Security suites: Six questions to ask before you buy
Whether you’re looking to invest or hoping to get away without paying a penny, we ask the questions that demand answers.
1 Do I still need security software?
Viruses haven’t been much in the news lately, and the platforms we rely on are a lot more security-conscious than they used to be.
The days when you could get infected simply by visiting the wrong website, or when you could pick up a malicious worm by merely connecting to the internet, are thankfully long gone.
That doesn’t mean the threat has gone away.
It may be harder for attackers to sneak under the radar, but they can still compromise your security through social engineering.
– that is, tricking you into voluntarily installing dodgy apps and giving away information that you really shouldn’t.
A good security suite can save you from yourself when you’re about to make a dangerous mistake.
As ever, there’s no telling where the next outbreak will come from, or what form it will take.
Last year saw the sudden explosion of ransomware, and while security suites were quickly updated to block the threats, a heavy price was paid (often literally) by individuals and businesses who assumed that the malware threat was a thing of the past.
You know what they say about an ounce of prevention.
2 Shouldn’t I just go for the package with the highest protection rating?
It seems obvious. If one security suite achieves a perfect 100% protection rating and another only achieves 98%.
Choosing the second means you run the risk of something slipping through the net. Decision made!
There’s more to it than that, though, because while several packages can claim to block every threat.
in fact, fully half of this month’s suites racked up a perfect score – very few of them manage to do so without wrongly flagging up a few false positives.
At best, that’s an inconvenience, as it means that you are being blocked from accessing perfectly legitimate software and files.
Worse still, if your security suite makes more than the occasional error, it undermines trust.
If you’re regularly being warned away from programs that you know full well are safe, it creates doubt when the software blocks something you’re less certain about.
– and that uncertainty creates a foothold for social engineering attacks.
Since almost every security suite can clean up the vast majority of malware (none of this month’s contenders scored less than 99%),
the false-positive rate is a crucial point of distinction between security products.
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3 Won’t security software slow down my PC?
Yes, it will. Sorry about that. But it won’t be as bad as you fear: the lesson of the early 2000s has been learnt,
and it helps a lot that modern PCs aren’t starved of RAM and running on clunking mechanical hard disks.
Security packages also use clever techniques to minimise the impact.
For example, applications are typically scanned when you first download and install them – which doesn’t feel like much of an imposition, because you’re not expecting an instant response anyway.
When you run the application, the security software then only needs to briefly check whether the file has changed:-
if it hasn’t, it doesn’t need to be scanned again and can be launched at very nearly full speed.
And if you’re currently using Windows without any third-party security software, you can actually expect things to feel faster after you install a new suite.
That’s because the built-in Windows Defender antivirus component slows down your system to a greater degree than a commercial alternative.
As we discuss opposite, that’s based on testing by AVComparatives and AV-Test across a wide range of real-world tasks, including web browsing, installing and running apps and copying files.
4 What features do I need?
This is largely a question of personal preference.
Even the most basic antivirus tool should intercept malware as soon as it lands on your hard disk, or at worst when it’s launched, and that will protect you from the great majority of threats.
We’d suggest that you also look for some sort of web protection:
an attempted “drive-by download” ought to be picked up by your malware scanner,
but you’re safer still if your security software keeps you away from the infected site in the first place.
Moreover, certain suites can flag up phishing sites, which try to deceive you into entering passwords and other credentials.
- What about firewall features?
It’s possible to overstate the need for these: if your computer is connected to the internet via a domestic router then it’s very difficult for a hacker or worm to break in.
However, some packages include a custom firewall that makes it easier to monitor outgoing connections from the programs running on your computer, and block the ones you don’t trust.
Others offer simple tools that help you configure Windows’ built-in firewall to the same end.
Specialised anti-ransomware measures have recently become popular, too.
These tools bar any unrecognised application from accessing your personal files – ensuring you’re safe even from brand-new, unrecognised threats that manage to sneak past your regular defences.
Webcam protection is another popular tool, ensuring that no app can surreptitiously fire up your laptop camera and start spying on you.
Many suites include secondary tools such as password managers, secure file erasers and performance optimisers.
We don’t think it’s worth paying for these, as you can normally get the same benefits from free software.
If you don’t have kids then parental controls won’t be worth much to you, either;
and if this is something you want then be sure to check the feature list, because the tools on hand don’t always do much more than Microsoft’s free Family Safety service.
Also Read: How to avoid phone rip-offs: 9 Tips
5 How much should I pay?
The old adage says that you get what you pay for – but in the world of security suites, that doesn’t apply at all.
Some publishers sell their products only at full price through their own websites; others are happy to let independent retailers offer deep discounts.
Neither approach tells you anything about the quality of the software.
There are, of course, a good number of free security tools out there too, with varying feature sets and performance records.
The best advice is simply to spend a few minutes shopping around before you buy.
Like the big furniture stores of yore, certain security vendors seem to have a semi-permanent sale on, so downloading direct from the website might not be a bad idea.
However, browse a few independent online retailers and you’ll often find boxed editions on sale even more cheaply – as long as you don’t mind waiting a few days for your software to arrive.
The same applies when your subscription is about to expire.
You’ll almost certainly get a friendly pop-up inviting you to extend your licence for the full RRP;
you can save a lot of money by allowing it to run out and simply buying a new copy.
6 Is it safe to buy an older suite?
We all know how important it is to keep your security software up to date, so you might be wary of buying a 2017 or 2018-branded edition of your chosen suite.
In reality, though, those dates are just used for marketing – what you’re really buying is a yearlong licence to use the software, starting whenever you first install it.
The product key that comes with an older edition will happily activate the latest release,
which you can normally download from the publisher’s website.
Or, you can just install the older software and wait for it to automatically update itself.
It’s probably for this reason that some publishers have stopped using years in their product titles, while others use the dates in publicity, but not within the software itself.
It’s a useful thing to know, though, because if you scout about online you can often find “old” security software being sold off at knock-down prices.
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