Norton Internet Security (NIS) 2012 adds new features to the suite's toolkit, including those to enhance PC performance and make some basic use of the cloud; it also adds some tweaks to the interface. This is not a major overhaul, but the addition of new tools makes a useful piece of protection software even more valuable.

NIS 2012 for Windows 7, Vista or XP retains all of its existing security features, including anti-malware, identity protection, network intrusion protection and built-in firewall. And it does all this without being a resource hog (without requiring substantial system resources or RAM) which is surprising given its comprehensive feature set.

Improving PC performance

The most useful additions to NIS 2012 are designed to improve your PC's performance.

A new Startup Manager lets you decide which applications to run on startup and which to prevent from running in order to speed up startup (and potentially improve performance). It's far more useful than the system startup tools built into Windows, because it provides details about each application and also gives you features missing in Windows, such as the ability to delay programs that run on startup, not just stop them altogether.

The Startup Manager, which has been added to NIS 2012 from Norton 360, lists every application that starts automatically on startup and shows you how many resources each uses, based on the experience of other users. Click any application on the list, and you're sent to a section of NIS 2012 called File Insight, which provides more information, including the name of the developer, the version number, the last time you used it, the date the file was released and its location on your hard disk. You can also find out if the application has performed any suspicious activity on your computer, and if so, what that activity was.

Norton Insight, initially designed to check on the trustworthiness of applications that run on your PC, has been improved as well. Leveraging data collected from users of Symantec products who have the applications, it shows the application's relative trustworthiness, rating it Poor, Good, Trusted or Unproven (if not enough people have used the application). It also shows whether that rating is based on feedback from a few people or many people.

In NIS 2012, Norton Insight has added a rating for each application's stability level, again based on other people's usage. Ratings include Very Unstable, Unstable, Slightly Unstable, Stable and Reliable. Because you can see both the stability and trust ratings in a single list - along with resource usage - it's easy to see at a glance how each app rates.

It's also simple to filter and sort your apps -- for example, you can show only running apps and processes, only high-impact apps, only startup items, only trusted files, only untrusted files and so on. You can also get more details about an individual app by clicking on it; you are then sent to the File Insight screen for that app.

Norton Insight also shows you at a glance how your computer rates for reliability overall based on your apps, and compares it to the overall community rating. My machine received an 87.2 percent rating, versus an overall community reliability rating of 6.81% -- which seems exceedingly low. Symantec says that the community reliability rating is based on old data, and not updated in real time. The company says it is "working toward updating it to reflect current data."

I have also seen my machine's reliability rating vary by a few percentage points, even when I haven't installed or uninstalled any new apps. Those few percentage points aren't significant, but it's odd, nonetheless.

Norton Management

NIS 2012 recognizes that the computing world is increasingly located in the cloud. So Symantec has added a new feature, Norton Management, that the company says will let you install and uninstall Norton applications on your PCs from a single, cloud-based location, check their security status, and see subscription and license information. (I wasn't able to test it because I was told that the feature wouldn't go live until after launch.)

Norton Management will work only for Windows-based products, not Norton's mobile lineup. I hope Symantec will eventually add the ability to manage its mobile software via this cloud-based feature.

Identity Safe and Bandwidth Awareness

There are a number of other, less important new features and improvements in NIS 2012. Norton's password manager, Identity Safe, has been moderately improved, with a slightly redesigned interface; it now syncs its information to the cloud so that it is always backed up. With Identity Safe, you create logins for sites, such as Amazon and others that require your user name and password, and Identity Safe logs you in when you visit.

In the redesigned interface, Identity Safe doesn't pop up over your browser and interfere with your interaction with the Web site. Instead, it appears inside the browser at the top of the screen. In addition, your logins are synced to the cloud so that you can use them from any computer that has NIS 2012 installed.

Another feature, called Bandwidth Awareness, is designed for laptops. It lets you prevent Norton from downloading large updates to itself as a way to save bandwidth in certain instances - for example, if you're using the mobile hotspot feature of your smartphone and are charged for bandwidth or have monthly bandwidth limits.

In theory, this sounds helpful, but in practice it leaves much to be desired. It doesn't offer granular controls - so, for example, if you use Bandwidth Awareness on your laptop, it will turn off downloads of large Norton updates whenever you use Wi-Fi (including your home or work Wi-Fi network), not just when you're connected to a mobile hotspot. You can control it on an adapter-by-adapter basis - so you can ban your laptop from downloading the updates when using a Bluetooth connection but allow it via Wi-Fi - but since, in my experience, it's rare that people use Bluetooth connections to gain Internet access with their smartphones, this feature is less than useful.

Minor interface changes

NIS has also received a number of minor interface changes. For example, NIS's main window is now much simplified. Rather than showing a panel that lets you turn on and off various components, there are three large buttons: one to let you launch a scan, another that shows the status of LiveUpdate, and a third that sends you to the Advanced screen, which is essentially the main screen from NIS 2011.

There's also a live world map that shows you cybercrime hot spots, as well as smaller icons across the bottom with links to other features. These icons, though, are somewhat misleading, because while some of them lead you to features built into NIS (such as Safe Web), others lead you to what are essentially pitches to buy additional Symantec products, such as Norton Online Backup. These, I believe, have no place in an application's interface, and should be clearly labeled as sales pitches rather than features.

The other most noticeable interface change is to the settings interface, which has been streamlined and simplified. It's an improvement, but not a dramatic one.

OUR VERDICT

NIS 2012 is a solid and useful upgrade over the 2011 version, primarily because of new features that let you streamline your PC's startup and check for unstable applications. The new cloud-based features are useful, but not overwhelmingly so. The only thing that might give one pause about NIS 2012 is its relatively hefty annual subscription fee of $69.99, although that does cover three PCs. NIS 2012 is priced $10 below the more comprehensive Symantec product called Norton 360 that includes all the features in NIS and adds online backup and PC tuneup features. However, the newest NIS 2012 feature set is not yet built into Norton 360 (which tends to be updated about five or six months after NIS). The upshot? Existing NIS users will certainly want to upgrade right away. Those who use competing programs would do well to give it a look as well, keeping in mind the $69.99 (£39.99 for UK) annual fee.