Tight security, thin premium features define F-Secure 2012

Following a banner year in 2011, the new F-Secure Internet Security 2012 doesn't introduce many new changes, but it does maintain many of the suite's high performance marks on both system impact and security.

The bottom line: Following a banner year in 2011, the new F-Secure Internet Security 2012 doesn't introduce many new changes, but it does maintain many of the suite's high performance marks on both system impact and security.

The Finnish security firm F-Secure gains a large percentage of its business from corporate accounts and platform operators, but that doesn't mean that it treats its consumer security suites as a ginger-haired child of indeterminate parentage and poor temperament. F-Secure Internet Security 2012 focuses on keeping its security ahead of the curve, along with some ease-of-use improvements. However, as other suites emphasize their engine improvements along with an ever-expanding feature set, F-Secure remains steadfastly lean.

F-Secure Internet Security

We were not impressed with the installation of F-Secure. It can best be described as a wonky double-installation process. After running the installer, you must reboot and add your license key, after which it completes downloading the suite's components. Even without the reboot, the process took nearly 7 minutes, which doesn't hold up well when compared with suites like Norton that install in less than 60 seconds.

The main interface for F-Secure 2012 presents itself as two clean, well-designed windows with three main sections. The Computer Security window offers Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics. Just kidding, it's really Status, Tasks, and Statistics. Below that are three buttons for quick actions: Scan, with a drop-down to choose which kind of scan to run; Check for updates; and Settings. Note that the blue-and-yellow shield on Settings means that the changing settings requires approving the User Account Control (UAC) on Vista and Windows 7.

The Online Safety window has an identical design, but with big-buttoned icons for Users, Tasks, and Statistics, and quick links below for Restrict Web content, Restrict browsing, and Create new account. Note that all three of thsoe, plus the Users and Statistics sections, require UAC control.

Settings are presented in an equally easy interface to navigate, with a basic column on the left for navigation and a main window to toggle controls. Settings opens in a separate window, as do many of F-Secure's control panels, which works against the clean design by foisting clutter on unsuspecting users.

However, the absolute worst part of the interface is the new "launch pad," which looks like a Windows desktop widget. It's not, but it's not clear what it is, either. It's a nonpersistent launcher to access different parts of the suite, the only place in the interface from which you can switch between Computer Security and Online Safety. A third tab, F-Secure, takes you to the publisher's Web site, with a drop-down that provides links to Support, Notifications, Settings, and Updates.

Its impact on your workflow is annoyingly counterintuitive. It disappears once you click on anything else on your monitor, so to switch between the major sections of F-Secure, you've got to continuously go to either your F-Secure desktop icon, or the system tray. Fantastic security means squat if you impede a user's workflow. Now, this isn't as bad as slowing the system to a crawl, but it's really not a helpful design choice.

Features and support
When it comes to basic security, F-Secure Internet Security 2012 offers a solid range of options but not many changes from last year's version. Let's start under the hood.

F-Secure excels at its security engine. The newest version has overhauled its Deep Guard real-time protection network and added an intelligent execution component for responding to threats even faster than before. The revised Deep Guard now comes with program monitoring, so that when it encounters an application, it uses F-Secure's Real-Time Protection Network to evaluate its reputation on the fly.

The analysis is based on the age of the file, its prevalence among F-Secure users, how the file made it onto your hard drive, and its digital signature if it has one. Suspicious files are automatically quarantined in a sandbox that's actually a virtual machine. The file is executed safely, and if that reveals nothing conclusive, then the file is monitored as it runs under a kind of "parole" system. If it misbehaves, it gets thrown back into the clink and removed from your computer. F-Secure says that this protocol is effective against heavily encrypted malware.

Also new is the cloud antivirus database that the suite calls to for supplemental security verification. Much of the security, though, is still handled by the local database. E-mail protection is comprehensive, and works with POP, IMAP, and SMTP. There's also a spam blocker and phishing protection.

For Internet Explorer and Firefox users, there's browsing guards that block malicious URLs and offer site reputation in search results and Webmail links via the browser add-on. Chrome users, despite making up 13 percent of the worldwide browser market, are frustratingly left unprotected. Maybe security companies will decide that Chrome users are important in the fourth year of the browser's existence? Whatever the logic, it's poor form.

Despite this being labeled as an Internet Security-level suite, it's a bit thin on the advanced features. True, it does come with a Firewall and Parental Controls, but beyond that there's not a whole lot that makes it comparable to other IS-level suites. There are dial-up controls, protection against unwanted mobile broadband bills, identity guards, and personalized settings for individual users, a boon to computers with multiple users.

Yet it lacks some obvious options, like a silent gaming mode, online storage or backup, or a secure file shredder. While not required, when the competition offers features you don't, it makes it hard to compare fairly.

Whatever else you can say about F-Secure, its performance is practically unimpeachable. Nearly across the board, last year's F-Secure 2011 was one of the most effective suites reviewed, and early numbers indicate that F-Secure 2012 is once again one of the toughest suites on the block. Certainly, CNET Labs' results bear that out.

