ZoneAlarm Extreme Security 2013 Review

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ZoneAlarm Extreme Security 2013 lacks most features found in “mega-suites” and even lacks features found in the 2012 edition. It’s a big disappointment.

(2.5 out of 5)

Pros

  • PC Tune-Up fixes Registry problems
  • Comprehensive flexible spam filtering includes unusual (and useful) features
  • Powerful, flexible parental control has advanced features
  • Hardened firewall resists direct attack

Cons

  • Advanced PC Tune-Up features cost extra
  • PC Tune-Up did not work unless run as Administrator
  • No dedicated keylogger protection
  • Parental control lacks remote management
  • Antivirus protection good, not great
  • Ineffective antiphishing
  • Firewall doesn’t handle exploit attacks
  • System boot time slowed
  • Lacks features found in previous edition

Many security vendors offer a three-tier product line: standalone antivirus, security suite, and mega-suite. Bonus features in a mega-suite can include backup, tune-up, password management, encryption, and more. ZoneAlarm Extreme Security 2013 ($89.95 direct for three licenses) occupies the mega-suite slot in Check Point’s product line, but it’s woefully lacking compared to the competition and even compared to its own 2012 edition.

This product’s main window is identical to that of the base-level ZoneAlarm suite. The only visible difference is that the Tune-up link is no longer disabled.

Limited Features
The product comparison chart on the ZoneAlarm website indicates that ZoneAlarm Extreme offers PC Tune-up and keylogger protection, features not found in ZoneAlarm Internet Security 2013. However, keylogger protection isn’t entirely ready. My Check Point contact explained that the company is “transitioning to a new homegrown keylogger technology that has less conflicts with third party software,” and that at present keylogger protection is handles by the behavioral detection component.

Last year’s version included a license for ZoneAlarm DataLock, a whole-disk encryption product, but that product is “being phased out.” A new File and Folder lock product replaces it. However, that product it’s not yet integrated into ZoneAlarm Extreme.

“ForceField” virtualization technology was a big part of the first ZoneAlarm Extreme. This technology worked to protect the browser from drive-by downloads and prevent any Web-based malware from making damaging changes to the system. A glowing browser window border served as a reminder of its protection. And… ForceField is out. “It was a support and development nightmare,” my Check Point contact said. “A more compatible replacement technology [is] in the works, but [we] are still in the awkward transition phase.”

Limited Tune-Up
The Tune-Up feature isn’t installed along with the rest of ZoneAlarm Extreme, but the first time you try to run it, you’re directed to a Web page that lets you download and activate it. I smelled a rat at this very first step. Yes, it offered a button to let me install now, but another button proposed that I “Update Now” for $9.95. The extra $10 you pay for ZoneAlarm Extreme gets nothing but this feature; now they want another $10?

It turns out ZoneAlarm’s PC Tune-Up is a stripped-down and re-branded version of a tool from Large Software. This version focuses specifically on the Registry, omitting features like management of startup programs, scheduling, and getting rid of useless files.

When you launch the Tune-Up component it goes through four stages of Registry cleanup. It backs up the Registry, scans for problems, fixes found problems, and finally defragments the Registry. Expert users can pick and choose which problems to fix; most users will just fix everything. On the off-chance that a “fix” breaks something, you can revert to the backup created in the first step.

I ran a Tune-Up on my physical test system, running Windows 7. I hit a snag at the very first step, as the utility reported numerous errors backing up the Registry. After I clicked the error messages away, though, it reported that the backup completed successfully. It found and fixed hundreds of Registry problems and proceeded to defragment the Registry, after which I had to reboot.

Once I rebooted, I ran the Tune-Up again… and discovered that it had done nothing the first time around. It still displayed error messages during backup, still found and allegedly fixed the same problems, and still found the Registry in need of defragmentation. After a third run-through, for a sanity check, I contacted tech support.

They suggested I launch the Tune-Up application by right-clicking and choosing “Run as Administrator.” That didn’t make a lot of sense, given that I was using an Administrator account, but I gave it a try. This time it worked. I wonder how many ordinary users will run Tune-Up over and over, not realizing that it isn’t doing anything?

