When it comes to security suites, the keyword is balance. These programs have to juggle anti-virus and anti-spyware scanning with PC tuneup tools, online backup, and parental controls, and swath it in an easy-to-use interface that still offers more advanced control for people who want it. Oh, and it can’t interfere with your PC’s performance much either. While ZoneAlarm Extreme Security offers some unique security features, such as virtualized browsing and hard drive encryption, its ease of use and parental controls could both use improvement.
Installation and Setup
Installing the 111MB program took 1 minute and 9 seconds, one of the shortest times we’ve seen for a program like this. After this, though, we had to restart, which is common enough with security suite installations, but not something every program requires you to do.
Extreme Security’s interface isn’t confusing but it could use some consolidation: most of the main screen is taken up by three large, glossy boxes denoting firewall security, anti-virus and anti-spyware tools, and browser security. There’s also a left-hand pane including these tasks and others, but in a smaller font.
Unfortunately, some features, such as PC Tune-Up and hard drive encryption, appear in a right-hand pane, called Additional Features. When you click on these, a window opens in your browser so that you can download and install these tools separately. These features should come baked in with the original installation, and should appear in the comprehensive list of tasks in the left-hand pane. Moreover, there’s no central Settings tab or link on the main page; you’ll have to select the feature you want first and then adjust the settings for just that feature.
The stand-out feature in Extreme Security is MyZone, which is hard drive encryption software (also installed separately). The setup involved creating a username and password just for this encryption program, as well as entering our e-mail address; we then had to reenter our e-mail address and password and answer two security questions. Once we finished, we had to restart and boot into a pre-Windows UI where we entered our temporary password and then created a new one. Sound complicated? Well, then we rebooted into Windows, at which point a Wizard prompted us to back up our content for recovery in case of system failure (you’ll need a CD, DVD, USB, or hard drive to do this). Note that a pre-Windows log in screen will appear every time you boot your computer.
Since ZoneAlarm is best known for its ForceField virtualization technology, which creates a protected clone of your browser, it’s no surprise that virtualization is one ingredient of Extreme Security. The feature, which works with Firefox 2.0 and higher and Internet Explorer 6 and higher, is unique for this class of product, and goes a step beyond other security suites, which might rate sites (ForceField does this too) but not necessarily ward off the negative consequences of users’ Web surfing. Extreme Security also includes private browsing, which is like IE8’s InPrivate browsing feature in that it doesn’t record your history.
Compared to other security suites’, Extreme Security’s parental controls are weak: all parents can do is block the categories of sites their children can visit (there are 32 in total, and ZoneAlarm is the only vendor to classify “Gay and Lesbian” as a potentially pernicious category). And that’s it: you can’t block keywords or particular Web sites. You can’t restrict usage of certain applications or the Internet at certain times of days or days of the week. There aren’t even guidelines for different age ranges.
On the identity protection front, Extreme Security also offers MyVault, for storing sensitive files, as well as free credit bureau monitoring, another unique addition.
Before we installed Extreme Security on our Toshiba Tecra M10, the laptop took 1, 4, 1, and 2 seconds respectively to launch Internet Explorer, iTunes, Google Picasa 2, and Microsoft Word. While running a scan, these numbers rose to 5, 12, 3, and 4 seconds; while the times for Picasa and Word were below the average (5.2 and 5.5 seconds), the amount of time it took to open IE and iTunes were somewhat longer than the average (3.8 and 8.3 seconds).
When you press the Scan button, the ZoneAlarm Extreme Security 2010 will tell you if haven’t updated your settings and will instruct you to press OK to look for updates and begin the scan afterward. During the scan there’s no progress bar , and you can’t opt to shut down the computer automatically when the scan is finished. When we began our scan, we saw a popup in the lower right-hand corner saying a scan was in progress. If you like, you can run game mode, which minimizes alerts (ZoneAlarm warns that this might reduce security, however). According to an independent study by Virus Bulletin, ZoneAlarm offers very strong protection against malware: its rate of 97.8 percent is tied with Symantec’s 2008 rating, and creams Trend Micro’s 91.3 and McAfee’s 93.6.
Once again, you’ll have to go to a Web site (the link is on the program’s main screen) to download PC Tune-Up, which, as its name suggests, speeds up your computer by cleaning the registry, deleting temporary files, defragging the hard drive, and removing other inefficiencies. It should just install along with the more standard features, such as virus and malware protection. Worse, once you install it, PC Tune-Up opens in a separate window, as a separate program.
The user interface for PC Tune-Up consists of a circle with four steps. You can skip step one, Backup, if you like (or you can begin at any step). Once you click on one of the steps, it’ll work like a wizard, complete with “Next” buttons to guide not-so-techie users. It worked fast, too. Only gripe: we wish there were a program that made it easier for low-tech users to remove unnecessary startup programs. We appreciate the before and after graphs you see afterward, illustrating the extent to which your computer’s registry was cluttered before, and how clean it is after the scan.
But are these graphs accurate? Our boot time rose an unacceptable 49 seconds. Although almost none of the security suites we tested helped our notebook’s boot time, this result was the worst. (The best suite in this regard was McAfee Total Protection 2009, which caused the boot time to drop by 20 seconds).
Extreme Security comes with 2GB of online storage, courtesy of iDrive. Again, you must click a link in the right-hand pane on the main screen to install (or arrive at a download page) for the desktop-based backup client. Then, you have to set up yet another (free) account by giving your name and e-mail address, and creating a username and password. There’s also a separate restore tab and icons for syncing, timeline restore, and schedule manager.
At $69.95, ZoneAlarm Extreme Security 2010 brings some one-of-a-kind security tools to the table, including hard drive encryption and the ForceField virtualization technology. However, we recommend paying $10 more for BitDefender Total Security 2010, a lightweight program that combines a better interface with excellent parental controls and malware protection.