ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite 2013 review

ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite 2013 combines the ZoneAlarm firewall with a pastiche of other security components from many different vendors. The end result isn't as effective as more thoroughly integrated competitors.
Photo of ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite 2013

There are two main reasons to buy a security suite rather than a collection of individual security tools. The first is price—buying firewall, antivirus, antispam, parental control, and more individually would add up to much more than the cost of a suite. The second is integration. If your security components all work together, sharing code when possible, the impact on system performance is reduced. At $79.95 for three licenses ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite 2013 is definitely cheaper than a collection of separate products. However, the majority of its components are licensed from other vendors, not created by Check Point, and it shows.

This suite’s main window looks very similar to that of ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus + Firewall 2013. Both products divide the main window into three large panels, each of which links to a page with direct access to related security components. And in both the right-most page, labeled “Identity + Data,” holds the backup and credit protection components.

The free suite devotes the other two panels (and their corresponding pages) to antivirus and firewall protection. The full-scale commercial suite merges those two into the Computer page and adds a new Internet page that gives you access to the antispam and parental control components.

Comprehensive Spam Filtering
ZoneAlarm’s antispam component, powered by SonicWall, offers significantly more features than the antispam found in most suites. To start, it filters both POP3 and IMAP email in Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, and Windows Mail. If you’re using Outlook, it can also filter Exchange-based accounts. Many products handle POP3 only. However, because of its extensive email client integration, ZoneAlarm doesn’t filter spam for unsupported clients, so those using Thunderbird or Eudora are out of luck.

Many spam filtering systems let you whitelist your regular correspondents or blacklist known spammers. Some let you whitelist (or blacklist) whole domains, so, for example, no email from within your company is blocked. ZoneAlarm does both, and can also whitelist messages received through mailing lists, where the sender might be different each time.

The spam filter takes many characteristics into account in deciding whether a message is spam. You can increase or decrease its sensitivity to content in six specific areas, among them Gambling and Sexual Content. You can also tweak how aggressively it identifies spam overall.

One characteristic of a spam message is that the same message goes to thousands or even millions of addresses. ZoneAlarm’s antispam takes into account the possibility that other users have already seen the message and marked it as spam. You can tweak the degree to which it uses this “collaborative filter” in flagging spam. Finally, you can set it to block all messages written in over a dozen languages and language groups.

If you mostly exchange email with a collection of known and trusted friends, you may want to enable the challenge-response feature. At its highest level, it puts all messages from unknown senders on hold and responds with a note asking the sender to simply click the “add me” button. Real people will do it; spammers won’t. It’s quite a clever system. You can also set it to use the challenge system only for messages that it can’t clearly identify as spam or not.

Many of us check mail on our smartphones, and spam filtering isn’t always available. ZoneAlarm solves that problem with an option to forward only valid mail to your mobile device. Clever!

Antispam Accuracy
For testing, I left all of the spam filter’s settings at their default values. I timed how long it took to download thousands of messages from a real-world email account that gets a ton of spam (as well as valid messages). Downloading 1,000 messages with ZoneAlarm filtering out spam took less than 20 percent longer than downloading mail with no spam filter, which is very good. By comparison, downloading mail with Kaspersky PURE 3.0 Total Security filtering out spam took almost three times as long.

After discarding any mail older than 30 days, I sorted the Inbox into valid personal mail, valid bulk mail, and undeniable spam, discarding all others. I did the same for the spam folder, and for the handful of messages identified as phishing attacks.

ZoneAlarm threw 1.7 percent of valid personal mail into the spam folder. That’s not great, but whitelisting PCMag internal email would have almost completely eliminated the problem. While 8.2 percent of undeniable spam slipped past the filter, I could have cut that number way down by blacklisting mail written in languages I don’t speak.

Other products have definitely done better in my antispam accuracy test. Norton Internet Security (2013) and Bitdefender Internet Security 2013 managed to avoid mis-filing any valid messages as spam. Norton missed 5.3 percent of the actual spam, while Bitdefender missed 6.8 percent. Feature-wise, though, ZoneAlarm’s antispam beats the rest.

