How much protection do you need?

Buying an Internet security software suite is usually cheaper than buying separate stand-alone programs. It also reduces the likelihood that security programs will refuse to work together. However, you can assemble your own security software system by choosing the top-rated software in each category; you can get some good free security programs as well.

Keep in mind that you may not want or use all the components of an Internet security software suite. A firewall is essential to protect your computer from intrusion threats (programs looking to steal data from your computer or hijack your identity), but you may already have a firewall in your wireless router, and experts say that a hardware firewall of that type is generally more effective than a software firewall. You might not need a spam filter if your Internet service provider or email program is already filtering spam. Therefore, choosing between buying an Internet security suite or stand-alone antivirus software is partly a matter of weighing the strengths and weaknesses of each package against your own security priorities.

"Shop around" is always good advice, but especially with Internet security suites. Prices swing wildly all over the map, and you should keep an eagle eye out for sales or special promotions. For example, we found Norton Security selling for $80 at Symantec's site (Symantec is the maker of Norton), but a promotion had reduced the price of the upgraded version, Norton Security with Backup, so that it was cheaper, just $60. At Amazon.com, Norton Security with Backup was offered at $60 as well, but the base Norton Security was being offered at less than $55. Also watch for rebates, which are sometimes offered only for products purchased from a specific store or website, and those rotate fairly quickly.

Here are some other things to consider when selecting an Internet security suite:

  • Easy install and setup. The security software should be simple to install, and the interface should be easy to understand, whether or not it's been redesigned with tiles and icons for Windows 8.
  • The number of licenses. Some Internet security software suites offer licenses to install its software on three, five or 10 PCs, or just one. Be sure you are comparing apples to apples (and licenses to licenses) when looking for the best price.
  • Compatibility with multiple operating systems. Some of the Internet security software suites that we review run on both Windows and Mac operating systems, as well as iOS and Android tablets and smartphones.
  • Parental controls. Most Internet security software comes with some form of parental control. However, most is not all, and some programs either lack that feature or include it as an option, sometimes at extra cost. In terms of features, basic parental controls can monitor and control your child's Internet usage; more sophisticated controls cover texts, calls, Facebook and more.
  • Do you even need Internet security software? If you already have an effective firewall and security features in your operating system and browser, you may just need antivirus software. Windows includes Windows Defender antivirus, but that security software, while better than having none at all, finishes at the bottom of the pack in many independent tests. See our report on antivirus software for our recommendations dedicated software -- including free products -- that perform better.
  • Surf smart. Though you have security software installed, you must still monitor your Internet behavior. Research before clicking on an ad or download, and don't open emails or attachments that look suspicious. Stay up to date about the latest Internet dangers by browsing computer news sites or subscribing to email alerts.
  • Update Internet security software regularly. Be sure your security suite is set to check for updates automatically, preferably at least once a day. Most security software applications do this, but some free programs require manual updates.

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