (Bit Defender IS 08) and a blink-of-an-eye install time of one minute.

NIS 2009 beta
NIS 2009's simplified interface.
Click to view larger image.
Interestingly, Symantec says that underpowered systems with pre-existing performance problems are the root cause of the majority of complaints it receives in its support center every month. A Symantec representative stated that of some 1 million people who contact Norton technical support monthly, 40% are running PCs with 512MB or less of RAM and 75% memory utilization, and another 31% are running with 1GB of RAM and 57% memory utilization.

So in order to test Symantec's Zero Impact Performance promise, the system I chose to run the beta on was a sputtering lemon — an older, underpowered Windows XP machine equipped with a 3.06-GHz Pentium 4 CPU and 480-MHz RAM that had performance problems.

The results? After having suffered far too long under the tyranny of NIS 2008's constant intrusions and the near-comatose reaction time of an outdated system, I found that the beta actually delivered the goods.

Ready, set, go

I installed the NIS 2009 beta and found the security suite already clocking in at impressive speeds. The install time has vastly improved over that of NIS 2008, which takes 30 minutes to install. It took me between three to four minutes, which doesn't quite hit Symantec's claimed one-minute install, but I'm not going to quibble over two or three minutes with such a quantum leap in install speed.

The process itself was painless except for a script-loading error, which didn't interfere with the beta install. The initial, full-system scan took 2 hours, 9 minutes, picking up only two tracking cookies out of 195,176 items scanned.

NIS 2009's user interface has been overhauled into a sharp, high-contrast and semitransparent screen stripped down to the bare essentials of what most users want to see: computer stats, network stats and a way to quickly access all of the user's log-in data (featuring a link to a new Identity Safe technology that will lift the hassle of passwords and log-ins off of users' shoulders).

Getting performance up to speed

Regardless of whether NIS deserves it, customers are in fact blaming security suites for sluggish performance. In fact, Symantec has been citing an August 2007 NPD Group market study of customers who switched security suites. It found that of those who switched, 39% blamed performance, 28% blamed functionality, and only 23% pointed to price.

In fact, in NIS 2009, Symantec is covering its butt when it comes to getting blamed for performance drag. Instead of just assuming that your security suite is causing performance degradation, you should be able to check NIS 2009's version of the Task Manager's CPU Meter, which should spell out whether Norton or other system components are to blame.

I say "should" because I couldn't find this feature, even though other reviewers have cited it as being on the main home screen. Ultimately, a support technician told me that the CPU usage meter is found only in the NIS 2009 .61 build but is missing from the later .69 build that I tested. When the final product ships, you should be able to find the meter under Settings --> Auto Protect --> Configure --> Miscellaneous.

So I couldn't drill down into CPU Meter, but I'm looking forward to seeing it in the final product. I question why Symantec is so thoroughly hiding it away from easy access, however. After all, if security companies are tired of being blamed for poor CPU performance, shouldn't a don't-blame-me feature be front and center?



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