A couple of years ago, Symantec rolled the entire Norton product line, including its standalone antivirus product, into a large-scale, multi-platform security suite. That left me needing to repeatedly explain to software conspiracy theorists why Norton didn't show up in my roundup of the best antivirus products. Apparently those commenters and I weren't the only ones who missed the antivirus, as Symantec has brought it back, very successfully. Norton AntiVirus Basic is a winner.
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With a list price of $39.99 per year to protect one computer against malware, Norton AntiVirus Basic is more expensive than some of the company's other products on a per-device basis, but it's completely in line with its standalone antivirus competition. Symantec Norton Security Premium, on the other hand, protects up to 10 devices for $89.99 per year, and includes 25GB of hosted online backup. Note that AntiVirus Basic is currently on sale for half its list price.
I asked my Symantec contact why the company decided to bring back a standalone antivirus tool. "We saw there was a need for a low-cost, robust, PC-focused solution," he answered. "This need is not adequately addressed by freeware. This product is primarily aimed at the value-oriented, tech-minded user who may already have a firewall, backup system, and so on." He went on to point out that Norton AntiVirus Basic offers the same enterprise-grade protection found in the suite.
The suite offers full-scale tech support, with a guarantee that support agents will do everything necessary to keep your system virus-free, or your money back. That guarantee doesn't come with Norton AntiVirus Basic, however. In fact, tech support for this product is limited to self-help and community forums. That's probably fine for the value-oriented, tech-minded customer mentioned above, but it is one drawback to the product.
Note that Norton AntiVirus Basic isn't yet available in all markets. If you're in Australia, Canada, France, Germany the US, or the UK, you can get it. If you're elsewhere, you may have to wait a bit.
Quick Install, Intensive Scan
When you launch the Norton installer, it downloads the very latest version of the software, including the latest antivirus definitions. I like that. Why doesn't every antivirus install the latest definitions, rather than prompting the user to update after installation is finished? Once Norton is installed, it is totally ready to go.
Well, almost. A little while after the installation, you get a prompt to enable the Norton extensions in your browsers. I'll talk more about the extensions themselves later on. Norton walks you through the process of installing the extensions, with explanatory panels and animated arrows.
The main window itself is laid out much like the Norton suite, with four big buttons across the bottom and a panel above that reflects your security status. If the green You Are Protected notification changes to You Are At Risk in red, just click the Fix Now button to set things right.
A full scan of my standard clean test system took almost an hour and a quarter, whereas the average scan time for recent products is about 45 minutes. It was thorough, for sure, checking more than 250,000 items. I also ran a Norton Insight scan, which found 88 percent of the files on this system to be among those that should be trusted, not scanned. A repeat of that full scan took just 10 minutes.
This product includes Norton Power Eraser, a more aggressive scanner that aims to root out really persistent malware. If you think the regular scan may have left something behind, a scan with Norton Power Eraser should fix it.
Excellent Lab Results
Symantec doesn't submit the Norton antivirus to all the labs I follow, but those that do include it in testing give it excellent marks. Like Kaspersky Anti-Virus (2017), Symantec doesn't participate in certification testing by ICSA Labs. Neither of these two have been rated in Virus Bulletin's RAP (reactive and protective) test lately, either.
AV-Test Institute rates antivirus products on protection against malware attack, low performance impact, and minimal false positives, assigning up to six points in each of the three areas. Symantec aced the protection and false positive components of the tests but lost a half-point in performance, for a total of 17.5. Kaspersky managed a perfect 18 in this test, while Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2016 slipped to 17 in the latest report.
I track five of the many tests regularly performed by AV-Comparatives. Bitdefender and Kaspersky earned the top rating in all five of these tests. Due to a long-standing disagreement over testing methodology, Symantec doesn't participate in this lab's testing. However, it received AAA certification, the best of five certification levels, from Simon Edwards Labs. Kaspersky also rated AAA, as did a few others.