Keylogger Protection Fail
The previous version of ZoneAlarm Extreme included effective protection against keyloggers. When I tested it, some keyloggers caught nothing at all while others captured random garbage. Spy programs attempting to capture sensitive data from the screen came up with blank images.

That protection is gone in the 2013 edition. I installed a keylogger that ZoneAlarm doesn’t block and found it had no trouble capturing every single keystroke I typed. It also recorded screenshots while I pretended to log into a bank website.

As a side-effect of this testing, I noticed that the ZoneAlarm toolbar didn’t show up in Firefox. I checked the add-ons page and found that the ZoneAlarm toolbar isn’t compatible with Firefox 19.0. OK, no problem, I updated Firefox to 20.0… and still no toolbar. Check Point plans a compatible update “soon.”

Spam Filtering and Parental Control
That’s it for features specific to ZoneAlarm Extreme. All of its remaining features are shared with ZoneAlarm Internet Security 2013. I’ll summarize those here, but if you want full details, please read that review.

ZoneAlarm’s spam filter, powered by SonicWall, is significantly more flexible and comprehensive than what’s offered by almost any other suite. Its extensive integration does mean you can only use it with a supported email client, but the vast majority of people have access to Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, or Windows Mail.

Many spam filters let you whitelist or blacklist individual addresses or domains. ZoneAlarm goes beyond that with an option to whitelist all messages sent to a specific mailing list. Its optional challenge-response system can totally eliminate spam, if you’re willing to put a minor roadblock in the way of contact by legitimate new correspondents.

In testing, ZoneAlarm mis-filed 1.7 percent of valid personal mail as spam; whitelisting could have prevented that. Note, though, that Bitdefender Total Security 2013, Norton 360 (2013), and a few others did their job without a single false positive.

8.2 percent of undeniable spam slipped past ZoneAlarm into the Inbox; blacklisting foreign-language messages would have reduced that figure. Bitdefender missed 6.8 percent of spam; Norton, 5.3. For an explanation of how I analyze antispam accuracy, read How We Test Antispam.

ZoneAlarm Extreme Security 2013 antispam chart

Parental control in ZoneAlarm is handled by a licensed edition of Net Nanny 6.5, a PCMag Editors’ Choice. The ZoneAlarm edition includes all features except for remote management. If parental control interests you, do be sure to read my very extensive coverage in the ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite 2013 review.

The parental control system is significantly more extensive and more flexible than what most suites offer. It performs the expected tasks of filtering out inappropriate websites and limiting the children’s time on the Internet, but goes much farther. It will monitor or block instant messaging and warn parents about questionable conversations, For each child, parents can limit game play to a maximum ESRB rating. Its activity reports start with overall statistical charts but allow parents to dig in for much, much more detail.

On the down side, it’s not so useful to receive an email notification that the kids are acting up online when you can’t remotely log in and do something about it. And in my performance testing the parental control system caused some serious problems; more about those later.

Average Antivirus
ZoneAlarm Extreme’s antivirus protection is exactly the same as what you get in ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus + Firewall 2013, with the exception of a few configuration settings that are locked in the free edition. Do read that review for full details of my testing.

The underlying antivirus technology comes from Kaspersky. Getting ZoneAlarm installed took nearly a week of back and forth with tech support, including running numerous Kaspersky-branded diagnostic and repair tools. Since it did eventually install and scan all the systems, ZoneAlarm gets three stars for ease of installation. Five stars would mean installation with next to no problems; one star would mean it couldn’t install at all on at least one test system.

ZoneAlarm earned 5.3 points for malware removal, not up to the 6.0 points that Kaspersky PURE 3.0 Total Security got. Norton 360 (2013), Webroot SecureAnywhere Complete 2013, and Comodo Internet Security Complete 2013 all got 6.6 points, though they were tested with my previous malware collection. For full details on this test, see How We Test Malware Removal.