For an explanation of my antispam accuracy test, please read How We Test Antispam.

ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite 2013 antispam chart

Powerful Parental Control
ZoneAlarm’s parental control system is provided by ContentWatch, whose Net Nanny parental control system is a PCMag Editor’s Choice. Anyone who’s used Net Nanny can easily see that the ZoneAlarm product is the same thing, with different branding. The one Net Nanny feature not included, and it’s a significant one, is remote management of the parental control system.

This parental control system is both more flexible and more comprehensive than that offered by almost any other suite. It does more than most, and it does its job the way you want it to. But since many users don’t need parental control at all, this component isn’t installed until the first time you use it.

On installation, ZoneAlarm automatically configures a Default User profile. All online activity will be tracked and managed under this profile unless you actively log in as the Admin. That may be fine if you just have one child, but most parents will probably want to set up separate child profiles.

When you create a new profile you can base it on one of six age ranges, or on another profile that you’ve already created. If your kids have their own Windows logon accounts you can associate the profile with an existing logon; if not, kids will need to log in to ZoneAlarm before they can use the Internet.

ZoneAlarm’s Web content filter displays a dozen website categories that you might consider inappropriate; you can optionally reveal 23 more categories. For each category you can choose to block access, allow access, or allow access with a warning. Naturally ZoneAlarm can notify parents when a child ignores that warning.

You can also control how the product handles an attempt to access a blocked site. By default it pops up a warning dialog that can include the option to override the block (with a password) or send parents an exception request. However you can also set it to display ZoneAlarm’s warning page, a user-selected page, or a “Forbidden” error message.

Where some parental control systems strictly rely on a database that categorizes known sites, ZoneAlarm includes a real-time analysis component. I tested it on a site featuring short stories; it correctly blocked only those stories with lewd content.

As with most parental control tools, ZoneAlarm can define a schedule for when each child is allowed on the Internet, as well as a daily or weekly maximum. The scheduler gets its time information from the Internet, so your child won’t be able to fool it by changing the system clock.

Advanced Parental Control
Filtering objectionable websites and controlling the children’s time online are the absolute must-haves for a parental control system. ZoneAlarm goes way beyond those basics.

Besides blocking websites based on content, parents can choose whether or not to allow access to chat rooms, newsgroups, and peer-to-peer sites. There’s also an option to block forum posts, blog posts, or image uploads.

Teenage boys ogling naughty pictures isn’t the only kind of trouble ZoneAlarm can stop. Kids can also endanger themselves via instant messaging, so ZoneAlarm monitors nine popular instant messaging services, tracking all contacts and conversations. Parents can also set it to raise an alert if it detects various types of questionable content, from flirting to direct threats.

Check Point’s own ZoneAlarm SocialGuard actively monitors a child’s Facebook account and flags potential problems. Social networking protection in the suite’s parental control system is quite different. It simply captures the child’s login credentials and presents them to the parent, allowing full access. For some reason, it can take 24 hours for captured credentials to appear. During my own testing, the Facebook and Twitter logins I attempted never did show up.

Parents who don’t worry about letting teenage Suzie play Grand Theft Auto may still have reservations about kindergartner Johnnie experiencing the game. ZoneAlarm lets parents set a cutoff for each child based on the ESRB game rating system. You can also allow or block a specific game, or block games based on dozens of ESRB descriptors such as Extreme Violence and Use of Drugs. Note, though, that it doesn’t let you block arbitrary programs the way Kaspersky PURE does.

Parental Reporting
ZoneAlarm includes a comprehensive reporting module that lets parents check on what the kids have been doing. The Web activity report charts sites visited by category and sites allowed or blocked, with the ability to drill down for more and more detail. For example, the list of blocked sites identifies the child involved, the action taken (warn or block), the categories that triggered the action, and a date/time stamp.

Parents can also view all instant messaging activity or grant the child some privacy by only looking at messages for which ZoneAlarm flagged questionable content. The product also reports on captured social networking credentials and tracks all searches.

