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How Do I Pick the Right Tools to Protect my System?

Protection against viruses, spam, Spyware, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, is
becoming even more critical as time goes by. I am running MS XP Professional
(SP2), but am uncomfortable in relying solely on MS products and technology for
protection. But, the number of products out there today, claiming to be able to
provide same, seems to be expanding exponentially, so:

  1. How does one go about deciding on what product to use in removing the vermin
    and protecting against future infections?
  2. What criteria (aside from price) could (or should) you use in making one’s
    decision and product selection?
  3. Would a bundled application (all defenses in one) be necessarily more
    effective than several standalone products?
  4. Finally, is there some location on the Web where one could find truly valid,
    independent assessments/reviews of products out there today?

A number of good questions that I think a lot of people share.

If we’re paying attention at all, we’re constantly getting told “protect
yourself!”. Great. With what? There’s a ton of crap out there, to put it
bluntly, how should you decide what to buy?

I’ll tell you how I decide.

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I’m going to take your questions in reverse order.

Is there some location on the Web where one could find truly valid,
independent assessments/reviews of products out there today?

I’m a huge believer in reputation.

By reputation, I don’t necessarily mean that the products you see everywhere
are the ones to use. Rather, I mean that when you do a little bit of research,
these are the products that real people recommend.

Unfortunately I know of no single location I would turn to for that
information. Rather, I’d be looking at several different sources from which to
draw my own conclusions.

The data for your research can come from a variety of places. For example I
chose my anti-virus solution based on a very simple recommendation:
Microsoft’s. When I left the company in 2001, Computer Associates eTrust
Anti-Virus was the Microsoft-internal anti-virus solution distributed to all
employees for installation on company machines and with license (and even
encouragement) to take home and install on machine that might remotely connect
to the corporate network. Given the target that Microsoft is, and was, that
seemed like a pretty strong endorsement. And indeed, I’ve been using it ever
since and been exceptionally happy with the product.

Research naturally also includes mainstream tech and PC publications, like
perhaps cnet.com or pcmag.com. In addition, frequently consumer publications
such as Consumer’s Reports will also review the current state of products. I
tend to be just a little skeptical, and in fact in quickly researching current
recommendations for this article I find that I don’t necessarily agree with
some of their conclusions. So I typically wouldn’t rely on them for my only
source of information, but they’re a great start to at least get a sense of the
products that are available.

“I’m a huge believer in reputation.”

Another good resource turns out to be many retail stores like Amazon that
allow product reviews to be posted on their sites. You’ll frequently see a lot
of feedback on any given product that you might be considering. While no
product ever gets 100% positive feedback (you can’t please everyone), you can
quickly get a very good sense of whether a product is valuable, or simply too
risky to consider.

There are thousands of web sites on the internet that provide a forum for
discussion, and there you’ll often find strong opinions as well. The problem
here is once again identifying those sites that are legitimate and not pushing
an agenda of their own. Sites like lockergnome.com, daniweb.com spywareinfo.com
and others are often both great reference sites, as well as discussion forums
containing the opinions of many knowledgeable users.

So if there’s not one place, and all of the above (and others) won’t agree
on what the “best” is, how do you decide?

I look for trends. If more people complain about product A than B across
multiple sites and sources, then I’d lean towards product B.

Would a bundled application (all defenses in one) be necessarily
more effective than several standalone products?

In my fairly strong opinion, no.

I base that primarily on the four+ years of problem reports and feedback
that I’ve received here at Ask Leo!. It just seems that the combined suites
cause more problems and miss more malware or security issues that a well chosen
set of individual solutions.

My theory is that the suites start with a really good single
product – say an anti-virus solution. In order to create a suite of the
manufacturer then buys or creates what I can only assume are second-rate
additional components, like an anti-spyware solution or firewall. The net
result is that they don’t integrate well, and while one component my have you
protected from one form of malware, another won’t do as well.

There may be good suites out there, but my personal opinion right now is
that you’re better off selecting individual solutions.

What criteria (aside from price) could (or should) you use in making
one’s decision and product selection?

Well, I’ve already spoken about reputation. That’s number one, in my
book.

