Since this review was first posted, Symantec has removed a feature we liked from the final product shipped to customers. For details, please see our corrections page.
Keeping your PC safe from hackers and virus-writing cranks is a breeze with Norton Internet Security 2003 (NIS). The software isn't free; so, if money's tight, the no-cost version of ZoneAlarm 3.0 remains your best bet. If you're willing to spend a buck or two, however, NIS 2003 will make it worth your while. Now with intelligent intrusion detection that sniffs out suspect data transmissions (the sneaky hack popularized by Nimda and Code Red), NIS 2003 protects you from backdoor break-ins. It has also added a bunch of other security and privacy tools, which let you, for instance, map the locale of hack attacks and stop pop-up ads. For $40 (after the rebate), this firewall/virus-killer combo is the best deal in town if you don't mind the expensive technical-support fees.
Are you intimidated by firewalls because they're too technical? NIS 2003 holds you by the hand right from the installation--a five-minute process that includes one reboot--to the final configuration. Give most of the credit to the Security Assistant wizard, which asks simple-to-answer questions to customize your protection.
On the NIS 2003 interface, the Status display's new green and red indicators tell you at a glance which options are active and which may need attention--very nice. Among other interface enhancements and additions, we like the new Block Traffic button the best. Borrowed from ZoneAlarm Pro, this one-click button shuts down all Net traffic, in and out, for those times when you want supersecurity. There's also a new Security Monitor, a smaller window that keeps all of NIS 2003's main features on the desktop.
The heart of NIS 2003 remains Norton Personal Firewall (also available separately for $50 or $30 as an upgrade). Personal Firewall blocks malicious hack attacks while letting applications that you trust (and so designate) connect to the Net. As before, it's a snap to tell NIS 2003 which apps can connect. During installation the program automatically scans your drive for Internet-able programs, such as browsers, instant messengers, and e-mailers, and it automatically configures itself to allow those apps through the firewall. You can schedule these scans manually, as well.
What's more, the familiar Norton Alert Tracker pop-up still warns you if someone's trying to break into your PC. It immediately reports both unauthorized attempts by apps to access the Net and illicit port scans. In case of an unavoidable attack, version 2003's new Alert Assistant provides more information about any suspicious activity, including whether the program that's attempting to connect contains a digital signature, which means that it's probably trustworthy. NIS's new Visual Tracker not only traces threats to their origin, it also graphically maps their IP addresses.
Far be it from NIS to rest on its laurels. Year after year, this utility suite continues to beef up its security intelligence. Last year, NIS debuted a feature that kept rogue programs from masquerading as trusted apps. The 2003 version not only autoblocks port scanners, which it has always done, it also scans each packet of data that leaves or enters your PC. If these scans spot suspicious data exchanges, which it finds by comparing them to a frequently updated database, NIS 2003 automatically severs the link to the offending computer. Using this technique, NIS can detect advanced worms, such as Nimda and Code Red.