ZoneAlarm can send you an email alert when any of numerous specific events occur, either in real time or aggregated once per hour, day, or week. For example, you can have it alert you when a child has requested a website exception, or when ZoneAlarm detects a potentially dangerous IM conversation. However, you have to be sitting at the computer to take any action based on the alert; ZoneAlarm didn’t manage to license the Net Nanny component that allows remote management.

To be fair, few suites offer parental control with remote management. Bitdefender is a rare exception, with parental control managed in the cloud across multiple computers. The parental control built into Trend Micro Titanium Maximum Security 2013 doesn’t offer remote management, but it includes a license for Trend Micro Online Guardian for Families, which does.

I did discover a serious problem either with the parental control system or with its integration into ZoneAlarm as a whole. I’ll discuss this in detail below when I report on the suite’s effect on system performance. Briefly, having the parental control system active bogged down the system to the point one of my tests couldn’t even function. I’ve knocked a half-star off ZoneAlarm’s parental control sub-rating due to this problem and the lack of remote management.

Average Antivirus
This suite’s antivirus protection, powered by technology from Kaspersky, is the same as what’s found in ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus + Firewall 2013, and full details about my testing and results will be found in that review. I’ll simply summarize here.

Gettting ZoneAlarm to install and scan my malware-infested test systems was a challenge that took nearly a week of back-and-forth with Check Point tech support. It also felt a bit surreal because all of the diagnostic and repair tools used were 100% Kaspersky.

About 90 percent of the cleanup results were identically to those of Kaspersky PURE; in the remaining cases ZoneAlarm was consistently less effective than Kaspersky. ZoneAlarm scored 5.3 of 10 possible points, compared to 6.0 for Kaspersky. Tested with my previous malware collection, Webroot SecureAnywhere Complete 2013, Comodo Internet Security Complete 2013, and Norton all scored 6.6 points. For details on my malware removal test, please see How We Test Malware Removal.

ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite 2013 malware removal chart

ZoneAlarm lagged behind Kaspersky in malware blocking as well. When I tried to re-download my current malware collection, Kaspersky completely blocked access to 74 percent at the URL level. ZoneAlarm allowed the browser to connect with all of the URLs and blocked 57 percent of the samples during the download process.

ZoneAlarm scored 7.6 points for malware blocking; Kaspersky PURE and avast! Premier 8, tested with the same malware collection, both took 8.5 points. Webroot topped the products tested with my previous malware collection, scoring a near-perfect 9.9 points. For an explanation of how I test malware blocking, see How We Test Malware Blocking.

ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite 2013 malware blocking chart

Few of the independent labs put ZoneAlarm’s technology to the test. Virus Bulletin has tested ZoneAlarm Extreme Security 2012 five times in recent years, awarding it VB100 certification all but once. The free ZoneAlarm suite earned 13.5 and 14.5 points (out of 18) in the latest tests by AV-Test. The chart below summarizes recent tests by the labs that I follow. For more on the labs and their tests, see How We Interpret Antivirus Lab Tests

ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite 2013 lab tests chart

Tough Firewall
This suite offers the same tough firewall protection that’s the heart of ZoneAlarm Free Firewall 2013. Please read that review for full details.

The ZoneAlarm firewall blocks hack attacks from outside and resists being disabled by malicious code. Using an immense database of known programs it automatically configures Internet and network permissions for the programs on your system. A behavior-based monitor called OSFirewall monitors running applications and warns of suspicious behaviors, though in testing it flagged both bad and good programs.

Leak test programs attempt to evade program control; ZoneAlarm did a good job detecting those. However, it simply doesn’t attempt to block exploits attacks at the network level or at the file level. When I attacked the test system using 30-odd exploits generated by Core IMPACT, it didn’t notice a thing.

Omitting exploit detection is forgivable in a free product, but I expect a commercial product like ZoneAlarm Internet Security 2013 to at least make the attempt. Norton blocked every single one of the exploits, identifying many by name. Kaspersky blocked over 70 percent, again identifying quite a few by name.