I also believe in sticking with popular and well known brands. For any of
the solutions you’ll quickly see the same names over and over again. That’s a
good thing. If after seeing all those names repeatedly you’re suddenly
presented with some solution you’ve never heard of, it’s time for some heavy
duty skepticism.

Many products include subscriptions. By that I mean that in order to keep
your database of malware up to date you’ll need to pay an annual subscription.
I’m not going to argue pro or con on this just yet, only to say that be sure to
realize that it may happen, various products will have different requirements
and prices, and then factor that into your decision.

And finally, the basic stuff: make sure that the product’s system
requirements match your system’s capabilities.

I’ll also add one disrecommendation: if you suddenly find yourself
faced with a popup that says something to the affect of “you’re infected, click
here to download our product to fix it”, DON’T! Any kind of
add or pop-up that looks like a warning and that directs you to a specific
product or website is simply not to be trusted.

How does one go about deciding on what product to use in removing
the vermin and protecting against future infections?

So far we’ve talked about my approach to specific product selection, but
just what products do you need?

Here’s the short list:

  • You must have a firewall of some sort. Software or hardware
    matters less than just making sure you have one in place.
  • Anti-virus protection. At a minimum a product that you can configure to scan
    periodically, and perhaps one that includes real-time protection, for example
    scanning as you download files.
  • Anti-spyware protection. While it seems like viruses and spyware are kinda
    sorta the same thing (and they kinda sorta are), the fact is that they are
    different in many respects, and the best approach to detect them is quite
    different. Hence, a separate anti-spyware tool is a requirement as well.

I’m also assuming some common sense here – things like don’t execute
attachments you don’t know are safe – but that’s not something you can purchase
at your local computer store.

So what do YOU run?

You didn’t ask explicitly, but a real quick shortcut to deciding all this is
to find someone you trust, and just do what they’re doing. In some ways that’s
how I arrived at my anti-virus solution, as I described above.

So, on the chance that you might trust what I’m doing, here’s what keeps the
computers at Ask Leo! world headquarters safe:

  • CA Anti-Virus 2008 (I’m actually
    running older versions, but this is the current equivalent.) On most computers
    it’s configured to scan nightly, though on some where the risk is perhaps a
    little higher, real-time scanning is also enabled. This is a subscription
    product, and to me worth it.
  • Microsoft Windows Defender is my
    anti-spyware solution. It’s free.
  • My NAT router is my firewall. There are no software firewalls enabled on
    most of my computers. When I travel I use the built-in Windows firewall, which
    sometimes gets left on by mistaken when I return home with no ill effects.

And that’s it. Well, that and the other steps outlined in my earlier article
Internet Safety: How do I keep my computer safe on the
internet?
Things like keeping Windows up to date, understanding physical
security, and so on.

And that whole “common sense” thing as well. It’s not as common as we’d like
to think.

Do this:

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11 comments on “How Do I Pick the Right Tools to Protect my System?”

  1. Great answers leo 😉
    I personally Use Avast Anti Virus, its updated twice Daily with new virus definintions, it Scans Real Time while downloading files, and It scans Instant Messaging programs, its a Web Sheild so checks each website for possible infections, For Example, The other Day it blocked a Drive By Download for me, coming from that web address!
    And best of all, its free, Completly!
    IT also uses VERY little system rescources, In fact, at the moment Windows Vista and XP both say it is using 2% CPU and 20MB of Ram, compared to Anti Virus like McAfee or Noton which can use Upwards of 200MB Ram.
    Another great feature is it scans the memory and open processes for infections before running a Virus Scan, what this means, is that if a virus is running in the background, and avast finds it, It will End the Running Process, PLUS block that process from running (so It can restart itself like most do) then once the Virus Scan of the system completes, it, Based on user preference, deals appropriatly with the infection, So if the user asks avast to delete it, there is no issues with having to Restart the computer into safe mode, just so the virus doesnt run,and can be safely removed, because avast unlike any other Anti Virus, has blocked and stopped the virus before it did the scan.
    I fully recommened to ANYONE looking for an Anti Virus program to Try
    Awils Avast Anti Virus
    Its free, Its reliable, its not a hog, and its powerful!

    Reply
  2. I will second Avast.

    I had been using McAfee, my employers internal anti-virus solution. Like Leo’s past experience, McAfee is free to me My employer has a license that lets employee’s use it at home. I stopped using it six months or so ago because the latest version was way too bloated and slowed up my computer.

    Good luck.

    Reply
  3. Not to turn this into a Pro Avast page, but I have had decent luck with them as well. AVG is also ok, though not as reliable I think. I would strongly advise against Macafee and Norton/ Symanetc. They hog system resources, lead to crashes, and in my experience, are always a day late and a dollar short when it comes to catching viruses. I recently did a virus sweep of a neighbors computer. He had faithfully used an updated Macafee for several years. I removed it, used Avast, and found about 200 or so infected files. Remember folks, if your University or Employer gives you an anti-virus package for free, but it doesn’t work, then you haven’t save time or money!

    Another solid piece of advice that Leo often mentions is to have MORE than one anti-virus program. They won’t all catch everything. If you buy a major program, having avg or avast around to get a second opinion once in a while can save a lot of headaches. Just don’t run them all at the same time!

    Reply
  4. Well, all or nothing eh?

    I used to be an avid McAfee fan back in the day. They were
    the lean product Symantec could only once wish they were.
    Well, unfortunately now McAfee’s suite is just as bloated as
    Symantec (Norton).

    I tried a few others, Trend Micro, Sophos, AVG and so on.
    Most were decent and fairly lean. Props to AVG for being free
    by the way. Then someone turned me onto Avast. This is what I
    recommend to friends, family and coworkers. Though the
    default skin is a bit akward, the program itself is as lean
    as any of the latter mentioned. Give it a try!

    Reply
  5. One thing I would recommend _against_ would be using your favorite search engine as your sole source. A search for “remove spyware”, for example, will typically give you numerous hits for rogue software which masquerades as anti-spyware, but which is actually spyware (or worse) itself.

    It’s amazing how many computers come in to our shop for cleanup which are infested by these programs, because the person tried cleaning up himself without knowing any better.

    Reply
  6. Well, I use AVG Anitvirus Free Edition. It scans in real time. It always has some Defintion Files to download daily (means the Company is constantly working). I have never had any problems though & I believe in a Complete reformat of the Hard Disk in case you get infected. AVG Anitvirus is really low on resources & runs happily even with 256MB RAM with XP Pro SP2 installed.

    About Spyware, I am not much bothered because I know my Browsing Habits (and will surely identify if some spyware has struck on me) & am pretty much an advanced User to completely reformat the System from scratch. Moreover I am behind a NAT router, so feel pretty much safe. But I run ZoneAlarm Firewall & it does its job well (though the Free Edition does not allow you to configure Individual Ports).

    Rest, MS products are really great and I believe in sticking to the Original Versions (Unpirated ones) but in my opinion, they are pricey. You have a lot of Free options if you scour the Internet which work equally well as the professional ones but yes, you must have the skills to know how they are performing.

    Ravi.

    Reply
  7. I use AVG, ZoneAlarm Firewall, AdAware and Spybot Search & Destroy. All free versions. I also have MS Defender installed (as it was free) and still find that AdAware & Spybot pick up odd things that Defender misses.

    Reply
  8. Another thing everyone needs to do to keep their system secure is to download the latest windows updates related to security every month so that their systems are not exposed to known vulnerabilities.

    I have used several antivirus and antispyware apps over the past several years – both full time use in home and office as well as in the field cleaning up over a thousand infected pc’s. In my opinion I have found that AVG anti-virus gives the best combination of both capability and simplicity for the end user as far as antivirus goes. I think avast is a great product and use it personally at home, but I won’t use it for clients because it is not as simple to explain and set up for the clients – this leads to more of my time being used for support. I would say that avast and avg are very close in their abilities to clean up infected systems. Having tried both on a large number of infected systems, (I tried avg then avast, or avast and then avg) I would say it was pretty rare when one would pick up a virus that the other did not see.

    Do not install more than one anti-virus at a time unless you know how to disable one of them completely and only activate it for a manual scan. Having more than one AV running at a time can lead to problems.

