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ISSUE 578: Zisman- Nov 21 2000

The high-tech office


Anti-virus software keeps most computer bugs at bay

For the past few weeks, we've been looking at utilities, those add-on tools for your computer that you don't miss until you need them.

The 500-kilogram gorilla of the utility software industry is Symantec Corp. Its best-known products, Norton Utilities, Norton AntiVirus, Norton SystemWorks and more, have all been updated to new 2001 editions.

Of all the features of this wide-ranging set of products, anti-virus protection is perhaps the most important for day-to-day computer use. There are a number of well-respected products, including Network Associates' McAfee VirusScan and Computer Associates' Innoculate (available in a free version for personal use from Arguably, Norton AntiVirus (NAV) is the best of the bunch and is available in a range of versions, from the recently updated "corporate" edition to the standard edition for home and small business users.

NAV 2001 is available on its own ($59) or bundled with other Symantec utility products such as the $105 Norton Internet Security and $125 SystemWorks packages. The new edition works with computers running Windows 95, 98, NT 4.0, 2000, and has added support for Micro soft's newest, Windows ME. Unlike the previous edition, there is no longer support for DOS or Windows 3.1 users, who can still purchase the older NAV 4.0 product. A separate updated Mac version has also re cently been released.

Like other anti-virus products, NAV scans your system at boot-up and stays lurking in the background, watching as you insert floppy disk ettes or open Microsoft Word and Excel data files. In addition, it sets itself up to work invisibly along with many popular e-mail programs, checking e-mail attachments as they arrive. In all cases, it notifies the user if it suspects anything, offering to clean or delete the potentially dangerous disk or file. It can even look inside compressed zip (and other format) files for hidden dangers.

The weak link in any anti-virus software is the date of the data files used. Users are only protected from known dangers, and new viruses and other dangers are being steadily created. In many ways, an out-of-date anti-virus program is more dangerous than no anti-virus program at all, since it leaves the user with a false sense of security.

Early versions of anti-virus software left it up to the user to go to a Web site and manually download new data files, hopefully on a regular basis. The last version of Norton AntiVirus went one step further; it checked the date of its data files every time the computer booted up. If these were more than 15 days old, it offered to connect to Symantec, download the latest versions and update the program automatically. While an improvement, this still required some user intervention and only worked if the computer was shut down and restarted. If your computer stayed on all the time, the virus definitions were never updated.

NAV 2001 fixes this, checking for new data files automatically when the computer isn't busy. Users who are uncomfortable with the computer doing this behind their back can choose, either when install ing the program or later on, to turn this off and go back to the older manual or semi-automatic up dating methods.

If one of these ways of keeping your virus definition files reasonably up to date works for you, you can probably keep going with an older version of an anti-virus program. And after you get those latest virus definition files, take a moment and surf over to There, Rob Rosenberger hopes to educate the public about the many urban myths that spread widely about computer viruses.

While computer viruses are real, there's no doubt that the media and vendors have helped create a level of paranoia that outstrips the real dangers. Along with a dose of anti-virus medicine, will help you keep it all in perspective.


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan