Security software has improved every year, but it has always operated on similar principles. Until now. New releases from Symantec and McAfee challenge fundamental assumptions about how security suites work.

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Security software has improved every year, but it has always operated on similar principles.

Until now.

New releases from Symantec and McAfee challenge fundamental assumptions about how security suites work.

Norton Internet Security 2009 from Symantec attempts what was once unthinkable: providing solid protection without slowing your computer down.

McAfee, meanwhile, moves beyond periodic updates and taps the Web for real-time virus identification.

Neither company claims to provide perfect security, but both think they’ve made breakthrough improvements in the war against a growing enemy.

“We spent an entire year re-examining all of our fundamental assumptions and we rebuilt everything from the ground up,” said David Cole, senior director of product management for Symantec.

“We changed code that hadn’t been changed in years.”

Symantec tried to design a product that users could install quickly then forget.

No pop-up notices. No performance lags. No annoying scans. Nothing a busy user could see, except in emergencies.

To achieve such goals, engineers designed a program that’s smart enough to skip needless tasks.

For example, rather than repeatedly scanning unchanged files on your computer, it looks only at the tiny fraction that have changed since the last scan.

The new program also saves the heavy lifting till you walk away from your computer. It starts big projects when you leave and stops them when you return.

Early reviews suggest Norton Internet Security 2009 ($70) fails to provide “invisible” security but gets close.

Indeed, critics from CNET, PC Magazine and The Wall Street Journal called it the least annoying security software ever — and they meant it as high praise.

McAfee took a different approach.

Yes, company programmers tried to avoid needless delay for McAfee Internet Security 2009 ($60), but they focused far more on building an entirely new malware-detection system.

Traditionally, the size of hard drives and the speed of central processors have limited the effectiveness of PC security software. A program that stored too much information or ran too many tests would slow most computers to a halt.

McAfee solved this problem by using the Internet to shift work from the wimpy PC to powerful processing centers.

Its Artemis technology checks every suspicious file against McAfee’s central database.

“The trick was figuring out how to do it so fast that the user wouldn’t notice,” said Dave Marcus, McAfee’s director of security research. “It took awhile, but we got the whole process down to 100 milliseconds.”

Early tests by AV Comparatives indicate Artemis detects about 80 percent of the problems that would otherwise slip past.

But no software provides perfect protection — not even close.

“Even if you eliminate all delay between first spotting a virus and updating your database, there’s still no way to protect against many unknown viruses,” said Alan Paller, director of research at the Sans Institute in suburban Washington, D.C.

So is security software a waste of time?

“If you’re a high-value target, criminals will buy new viruses to attack your computer, and security software won’t do you a bit of good,” Paller said.

“On the other hand, if you’re not a billionaire or something and you don’t have people gunning specifically for you, nearly all the malware you encounter will be older stuff that security software can block.”

And you will encounter malware.

“Everything is growing online, including the problems,” said Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman. “We’ve made a number of big cases recently but we don’t expect to see our workload decrease anytime soon.”