By Gregg Keizer

It’s easy to make your PC invulnerable to hackers and virus-writing cranks—all you need is a few bucks. Norton Internet Security (NIS) 2002 is both excellent and expensive. This fully loaded suite combines a firewall with best-of-breed utility Norton AntiVirus to nail nasties on the spot. If you’re still surfing the Web without protection, this combo is a good deal. At $70, it costs just $20 more than Norton AntiVirus by itself. But if you’re looking to save some bucks, get the free ZoneAlarm firewall instead. Click here to check out the latest prices for NIS 2002.

Easy configuration
Like earlier editions, NIS 2002 configures itself nearly automatically. Just shove in the CD, install, and reboot. Although the preconfigured settings are sufficient to protect PCs in most situations, you can use the nifty Security Assistant wizard to customize your level of protection simply by clicking links or answering yes/no questions.

We ran into one major glitch, though, as we upgraded from NIS 2001 to 2002. Our customized settings, including those we used to connect via a satellite service to the Internet, didn’t make the trip. We had to manually re-create them in 2002—a tedious chore that involved entering IP addresses of sites and computers we either needed to permanently block or to allow access to our PC.

Trojans unveiled
Since it bundles a ton of tools under one roof, NIS is, strictly speaking, a suite, but its core component is Norton Personal Firewall (also available separately for $50). Personal Firewall does the heavy lifting: It blocks incoming hack attacks yet lets applications you trust connect to the Net. It’s a snap to tell NIS which apps you deem trustworthy. NIS scans your drive for Net-connected programs such as browsers, instant messengers, and e-mailers immediately after installation and automatically configures itself to allow connections by those that you say are okay. You can also rescan anytime later.

Like NIS 2001, NIS 2002 relies on Norton Alert Tracker to warn you if someone is trying to break into your PC. This pop-up, which sits at the edge of the main window, reports unauthorized attempts by applications to access the Internet (that’s how Trojan horses gain control of your computer) and illicit port scanning (another way hackers find your machine). You’ll definitely know if some punk tries to bust in the back door.

If you have Norton SystemWorks, you’ll be pleased to find that it’s integrated nicely with NIS 2002, so all your tools are tucked under one interface. But if you don’t have SystemWorks, you won’t necessarily miss it: NIS sports the same design as that suite. Just like SystemWorks, NIS displays its sections, such as Current Status or Intrusion Protection, on the left. Click an option, and the tools, settings, or status appear on the right side of the window.

Increased security
NIS 2002 is more secure than previous incarnations. To ensure that a rogue program can’t masquerade as a trustworthy application, such as Outlook Express, NIS 2002 verifies programs against digital signatures from a database it installs and keeps current via LiveUpdate, which checks the Symantec site for updated virus definitions every four hours. Trojan horses often use this technique to gain access to the Internet and then take control of your PC or send confidential info, such as passwords, to hackers. NIS is the first personal firewall to include such digital verification. Bravo!

Personal Firewall passed all our probing tests, conducted from the ShieldsUp Web site (along with shareware Port Checker), with flying colors. Using these tools, we tested the most popular ports of our PC (ports 80, 110, and 130, for example), both before installing NIS and after, looking for a way into the computer as would a hacker. NIS blocked every attempt to gain entry, and Personal Firewall wrapped every port on our test PCs in a cloak of invisibility.

An antivirus tool, too
Although Personal Firewall is NIS’ main attraction, it’s hardly the only part of the show. NIS includes Norton AntiVirus 2002, CNET’s Editors’ Choice among virus sniffers and killers. Firewalls and antivirus apps complement each other: The first keeps bad things at bay; the second eradicates the few that slip through. NIS 2002’s mix is right on target.

NIS also features tools that block Web banner ads (although it can’t stop pop-up or pop-under ads), unwanted cookies, JavaScripts, and ActiveX controls, and even outgoing personal information, such as your Social Security number. If your Social Security number is sent through a Web site, or if you try to send it in an instant message using AOL Instant Messenger, MSN Messenger, or the new Windows Messenger in XP, NIS 2002 alerts you.

NIS includes a wizard that greatly simplifies setting up a firewall to protect multiple PCs sharing one Net connection. It automatically identifies all machines on the network and configures the gateway that is actually connected to the Net. Last year’s NIS made you do this manually, but 2002’s wizard does the bulk of the work. Nice.

Final analysis
Not everything smells like roses in NIS 2002. This version doesn’t support Windows 95, and although it’s much more sophisticated and flexible than Windows XP’s built-in firewall, our testing revealed that XP’s firewall hides a PC’s ports from hackers just as well as NIS.

Symantec’s online support is superb; just click through a series of forms to find a solution. And tech reps typically gave us good, solid answers in 12 to 24 hours. But a phone call is expensive: $30 per question or $3 per minute.

We like the top-to-bottom security that NIS provides, and we’re equally impressed by the no-brains setup. But in economic times as tough as these, $70 is too high a price. So what’s the bottom line? Unless you’re specifically in the market for a firewall/antivirus combo, buy Norton AntiVirus and then download the free ZoneAlarm firewall instead.

Click here to read user opinions of NIS 2002 and click here to check out the latest prices.