Review: Norton Mobile Security

Worried by the spate of news stories about malware targeting Android phones and tablets? There's a way to get some peace of mind: Symantec's just-released Norton Mobile Security, which promises the same type of security for Android devices that its big brother counterpart offers for PCs. (The app was previously available as a beta.)

Norton Mobile Security comes in free and for-pay versions. The free version (which Symantec labels Lite) includes an anti-malware module and an anti-theft module that lets you remotely lock an Android device if it's lost or stolen.

The malware scan is simple and straightforward. You can scan manually or have Norton scan on a daily, weekly or monthly schedule. You can also scan your SD card -- an option that's turned off by default because it may slow down your system during the scanning operation. On my Droid X, it took 15 seconds to scan normally, and one minute and 56 seconds to scan the SD card as well -- not, in my opinion, a significant difference, and a small price to pay for more complete protection.

The anti-theft lock of the free version is simple to set up. You create a password, and if you lose your phone or if it's stolen, you just send a text message to it from any phone with the word "lock" followed by your password. The phone will then be locked and can only be unlocked when your password is entered.

Premium version

For an annual fee of $29.99, you get a variety of additional features, including anti-phishing capabilities and the ability to remotely locate and wipe data from your device, remotely lock your device's SD card (as opposed to just the data in the phone itself) and block SMS messages and phone calls. (Note: In order to get the for-pay version, you have to first download the Lite version from the Android Market and then pay to upgrade.)

Remotely wiping your device, locking the SD card and remotely locating your device in the for-pay version all work like the remote lock version in the free version. You send a text message to the device with a command (for example, "locate," followed by the password) and the app does your command.

If you need to locate your device, a text message with a link is sent back to the phone from which you're sending the text. Click the link to see the location in Google Maps. Keep in mind, though, that the location will only be as precise as your lost phone's location capabilities. So, for example, if you've got GPS turned off, the phone will find its location via triangulation techniques, which is much less precise.

You can also block SMS messages and phone calls from numbers you specify -- which, in a world in which text messaging spam is becoming increasingly common (and annoying), is a very useful feature. The process is quite simple and comes with a robust set of tools. You can enter the numbers you want to block by typing them in manually, selecting them from your contacts or (most useful of all) selecting them from your call log or SMS log. This last option is probably the most satisfactory, because it lets you block spam phone calls and texts right after you receive them.

When you get a call from your blocked list, it is sent straight to your voicemail. When someone from the blocked list sends a text, it simply doesn't get to you. You can review logs of all blocked calls and SMS messages and, if you decide you've made a mistake, easily unblock calls.

The Web protection feature, also in the for-pay version, will block phishing sites and sites known to harbor malware. You have the option of overriding the block when you try to visit a site, although the override will last for only 30 minutes. And it works only with the built-in Android browser, not with third-party browsers such as Dolphin.

Is it worth it?

Do you need Norton Mobile Security -- and if so, is it worth upgrading to the $30-per-year version rather than staying with the free Lite version?

Given that malware is increasingly targeting Android, you should have an anti-malware blocker such as Norton Mobile Security on your device. The free remote lock capabilities are also useful.

Note that Symantec isn't the only company offering these types of services. An existing product, called Lookout, offers a similar set of features. It has a free version that includes anti-malware protection, data backup and a phone finder that makes a siren-like noise. The for-pay version ($2.99 per month, or $29.99 a year) adds remote wipe and lock along with privacy and anti-phishing features. Because the free version of Lookout doesn't include the remote lock, between the two, I'd opt for Norton.

At a Glance

Norton Mobile Security

Symantec

Price: Free for Lite version; $29.99/year for Premium version

Pros: Fast malware scanning, protection against junk phone calls and SMS spam, anti-theft features

Cons: Subscription cost may not be worth the added features

But is it worth paying $30 a year for the Premium version of Norton? That's a more difficult call. As of yet, phishing hasn't been a serious problem for Android devices, so it's not clear whether that justifies the extra cost. Remote wipe will make you feel more secure, but given that you can remotely lock your phone with the free version, it doesn't add significant extra protection. And remote locate is only as useful as the location capabilities of your phone. The SMS and phone blocker are useful, but that depends on whether you've been targeted with spam (and how many of your callers you're trying to avoid). So it's really up to you as to whether all that adds up to a worthwhile $30 per year.

However, one thing is clear: In an increasingly unsafe world for mobile devices, the free version of Norton Mobile Security is a no-brainer.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

This story, "Review: Norton Mobile Security" was originally published by Computerworld.

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