It’s true that the exploits didn’t breach security, as my test system is fully patched. But if a website is attacking me, I want to know about it.

Other Shared Features
This suite shares a number of other features with the free firewall. It marks unsafe links in search results with red or yellow icons, and also attempts to steer users away from fraudulent (phishing) websites. However, in my antiphishing test its detection rate was 43 percent below Norton’s and 16 percent below Internet Explorer alone. The article How We Test Antiphishing explains exactly how I derive these scores.

ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite 2013 antiphishing chart

ZoneAlarm offers 5GB of online backup via partner IDrive, a year’s credit protection through partner Identity Guard, and an active Do Not Track browser add-on from partner Abine. A Facebook safety test will check your profile and offer advice on making it more secure. You can also click a toolbar button to launch your browser’s own secure browsing mode. Once again, all of these features are also found in the free standalone firewall.

Some Effect on Performance
A fully integrated security suite whose components were all created by the same team has potential to be thoroughly streamlined, minimizing its effect on system performance. Webroot is an example—almost all of its components were created in-house, and they share code. ZoneAlarm, on the other hand, is patched together from a huge number of different sources, and it shows.

My boot-time test subtracts the start of boot process (as reported by Windows) from the time when the computer is ready to use. I define “ready to use” as ten consecutive seconds with CPU usage at or below five percent.

I got a shock when I first ran this test on ZoneAlarm. It never, ever reached the goal of ten seconds with low CPU usage. Ever four or five seconds saw a spike above (sometimes well above) five percent. I let it run overnight, and it never hit the goal.

Putting on my Sherlock Holmes cap, I tried a number of variations and found clear and repeatable evidence that the parental control component caused this problem. Before installing it, the test worked fine. After installing it, the test never finished. When I uninstalled parental control the test again worked fine. I’ve reported this problem to Check Point, and they’re investigating.

Booting the system took 41 percent longer with ZoneAlarm (sans parental control) than with no suite installed. Webroot, McAfee Internet Security 2013, and a number of other recent suites had no measurable effect on this test.

In my file manipulation tests, this product’s effect on performance was almost identical to that of the free ZoneAlarm suite. Moving and copying a large collection of huge files took 18 percent longer for both of them. Zipping and unzipping that same collection took 19 percent longer for this suite, 18 percent for the free suite.

I had some difficulty running my browser test, which times how long it takes to fully load a list of 100 websites. My script kept hanging before getting through the entire list. Once again the parental control system was to blame, but I didn’t have to uninstall it. Simply turning it off got rid of the problem. With ZoneAlarm installed, this test took 26 percent longer than with no security. It’s hard to say whether you’d actually notice a slowdown.

For a full explanation of my security suite performance tests see How We Test Security Suites for Performance.

ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite 2013 performance chart

A Patchwork Solution
With antivirus from Kaspersky, spam filtering from SonicWall, parental control from Net Nanny, backup from iDrive, Do Not Track from Abine, and credit protection from Identity Guard, finding ZoneAlarm in this suite can be difficult. The venerable firewall is pretty much the only major component that’s developed in house, and you can get the firewall for free.

Yes, the price of this suite is quite a bit below what you’d pay to buy all of the components separately, but for $10 less you could pick up Norton Internet Security (2013). At the same price, Webroot SecureAnywhere Complete 2013 omits antispam and parental control but adds superb backup and password management. And if you truly don’t need antispam or parental control, Comodo Internet Security Complete 2013 is a bargain at $39.99. I can’t see a reason to purchase the ZoneAlarm suite when these three Editors’ Choice products are available.

Sub-ratings:
Firewall:
Virus removal:
Virus blocking:
Performance:
Antispam:
Privacy:
Parental Control:

Specifications
Tech Support 24/7 live chat.
OS Compatibility Windows Vista, Windows XP, Windows 7
Type Business, Personal, Professional

Verdict
ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite 2013 combines the ZoneAlarm firewall with a pastiche of other security components from many different vendors. The end result isn't as effective as more thoroughly integrated competitors.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc