ESET Smart Security is one of the security solutions of relatively recent fame. You wouldn't believe it, but ESET is one of the older players on the market, its first version being released in the mid-90s. Fame came later, and ESET's NOD32 Antivirus is now renowned as one of the most solid antivirus solutions on the market. While the latest builds have been working on Windows 7 for some time, ESET has only recently blessed its Smart Security suite with official Windows 7 support. ESET Smart Security 4 is built upon the NOD32 technology, hoping to capitalize its prestige by integrating it in a larger suite. But is it worth it?
Installing ESET Smart Security 4 is a breeze. During the installation, users can customize a minimum of common-sense options, including that of providing ESET with anonymous statistics about the detected threats. No potentially unwanted software is installed and the entire procedure is very fast. The only potential source of problems is the somewhat lengthy procedure required in order to obtain the program. Even for the trial version, you need to supply a valid e-mail address where you will receive a username and a password. This allows ESET Smart Security to perform updates and I have not received any spam from ESET yet. Their website is somewhat cumbersome to navigate, though.
The first impression ESET Smart Security makes is unlikely to be breathtaking. It sports a minimalist interface that tries to hide as many baroque details as possible, leaving anything that is unlikely to be required in usual situations hidden under the hood. The interface has an Advanced switch in case you need it, the effects of which we will discuss immediately. On first run, the firewall will detect all the network connections and ask whether to use a strict filtering mode or a more relaxed one that allows file and printer sharing.
Most security programs take a rather lightweight approach on their mission of securing the user's computer. However, the trend has been pointing towards taking a more ample approach, and ESET's products are in the first lines of the front, together with some other big technological players like Kaspersky Lab. The main screen shows the current protection status, which is evaluated taking into account several factors, not all related to the antivirus itself. ESET Smart Security 4 will warn you about the protection it can offer if you fail to update the antivirus updates or do not run a scan for a long time. Also it will warn if your system has some flaws: for instance, if you have not installed Windows updates and patches from Microsoft.
Otherwise, the toolbar on the left offers quick access to all the important areas of ESET Smart Security's capabilities, like scanning and updating. When the interface is not in Advanced mode (and, by default, it is not), the setup screen only allows setting up the username and password used for updates, changing the type of protection assigned to each network and temporarily disabling the protection.
The Advanced mode offers complete access to ESET Smart Security's powerful stack of tools. The decision to offer a light interface that only allows access to some features and configuration options is salutary, given ESET Smart Security's extremely wide set of configuration possibilities. Fortunately, it also works very well, given our series' rather unhappy experience with BitDefender's beginner mode.
While ESET Smart Security includes a hefty set of instruments, it is not as feature-rich as other suites that have been featured in our series so far. I cannot think of an ESET feature that no other security suite has at this moment. However, ESET Smart Security 4 covers all the important areas one would expect, and its strength for power users lays more in the wide range of customization options rather than original features.
Ease of use and configuration
Keeping the interface out of the Advanced mode yields a very easy to use suite. There isn't much configuration to do, which relays most of the work on ESET Smart Security's default settings. Fortunately, they were considered with enough care to work for just about anyone.
By default, ESET Smart Security will update its signatures once a day. This is atypical, but it happens because ESET Smart Security has the ability to push updates in case of massive scale attacks. In almost one week of testing with a system widely exposed to wild virtual beasts, the low frequency of updates did not prove ineffective. Automatic scans are scheduled frequently enough to keep the system protected. The firewall defaults to auto-learn mode without user-defined exceptions, which (as we will see later in the article) is not flawless, but good enough for novice users.
When the interface is switched to Advanced mode, ESET Smart Security's configuration screen does become a bit more populated, but most of the stuff you would not want your grandmother to touch is still out of sight. Users with average knowledge about the intrinsic details of computing can still safely use ESET Smart Security 4 in this mode, while getting access to some more advanced options.
They can, for instance, schedule updates or scans. More advanced options are available, but they are carefully separated, thus making it very easy to explore their wide span. There is a central configuration dialogue, from which every option is accessible, but you can also get to its various screens by clicking suggestively-named hyperlinks or buttons on the main interface. It is one of the most efficiently organized configuration interfaces I've seen so far in this series.
ESET Smart Security 4 includes a self-configuring firewall that tries to take away the responsibility of configuration from the user. Its efficiency does leave somewhat to be desired though, and most users will probably resort to the option of being asked about each program in turn. The Learning Mode feature is especially arcane due to the fact that, if you want to input your own rules, you will have to do some digging through the configuration screen. It is unfortunate, because the firewall is the only somewhat confusing part of an otherwise very easy to use suite. However, in its defense, I should point out that Learning Mode is a new addition and the only programs it incorrectly blocked were Pidgin and one of my security tools, which novice users are reasonably unlikely to use.
In terms of functions, the firewall is solid. It correctly blocked all the test attacks and resisted well to your average script kiddie's arsenal. The firewall did leak some information to the scanners, but none that could be reasonably exploited. All my attempts to tamper with it, kill its process or circumvent its protection from the inside failed miserably.
Antivirus and antispyware features
Ease of use is hardly sufficient to provide enough protection nowadays. Even considering home use requirements only, a solid suite is not defined only by operating in fire and forget mode. In terms of underlying technology, ESET Smart Security 4 has one of the best offers of the moment. The incontestable star of its antivirus engine is its excellent heuristic detection feature. It is the other reason why the low default frequency of updates is not much of a problem. While giving its fair share of false positives, ESET Smart Security can make a very good guess about potentially malicious applications.
Its signature-based scanner is also top notch. It correctly detected all the infected files on my test system, and I should point out that it did not stumble when dealing with rootkits, like many of our guests in this series. It missed some spyware samples on an already infected computer, but it still offers above-average protection.
ESET Smart Security 4 also deserves a notice for being very light on resources and very fast. The real-time scanner is not only very efficient, but also has a negligible impact on the computer' performance. Scanning is very fast compared to other antivirus programs I tested, and even during the scans the system remained responsive and perfectly usable. This would recommend ESET Smart Security 4 as a good option for entry-level systems where Windows 7's resource consumption is already enough of a drag.
In order to provide a better protection, ESET Smart Security also sports a good integration with 3rd party software. It can work seamlessly with any POP3/IMAP capable email client, including Outlook, Thunderbird and Windows Mail. The real-time scanner can also provide web-surfing protection. This is a very strong feature, especially considering that it can scan HTTPS and POP3S traffic. HTTPS and POP3S are network protocols that allow web browsers and e-mail clients to encrypt the information they send and receive. This is problematic because information is encrypted so that malicious users cannot intercept it; however, if the content itself is malicious, many antivirus tools fail to detect it before it is too late.
Another technologically sound feature of ESET Smart Security 4 is ThreatSense.net. This feature collects information about the detected malware on the computers of everyone who uses ESET Smart Security 4 (and allows this kind of information to be sent). This enables ESET to keep track of the way security threats evolve, and enables ESET Smart Security 4 to make a more educated guess about which applications can pose a threat to your system. The proactive efforts are enforced about the ability to detect potentially unwanted applications, which correctly identified a handful of rogue applications that some installers tried to sneak on board.
Some more advanced tools are available for power users, such as SysInspector or SysRescue. SysInspector can scan the system processes in order to detect threats that have infiltrated that far, while SysRescue can create a secure rescue disk. While these are not exactly relevant to novice users, they will be useful if you ever have to help one. ESET Smart Security 4 is especially robust in this area, packing an advanced self-protection system that makes it impossible to disable or reduce its functions.
It is not too often that we see a powerful program managing to make itself slim and discrete enough for day-to-day use by novices, but ESET Smart Security 4 is one of these tools. If you leave the advanced mode disabled, ESET Smart Security 4 will be a quiet but powerful guard that offers an excellent degree of protection, requiring a minimum of user intervention. If you ever have to clean your grandmother's computer, ESET Smart Security 4 will prove to be a fairly powerful companion for an advanced user. While not as advanced or strong as Kaspersky Internet Security 2010, it is hardly a bad choice for your grandmother. Its low resource consumption also recommends it for entry-level systems. You can download a trial version from here.