This year I've added a pair of tests by MRG-Effitas to my collection. One specifically focuses on banking malware, the other on the whole range of malware. The majority of products simply fail these tests. Symantec, Kaspersky, ESET, and Webroot SecureAnywhere AntiVirus (2016) are the only products that passed the banking malware test. In the full-range test, products earn Level 1 certification if they completely prevent installation of every malware sample, or Level 2 certification if they remediate all malware infestations within a set time. Nobody got Level 1 certification in the latest round of testing. Kaspersky, Symantec, and Webroot were among the very few that managed Level 2 certification.
Overall, Symantec's lab results beat out most competing products. With three labs reporting, my aggregate calculation yields a score of 9.7 points, out of a possible ten. See the chart linked above for details. Kaspersky tops this chart, with 9.9 points for testing by four labs.
Excellent Malware Blocking
In addition to closely following reports from the independent testing labs, I also run my own hands-on tests. If my results don't jibe with the labs, I give the lab results more weight. In this case, I didn't have to, as Norton performed equally well in my tests.
For most products, my malware blocking test begins the moment I open the folder that contains my collection of malware samples. The minor file access that occurs when Windows Explorer checks the file's details is enough to trigger on-access scanning. Indeed, Norton eliminated 52 percent of the samples at this point. That's actually on the low side. Kaspersky wiped out over 70 percent on sight, and Emsisoft Anti-Malware 11.0 caught over 80 percent.
However, when I started launching the samples that survived that initial massacre, Norton proved its worth. In almost every case, it either blocked the malware from launching or caught it based on behavior and completely reversed the malware's effects on the system. With 97 percent detection and 9.7 of 10 possible points, Norton scored very well. Webroot took the brass ring on this test, with a perfect 10 points.
The samples in my malware-blocking test necessarily remain the same for many months, because it takes me weeks of work to prepare a new set. For another view of each product's protective ability, I try to launch malware-hosting URLs from a feed supplied daily by MRG-Effitas. I note whether the product diverted the browser away from the dangerous URL, wiped out the malware during or right after download, or sat idly without doing anything useful.
I keep at this test until I accumulate data for 100 verified malicious URLs. Norton demonstrated excellent protective abilities, blocking fully 98 percent of the malicious downloads. In most cases, the Download Insight component did the job, quite visibly. It interrupted the download for known malware, but in many cases it performed on-the-fly analysis after the download, which identified the file as malicious. Only Avira Antivirus Pro 2016 has scored better here, with 99 percent protection, all by fending off the malware-hosting URL completely.
Excellent Phishing Protection
For many years, Norton's browser extension has done a great job protecting users from phishing websites, fraudulent sites that try to steal login credentials by masquerading as PayPal, eBay, banks, and so on. In fact, when I test antiphishing solutions, rather than give them a straight percentage rating I report on how their detection rate compares with Norton's.
For this test, I set up five browsers, one protected by the product under test, one by Norton, and one by the built-in antiphishing components in Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer. I scrape the Web for the newest reported phishing sites, as much as possible using sites too new to have been blacklisted. I do this because phishing sites are ephemeral. By the time they're blacklisted, they may well be gone. Norton, like all the best phishing fighters, uses real time analysis to supplement its blacklist.
I launch each one in all five browsers simultaneously. If any of the browsers displays an error page, I discard that URL. And of course, if the link is not actually a phishing attack, I discard it. As with the malicious URL blocking test, I aim for at least 100 URLs.
In this case, Norton itself is the product under test, which is a bit different. To get its score against the three browsers, I averaged the difference from all of the other tests I've performed. Norton's detection rate came in 53 percent better than Firefox, 35 percent better than Internet Explorer, and 23 percent better than Chrome. Nearly a quarter of recent products fared worse than all three browsers in this test.
Few products come close to Norton's accuracy, and even fewer do better. Webroot beat Norton's detection rate by 1 percentage point, and Bitdefender managed 2 percent better than Norton. Kaspersky came out at the top, with a detection rate 4 percentage points better than Norton's.
I typically think of intrusion prevention as a feature that goes with firewall protection, but it doesn't in any way require a firewall. In fact this product, which has no firewall, has the same powerful intrusion prevention found in the Norton suite. My Symantec contact explained, "We couldn't imagine delivering a product under the Norton brand without including intrusion prevention."
I tested this feature using about 30 exploits generated by the CORE Impact penetration tool. An exploit attack attempts to gain control of the victim's operating system or of an important app by taking advantage of a security hole in its target. Norton aims to block these attacks at the network level, before even a trace reaches the protected PC.
I found that after the first couple of exploits were caught, I started getting error messages for all the rest. Sure enough, Norton's Intrusion AutoBlock noticed multiple exploits from the same IP address and set itself to block all traffic from that address for a half-hour. I had to disable this feature in order to continue my test.
Norton blocked 63 percent of the attacks overall. For 37 percent, it identified the attack by name, and reported a generic name for another 26 percent. Norton's performance in this test is better than most competing products, and it catches the attacks at the network level where many competitors resort to eliminating the exploit's payload file.
See How We Test Security Software
I've already mentioned the Norton Insight scan, which speeds up antivirus scanning by identifying known good files that don't require scanning. Norton Insight lists all of the files it checked, along with the trust level, the prevalence of that file in the network of Norton users, and the item's impact on system resources.
Here's a surprising bonus feature—this antivirus includes the same antispam component found in the full Norton suite. It filters POP3 email accounts and integrates with Microsoft Outlook, automatically tossing spam messages into their own folder. If you're among the rare few who don't get spam filtered out by your email or webmail provider, this is a handy bonus.
The Norton toolbar manages such things as keeping your browser from accessing malicious or fraudulent websites. It also marks up search results with color-coded icons, green, yellow, and red for safe, iffy, and dangerous, as well as a special Norton Secured marker for verified shopping sites. If you want to know just why Norton flags a site as red or yellow, you can click through for a detailed report. You can optionally install Norton Safe Search as your search provider, and make it your home page as well.
Norton AntiVirus comes with the Symantec Norton Identity Safe password manager as a bonus. It's true that you can get Identity Safe for free, but having it bundled with your antivirus is convenient. There's also a link to Symantec's online password generator in the antivirus.
Disk fragmentation isn't such a problem these days, now that modern Windows versions handle defragmenting in the background. If you're using an old version, Norton's Disk Optimization component can help. If your disk is only minimally fragmented, the tool doesn't waste time tweaking it.
If your PC's pace is seriously dragging, you can put a spring back into its step with a tune-up utility. Norton's File Cleanup component doesn't come close to the abilities of those purpose-built tools, but it is a quick and easy way to wipe temporary files, both for Windows and for Internet Explorer.
As time goes on, many of us tend to accumulate applications that launch at startup and then hang around using up memory and other system resources. The more of these you have, the longer it takes to boot your system, too. Norton's Startup Manager lists all programs that launch at startup, identifying the resource usage of each as well as its prevalence in the community of Norton users. You can reversibly disable any of them that don't really need to launch at every boot, or delay launching some, to speed the process. Note that some standalone tune-up utilities also provide this feature.
Great Antivirus and More
I'm pleased with the return of Symantec Norton AntiVirus Basic. It earned excellent test scores across the board, both with the independent testing labs and in all of our hands-on tests. Bonus features like intrusion prevention, password management, and spam filtering make it even better. It's an excellent addition to Symantec's security line, which for the last few years has consisted only of suites.
Norton AntiVirus Basic joins the extensive pantheon of antivirus Editors' Choice products. Its fellow honorees are Bitdefender Antivirus Plus, Kaspersky Anti-Virus, McAfee AntiVirus Plus, and Webroot SecureAnywhere Antivirus. Yes, there really are that many excellent choices when it comes to antivirus.