Monday, April 11, 2011

Norton 360

Cons: It's as if Peter Norton had been abducted by aliens and replaced with AOL Pod People Programmers

Summary: What I Hate About Norton 360
I am profoundly disappointed that the Norton product name, which in the early days of the PC was associated with everything that was right about taking control and managing your computer environment, has fallen to the level of Symantec corporate group think. The best
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Summary: What I Hate About Norton 360
I am profoundly disappointed that the Norton product name, which in the early days of the PC was associated with everything that was right about taking control and managing your computer environment, has fallen to the level of Symantec corporate group think. The best thing I can compare it to is AOL, which attempts to take total control of your computer because clearly they know best and you, the user, are an idiot.

I started with a new HP Pavilion laptop, having gone out of my way to find one with Windows XP installed instead of Vista. It came with a Norton antivirus product with a 90 day trial license; I don't remember specifically which one it was, but the user interface and performance were both familiar and satisfactory. About 6 weeks before the trial period ended, the warning messages started -- OHMYGODYOUWILLSOONBEUNPROTECTED! DON'T LET THIS HAPPEN TO YOU! Clearly, the Bush Administration has not cornered the market of Fear Mongering. I put up with these annoying popups on my system for several weeks. At the time of my choosing, I opted to buy an annual license for the product. My web browser popped up and gave me a choice of buying the same product, or buying the new and more comprehensive Norton 360 package at a discount (which turned out to be $30 higher than comparable deals that appeared in the following Sunday paper).

Having a single package instead of a half dozen different programs appealed to my desire for efficiency, so I bought it. Installation went as planned, and I began to learn about the programs shortcomings.

A few weeks later, I began getting popup error messages about a feature that was never explained in the program setup or in the error messages: "Symantec Network Proxy Service has encountered a problem and needs to close". When this happens in the program that has planted itself on your system as the great protector, it makes you uneasy at best. When the messages became frequent and annoying enough, I asked Symantec for help. Oh yes, they recognize the problem, they've seen it before. My instructions were to uninstall and reinstall the program. In other words, we're only pretending that we have a clue why this happens but your time is of no consequence to us so here's how you should spend an afternoon. I did, and the messages have stopped -- so far. I have been instilled, of course, with zero confidence that the problem will not recur since I don't know what caused the problem in the first place. And neither does Symantec. A repair patch or program update would have at least lulled me into believing "problem solved."

In spite of these annoyances, I foolishly decided I should install this comprehensive protection package on my wife's computer. Looking on my online Symantec account, I was able to find the option to buy another license for another computer, but I was not able to find the license for my existing download to tell me how many household systems I was entitled to install it on. I visited my local software store and saw that the Norton 360 packages (all of which were by now 50% cheaper than I had paid for mine) entitled the buyer to install the software on up to three household computers. OK, since I had paid more for the same product, surely I was justified in two installations.

With that build up in the story, you're probably expecting me to tell you how the installation on my wife's computer was denied. No, that wasn't the case. Instead, I removed her old Norton anti-virus, all the time listening to my wife asking why I was infiltrating her computer with software that I didn't seem to be the least bit happy with myself. These are the things that men do sometimes. I installed the software and rebooted the system (also Windows XP), which immediately went into the Norton 360 configuration screen, apparently gathering system information. I had to guess that's what it was doing, because it didn't tell me anything, it didn't allow me to do anything else, and it didn't end. This went on overnight and for several hours longer than a full virus scan and defrag should have taken. Fortunately, even the cleverest software programmers cannot disable the power switch. I killed the system cold and rebooted. Once again, the Norton 360 configuration window took over the system. On the third power down and reboot, I managed to open the Add & Remove Programs control panel and removed Norton 360 from her system, even while it was still purportedly configuring itself. I won't be putting it back on her system.

The main window pops up from the task bar with four status flags and some high level task choices. Because I have my backup routine set to Manual (see BACKUP section below), I don't get a green 'good to go' check mark, I get a dismal grey 'Disabled' indicator. Shame on me for not letting Norton 360 run things for me.

Every time I click on a task or option, another window opens. If you drill deep enough, you can have your whole desk top cluttered with additional windows that don't replace each other. Just when you're getting used to this new window format, you finish a task and close the window instead of selecting the BACK button (which is nothing like the BACK arrow on a web browser), and you are back several levels farther than you wanted to go instead of just back to the prior screen that you had come from. Apparently, Symantec programmers have never seen how a browser window works.

