Internet security suites include the three essential software components -- antivirus, anti-spyware and firewall -- along with optional features, such as a spam filter and parental controls. Some companies bundle additional components as well, including identity theft prevention, anti-phishing software and online backup.
Buying an Internet security software suite is usually cheaper than buying separate stand-alone programs, and 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, and you can get some good software for free. Please see our separate reports on antivirus software, spam filters, firewalls, anti-spyware and parental control software if you prefer to use individual programs.
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, which experts say is more effective than software. You may not need a spam filter, because your Internet service provider or email program may already take care of 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.
Most independent test labs only evaluate antivirus software, but AV-Comparatives.org and AV-Test.org review full Internet security suites (although their evaluations focus only on anti-malware performance). AV-Comparatives.org is particularly helpful because the organization gives awards in various categories and comments on interface, installation and ease of use. Among technology websites, CNET, PCMag.com and PCWorld have worthwhile reviews of Internet security software. Some of these conduct their own performance tests as a supplement to the results supplied by third-party labs. A number of British websites are also helpful, including Which? magazine, PC Advisor, TechRadar.com and Expert Reviews. We've included only reviews of the most recent software versions.
Because professional reviewers usually test software on "clean" test computers, they don't encounter the conflicts or system problems that consumers do. For that reason, user reviews of Internet security software at sites such as Download.com (which is owned by CNET) and Amazon.com are useful for evaluating how these suites perform in the real world.