Since F-Secure Internet Security 2012 shares an engine with F-Secure Anti-Virus 2012, CNET Labs benchmarked all three. Note that while last year's benchmarks were tested on the basic installation of Windows 7 x64, CNET Labs is now using a Windows 7 x64 test bed running Service Pack 1. So while results are more comparable than they would be with, say, a Windows XP computer, there's still a notable difference between the test computers.

CNET Labs found that F-Secure's impact on boot time was better than average and that scan times were among the best recorded this year. The impact of F-Secure on an in-use computer in the lab showed it to slightly better than average. The one place where the suites fell down was on the shutdown time test. The average impact on shutdown of all suites tested so far this year was 10 seconds slower than on an unprotected computer. F-Secure Anti-Virus 2012 added 28 seconds to shutdown, while F-Secure Internet Security 2012 added a shocking 33 seconds. Shutdown may not be an important metric to some, but for laptop users it could be especially crucial.

F-Secure did well but not great in real-world scan time tests. It averaged 2 minutes, 53 seconds, for the "virus and spyware" scan; meanwhile, the full scan averaged 2 hours, 46 minutes, longer than many competitors' scans by about an hour.

Security program Boot time Shutdown time Scan time MS Office performance iTunes decoding Media multitasking Cinebench
Unprotected system 40 6 n/a 395 120 342 17,711
Average of all tested systems (to date) 66.0 16.5 1,040 414 125 347 17,119
F-Secure Anti-Virus 2012 62.8 34.7 721 411 124 346 17,205
F-Secure Internet Security 2012 57.9 39.3 734 411 126 344 17,237

Note: All tests measured in seconds, except for Cinebench. On the Cinebench test, higher numbers are better.

Independent testing agency AV-Test.org has marked consistently high scores for F-Secure Internet Security 2011 during the first two quarters of 2011. On a Windows 7 computer, F-Secure scored 5.5 out of 6 on Protection, 4.5 out of 6 on Repair, and 5.5 out of 6 on Usability, for an overall score of 15.5 out of 18, clearing the minimum of 11 for an AV-Test.org certificate, and tied with Bitdefender for the highest score of the first quarter.

In the second quarter, on a Windows XP computer, F-Secure Internet Security 2011 did even better. The suite hit 5.5 out of 6 on Protection and 5.0 out of 6 on both Repair and Usability, for a total of 15.5 out of 18, just behind Bitdefender's 17 out of 18.

Note that AV-Test.org defines its categories as follows: "The 'Protection' covers static and dynamic malware detection, including real-world zero-day attack testing. In case of 'Repair,' we check the system disinfection and rootkit removal in detail. The 'Usability' testing includes the system slowdown caused by the tools and the number of false positives."

Third-quarter results aren't in yet, but results shared by AV-Test.org with CNET indicate that the suite continues to perform well in its 2012 iteration. It notched a 99.93 percent malware detection rate, higher than the overall average rate of 99.29 percent in September 2011 certification testing. The suite was able to remove 95 percent of active malware infections, including rootkits, higher than the industry average of 84.6 percent. In AV-Test.org's zero-day attacks test, F-Secure blocked 100 percent of the attacks, compared with the average September 2011 certification results of 92.7 percent. The suite also did not find any false positives.

In short, AV-Test.org found F-Secure 2011 and the new 2012 to be the most effective security protection around, on a level with Bitdefender 2012.

The most recent AV-Comparatives.org Whole Product test, which looks at on-demand scanning, retroactive tests, and "real-world" guards including cloud-based protections, puts F-Secure 2011 in the top two suites tested. The September 2011 test found that it blocked 99.0 percent of attacks and threats thrown at it, only behind Bitdefender. Tweaking user settings gained an additional 0.3 percent of protection. Meanwhile, looking at Whole Product test results cumulatively from January 2011 to September 2011 found that F-Secure 2011 came in third only to Bitdefender and Symantec, blocking 98.8 percent of threats, with an additional 0.2 percent protection gained from adjusting settings.

A third testing lab, Dennis Technology Labs, had less good news for F-Secure from its January 2011 test. In its Overall Protection test of high-end suites, including F-Secure Internet Security 2011, Dennis Labs placed F-Secure seventh, while Dennis placed F-Secure sixth in its Accuracy test.

It's fair to conclude that according to third-party tests, F-Secure has been highly effective over the past year, and if that's your most important standard then you'd be aiming high by choosing it. The Dennis Labs scores serve to remind us that no system is impervious, so trusting even a highly-rated security suite is no substitute for common sense when using the Internet.

F-Secure falls a bit short where it's always struggled: with the value-added, high-end features. Even some basic pay-for-play suite components like a silent running entertainment mode or browser support for Google Chrome are absent. However, there's no doubt that it offers a one-two combo of small system performance impact and stringent security, and on those counts is one of the best suites we've seen this year. F-Secure's not the only high-performing suite out there, and so we can't give it a higher rating.

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