The backup routine is incredibly slow in everything it does.

It begins by scanning your system to find all files that match pre-determined file types. Almost. The fact is that it scans the C: drive. This is a fair assumption for older systems. My HP Pavilion has a 240Gb hard drive in the form of two separate 120Gb drives, C: and D:. All of my data is on D:, but Norton 360 doesn't recognize this. It marks all of the C: files that match their standard file types, even if they are meaningless to me.

To set up the directories for backup, the necessary window opens and scans your entire hard drive to count the files that had already been marked for backup. With a 240Gb system drive, this takes a long time. To select the directories I want to back up, I open the selection window and tunnel down to the directory I want to select. I can pick one. If I want another one, even several of the adjacent directories on that screen, I can pick one. I have to open the select window separately for each one. Because my time is cheap, and some programmers have never heard of selecting multiple entries while holding down the Control or Shift key. After I have painstakingly selected all of the directories I want to back up, there is a penalty to pay for wanting to choose more. Because now that I have chosen all of these directories to back up, the next time I open the window to set up my backup parameters, the program will once again scan my entire system to give me an exact, up to the minute count of how many files I have marked and how much space I will need for the next backup. This invaluable information, which again takes a long time on my 240Gb system but it's OK because my time is cheap, is totally worthless. I don't need to know the total size of my backup requirements. I might be interested in how many new files there are that haven't been backup up yet, but even that information is not worth my time if my intention is to run a backup anyway.

The backup process itself apparently scans every marked directory & file to see if the filed already backed up needs to be replaced or not. I can't imagine any other reason why the process takes so long and the backed-up file count increments so incredibly slowly. Even if I only have a dozen files that have changed since the last backup, the scan still takes hours. I don't suppose anyone at Symantec knows how to maintain a database of files & directories to be backed up, and mark changes & additions in real time for a quick backup procedure. For years I had used DOS XCOPY to do backups based on the archive "A" file attribute. Not very sophisticated, but at least I got what I paid for.

The backup routine copies files individually, in standard format so they can be recovered individually very easily with Windows Explorer. This is good. But there is no intelligence built in to recognize when I move or delete files, so duplicate files and trash files accumulate indefinitely on my backup drive. My DOS XCOPY batch routine had this much intelligence, it was a lot cheaper, and a lot faster.

I do my backup on a remote drive that is not always connected. In order to avoid inane error messages for automatic backup, I have had to disable automatic backup and set it to manual, which gives me inane messages about not being fully protected. When I did allow it once to do the complete protection regimen with my backup drive connected, the program informed me that the backup on the remote drive appeared to be from another computer, gave me an option to over-write it or not, and sat there all night waiting for instructions instead of finishing its long routine. Why Norton 360 did not recognize that it had created that backup in manual mode is undoubtedly a feature of Symantec's product, like the numerous undocumented features that Microsoft has given us over the years.

As with any new firewall setup, windows pop up initially as I teach Norton 360 what is valid access. The generic pop up informs me that "A Program Is Trying To Access the Internet". In order to find out WHICH program, I have to click a link and open an expansion of the same popup window. I am baffled why this expanded window would not have been the obvious choice to present in the first place. Once again, Symantec's programmers have made clear the value that they place on my time.

After running a scan, a window informs me how many items I have been protected from. It takes me 2-3 more clicks to find out what the items are, and I have an option to restore them. I don't have an option to delete them permanently. Therefore, as far as I know, their status is indeterminate, probably quarantined somewhere on my hard drive and wasting drive space until the end of time. If there is any program feature that prevents these items, once found, from ever bothering me again, I have no way of knowing.

Norton 360 decides who lives and who dies, and I don't have much to say about it. This can be especially annoying with browser cookies that I WANT to keep because they make my login automatic, or my TV Guide local listing profile come up formatted the way I want it. Cache Cleaner, a freeware program, does a much better job of letting me manage my computer the way I want to.

I won't be installing this software on any other computers.

As long as it doesn't force me to reinstall itself on my computer, I will probably tolerate it for the year I paid for. Unless there are some significant upgrades both in performance and in user interface, I won't be renewing my license. The inconvenience of managing system protection through several separate programs was nothing compared to the inconvenience of this all-in-one we'll-protect-you-because-you're-too-dumb-to-do-it-yourself package.

Oh, I suppose there's a market for this sort of thing. Unfortunately, the product purchase was not preceded by a mandatory market survey of user habits, patience and skill levels to warn me that I may not be the target market.

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