    As far as anti-spyware, I rely on Webroot Anti-Spyware (not the version with Antivirus in it) as well as PCTools Spyware Doctor. They both seem to be about equal in their abilities. The only thing I do not like about webroot is that you cannot program the time when it will do it’s updates – it does cause the system to slow down quite a bit for a minute or so when it is doing its updates and I would prefer to program it to update at night just before it scans. Other than that, it is a great program and I recommend it to clients.
    I have used spybot search and destroy and ad-aware and I feel they are pretty good programs but that they do not get anywhere near removing all infections. Generally I have found that spybot removes some, ad-aware will remove some more, but if you really want to clean the system well I would use webroot and/or pctools. Also, if you have been infected by the WinAntivirus, etc programs that give constant popups telling you that you are infected and asking for you to buy their software you can get rid of that for free with a good little program called “Rogue Remover”.

    Firewalls – OK, number one, if you are using DSL or cable or other broadband fast internet connection you NEED (URGENTLY NEED) to have a router installed between a cable/dsl box and your pc. (some isp’s provide a combo modem/router). If you don’t have the router, then your PC is CONSTANTLY UNDER ATTACK. Your system is being scanned every day by probably dozens of hackers looking for a way to break into your system to use it for criminal purposes. A hardware firewall such as is found in some routers is some protection, but most professionals will argue for LEVELS of protection in depth. So go for the hardware, and software as well. Number two, an extra software firewall is a very good idea as well. PCTools offers a free one, and so does Zone Alarm. Just beware, you do not want to block everything that pops up saying it is trying to connect to the internet. STOP, read the message and find out what is trying to connect and then go to google or yahoo and search on that progam name – find out what it is before you block it. Be careful with firewalls becuase you can really mess up the normal operations of your system if you are not careful.

    If you have a very bad infection that these products will not clean, you will need to back up your data files, and then completely wipe your system and reinstall everything.

    Thanks Leo, for this great, informative article.

    I hope this has been helpful for you.
    Rob Cox, Owner
    Cox network & PC Services

    Reply
  9. One more thing, since this article is under the heading of Malware Prevention. Stay off of sites with adult or pirate content, and you will avoid a lot of the hassles.

    One other thing you can do is turn off the preview pane in your email program if you use a program to get your email.

    Lastly, many of the drive by download attacks and script attacks only work on Internet Explorer. Download firefox and use it instead for most of your web surfing.

    Rob Cox

    Reply
  10. hmm..! I am using quickheal for more than 2 years and didn’t get a single virus. though avast , avg and avira are also good but i doubt that they will not repair most of the files which have virus even made in year 2003. I think avira is also good and detection rate (which matters most) is also good. the most reliable source to see detection rate of anti viruses,I think is virus bulletin. others like panda is also good. but i will always recommend quickheal antivirus which provides all basic protection that is firewall + antispyware + antivirus and of course it is less costlier than other as it is of just 30$(US). this is my personal experience.

    Reply
  11. I have a lot to say, but i guess this is supposed to be a comment only so i will be as brief as posssible. The products i recommend are chosen after examining nearly every review and comparative available and 5 solid years of installing, testing and uninstalling various antimalware software.
    RESIDENT ANTIVIRUS:
    *FREE- Avira Antivir Personal Edition Classic.
    *PAID- Kaspersky, NOD32.
    RESIDENT ANTISPYWARE:
    *FREE- Spyware Terminator, Spyware Doctor Starter Edition(via Google Pack).
    *PAID- Webroot Spy Sweeper, Spyware Doctor.
    SOFT FIREWALL:
    *FREE- Comodo, Online Armor Free.
    *PAID- Outpost, Online Armor.
    NON RESIDENT ANTIVIRUS:
    Norton Security Scan(via Google Pack),BitDefender Free Edition 8(not 10 though its the current version coz it interferes with Windows Security Center, via filehippo.com), Kaspersky S.O.S.
    NON RESIDENT ANTISPYWARE:
    AVG Antispyware(free version drops resident protection after 30 days), AdAware 2007 Free, a-Squared Free Edition.
    If you disagree with any of the above recommendations, their relative ordering or have any doubt as to the authenticity of these claims,
    please feel free to mention it here.

    Reply

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