ZoneAlarm Extreme Security 2013 malware removal chart

ZoneAlarm detected 81 percent of my malware samples; Kaspersky and avast! Premier 8 both caught 86 percent (but not the same 86 percent). Webroot detected 100 percent of my previous collection and scored 9.9 points, just short of a perfect score. The article How We Test Malware Blocking explains how I go about my malware blocking test.

ZoneAlarm Extreme Security 2013 malware blocking chart

Given that its antivirus engine isn’t home-grown, it’s not surprising that few of the independent antivirus labs put ZoneAlarm to the test. It has received VB100 certification in four of five tests by Virus Bulletin, and it gets good (but not great) scores from AV-Test. For details about the labs that I follow, see How We Interpret Antivirus Lab Tests

ZoneAlarm Extreme Security 2013 lab tests chart

Firewall and More
All of the remaining features in ZoneAlarm Extreme can also be found in ZoneAlarm Free Firewall 2013. Please read that review for full details on the firewall and bonus features.

ZoneAlarm was among the first personal firewalls ever, and it remains tough; I couldn’t find any way a malicious coder could disable it. It handles port scans and other outside attacks and manages Internet and network permissions for local programs using the huge DefenseNet database. It’s especially effective at detecting programs that attempt to gain access by manipulating or masquerading as a trusted program.

In a test using 30 exploit attacks, Norton detected all 30 and identified most by name. Kaspersky blocked over 70 percent and identified many. ZoneAlarm didn’t notice a thing; if the test system had not been fully patched these exploits could have compromised it.

Among the features shared between the free firewall and ZoneAlarm Extreme is a phishing prevention module. It pops up a warning overlay when it detects a known fraudulent site, or displays a yellow infobar when the site seems to be fraudulent. However, its detection rate lagged 43 percent below Norton’s and 16 percent lower than the detection rate of Internet Explorer 8′s SmartScreen Filter. For more on how I test antiphishing, please read How We Test Antiphishing.

ZoneAlarm Extreme Security 2013 antiphishing chart

ZoneAlarm partners with third parties to supply a number of other security features. Abine’s Do Not Track Me technology lets you click a toolbar button to actively prevent advertisers from tracking your browsing. You can get a year of free credit protection from partner Identity Guard. And IDrive powers 5GB of free hosted online backup.

Measurable Performance Hit
With all of these components from different vendors bouncing around in the same suite, it’s not too surprising that some of my performance tests took noticeably longer with ZoneAlarm running. The parental control component in particular totally interfered with my boot time test. With parental control installed, the test system never reached what I define as “ready to use” status. I had to completely uninstall it in order to even finish that test. Check Point developers are looking into the problem.

Averaging 100 tests with and without ZoneAlarm present, I found that it slowed boot time by 43 percent. That’s more than most current suites, but then, you probably don’t reboot all that often.

Parental control also interfered with my browsing test, which times a script that fully loads 100 websites. With parental control active, the script kept crashing. Fortunately turning Web content filtering off solved that problem. The browsing test took 26 percent longer with ZoneAlarm’s other components watching out for danger.

A script that moves and copies a huge number of huge files between drives took 20 percent longer with ZoneAlarm Extreme installed. Another script that zips and unzips those files took 17 percent longer. Both of these results aren’t far from the average of current suites, and all of ZoneAlarm Extreme’s results are within a percent or two of ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite’s results in the same test.

For details on how I measure security suite performance see How We Test Security Suites for Performance.

ZoneAlarm Extreme Security 2013 performance chart

A Big Disappointment
All ZoneAlarm Extreme Security 2013 offers beyond what’s found in the company’s basic suite is a feature-limited version of a PC Tune-up program from Large Software. Several features found in the 2012 edition have been dropped. And the vast majority of the suite’s components are licensed from third parties.

If you’re looking for a security suite with significant bonus features, there are plenty of other choices. Norton 360 (2013) is an Editors’ Choice in the mega-suite category. Bitdefender Total Security 2013 is another good choice, as is McAfee Total Protection 2013. There’s no reason at all to opt for the patched-together, feature-limited ZoneAlarm Extreme, especially when all of the mega-suites I’ve mentioned cost the same or less.

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

By Neil J. Rubenking, PCMag

Specifications

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


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