For years, makers of security software have layered features onto programs that became big, intrusive, and hungry for computer resources. Now the industry says it's going on a diet.
"These bloated products have been a huge pain in consumers' necks," says Stu Sjouwerman of Sunbelt Software. Sunbelt's is one of several recently launched products that promise to keep the bad guys out without dragging down a computer's performance.
We tried Sunbelt's new Vipre Antivirus and Antispyware ($50 for all PCs in a home), as well as the latest edition of venerable Norton Internet Security ($70 for three PCs), and found they work considerably faster than past security products. They're at the forefront of a trend that's likely to spread as consumers realize that PCs need not be bogged down by applications that combat viruses and spyware.
Despite improvements to Windows Vista that make it more secure, added software is still needed because organized crime increasingly targets consumer PCs with E-mail viruses and website malware. Many consumers haven't moved to Vista because of its reputed problems. Or many share broadband connections on home networks that might include older versions of Windows that are less secure. Consumers also increasingly use PCs for entertainment and don't want to be interrupted by security alerts.
But some of the best-rated software for securing Windows has also come under the most criticism for bloat, including Symantec's Norton Internet Security. "There was once a point in time when it was fast and stable and was the Internet protection package to have," wrote blogger Bryce Whitty earlier this year. By then, Symantec's security suite often was causing more problems than it fixed. It had gotten so slow and unstable that "some of us even joke that the best piece of software that Symantec ever made was the Norton Removal Tool," Whitty said.
Through the middle of the decade, Symantec was caught in an industry competing on new features—without enough regard to performance, says Jody Gibney, who manages Norton Internet Security. Then research last year confirmed that subpar performance had emerged as the No. 1 problem leading consumers to switch security products. That was reason enough for software makers to get religion.
Performance became the focus for Symantec's recently released 2009 edition. The company made some 300 changes large and small to speed how Norton scans files, blocks intruders, loads itself when a computer boots—and even how it installs itself.
Installation is a one-time process that has no lasting effect on performance. "But it leaves a lasting impression," Gibney says. So Symantec abandoned Microsoft's standard installer for Windows and wrote its own from the ground up.
It makes a difference. The program installs with just one click, not bothering to ask the standard questions of where it should install and with which components. The installation takes just a couple of minutes on most machines, more than the one minute that Symantec claims is possible but considerably quicker than past versions.
Once loaded, NIS 2009 cut the memory it uses almost in half compared with the previous edition. It also reduces file scans by keeping track of files that are already trusted, or white-listed. Using fewer PC resources has become more crucial as consumers keep their computers longer, says Gibney. "There are a lot more underpowered, overtaxed computers in the home."
That means security vendors don't have the luxury of counting on computers to get ever more powerful, says Sjouwerman at Sunbelt Software. His company came to market about five years ago with a successful antispyware program, CounterSpy. With consumers wanting single programs that fight all threats, Sunbelt began studying how to include antivirus and other protection.
Competitors had simply added new software to existing packages. "They bolted engine on top of engine on top of engine," Sjouwerman says. The result was that some consume more than 200 megabytes of memory on consumer PCs that often run with 512 megabytes.