NOD 32 returns, but to tough turf

Back from the nearly dead, or at least the un-updated, ESET returns with high-level security that's light on your system. For a basic antivirus suite that's light on your system and tough on malware, NOD32 gets a yes from us.

The bottom line: Back from the nearly dead, or at least the un-updated, ESET returns with high-level security that's light on your system. For a basic antivirus suite that's light on your system and tough on malware, NOD32 gets a yes from us.

Review:

The last time ESET updated its two security suites--the antivirus and anti-malware-only NOD32 and the more feature-heavy alternative Smart Security--it was a different computer security world. It was March 2009: Anonymous barely existed, Stuxnet hadn't gone public, and ransomware was the stuff of science fiction.

Version 5 of ESET NOD32 is a solid, creative attempt to create a suite that adapts to a rapidly changing threatscape, with an emphasis on generic detections and the now-commonplace reliance on both cloud and locally stored detections. Where NOD32's bigger brother Smart Security 5 left us wanting more in the ancillary features department, the area that many don't consider "core" security, NOD32 strikes a perfect pitch between features, price, and effectiveness.

Editor's note: Portions of this review are based on CNET's review of ESET Smart Security 5.

ESET Smart Security 5

Installation
ESET's installation could be faster, although it's by no means sluggish. It's slowed down by a preponderance of screens, including registration, and an unnecessary query as to whether or not the user wants Potentially Unwanted Program (PUP) protection activated or not. While a legitimate query, there's no reason for it to slow down the install by yet another screen to click through.

PUPs are definitely a security issue, though, so perhaps the program ought to just scan for them on the first scan automatically, and then ask you if it's a scan you always want.

One decent thing about the registration process is that it's all done from within the suite--no need to jump to your browser. Also, there's no reboot required after the installation. Still, the one-minute-or-less installs from Norton and Trend Micro should be a goal that all security suites aspire to.

Interface
The layout of ESET 5 remains unchanged from version 4, except for minor details, although neither is quite as easy to use as it ought to be. The interface opens to a window indicating your security status. The default is colored green and labeled Maximum Protection, which changes to red and a warning when core security features, such as Network Protection, have been disabled. The center pane doesn't indicate this very clearly, but the plain text Maximum Protection labels that tell you which parts of your computer and activity are protected are actually links. Click one to drill deeper into your settings, toggle features, and gain more granular control over your security.

The left nav lets you access other features, including Computer Scan, Update, Setup, Tools, and Help. To the interface's credit, each tab's layout is kept similar, and there are helpful mouse-over tooltips that help clarify things like the differences between default scans, but key features, like the Advanced Settings window, are hard to find.

Along with a lack of clarity about how to get around ESET's interface is the confusion created by redundancy. There's nothing gained by making things harder to find, and even savvy users will probably have to take more time than necessary to get up to speed.

Features and support
ESET NOD32 5's core features put the suite at or near the top of its class. Its collection of features, while not revolutionary, are nevertheless extremely well implemented. What it lacks are many of the modern ancillary features that justify the higher price.

On the side of the basics, there are two default scans: a "Smart Scan" and a custom scan. ESET has improved its antivirus and antispyware engines so that they don't detect only threats, but prevent your host files from corruption before the bad guys go after you. There's removable media control, so you can block USB keys or external drives from connecting to your computer, and the new gamer mode automatically initiates silent running whenever a program is running at full screen. This is perfect for movies and presentations, as well as games. You can also activate it from the system tray.

ThreatSense, ESET's cloud-based detection, isn't new--yep, it had it three years ago--but it's been expanded in version 5 to include reputation analysis. All of that comes in the basic NOD32. Upping to Smart Security gets you antispam, parental controls, and a "smart" firewall that learns how your computer uses the Internet very quickly.

ESET's browser guards are browser-agnostic, and don't require an extension. You won't get search results ratings, but ESET successfully blocked us from attempting to reach known dangerous Web sites clicked on in search results.

It's not too much of a stretch to say that ESET owns the Support space. In addition to the hot-line support, forums and knowledge base, no other security suite offers an education module like ESET does. Called "Cybersecurity Training," the module features an interactive city that you can explore to learn about how to protect yourself, your personal data, and your computer when online. It's an in-depth approach that we wish other vendors would take, because at the end of the day, it's going to be your own wits that keep you safest.

It's accessible from the installation CD if you buy the physical boxed copy of the program, and we're not sure just yet about how to launch it from the downloadable version.

Performance
ESET's overall performance presents a reliable security option. It's not the most effective security suite we've seen this year, and the benchmarks leave room for growth, but overall it's a solid, secure choice, with low false positives and a light touch on your computer's performance.

Real-world test results for ESET were confusing. On our real-world test computer, an x86 Windows 7 laptop that we use for all hands-on testing of security suites, ESET scans were invariably slow and ponderous. On average, the first scan took nearly two hours, and subsequent scans were only faster by about 20 to 30 minutes. These marks did not match up to CNET Labs' results, which found ESET's scan times on a freshly imaged computer to be among the fastest results we've seen so far this year. Because of the large number of programs that get installed and uninstalled on the real-world laptop, which could adversely affect the computer's Registry, we're inclined to favor the labs results in this case.

CNET Labs' benchmarks found both ESET Smart Security 5 and ESET NOD32 5 to have performed generally well above average. Note that we can't directly compare this year's results with last year's because we upgraded our testing computer from Windows 7 x64 to Windows 7 x64 with Service Pack 1.

Smart Security slowed down the Labs' computer boot time by an average of 17.2 seconds--five seconds faster than the average of all suites tested to date this year--whereas NOD32 5 added an impressively low 13.9 seconds. For both programs, ESET's boot time impact was minimal.

Both suites had a small impact on the computer's shutdown time, slowing it down only by about six to seven seconds longer than an unprotected computer. However, it should be noted that the shutdown time for an unprotected computer was half that, so even though ESET's impact was minimal when compared with other suites, it's still having a big affect on the computer itself.

On all of CNET's in-use system performance tests except for the Cinebench test, ESET's impact was extremely minimal. The Cinebench results were close to the average level of impact. So, all things being equal, you're not going to notice much when ESET is running as you go about your computing business. This was borne out by our real-world tests, too.

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) 63.0 15.8 1,136 416 125 348 17,112
ESET NOD32 5 53.9 12 727 411 124 342 16,946
ESET Smart Security 5 57.2 14 658 401 124 343 17,148

*All tests measured in seconds, except for Cinebench. On the Cinebench test, the higher number is better.

In independent threat detection and removal tests, the new version of ESET holds its own but doesn't achieve top marks in all areas. In the AV-Test.org test on Windows 7 from the first quarter of 2011, the previous version of ESET, Smart Security 4.2, squeaked by with a passing score of 12.5 out of 18 overall. The suite had a 4.0 rating out of 6 in Protection, a 3.0 in Repair, and a 3.5 in Usability.

The second quarter 2011 test, on a Windows XP computer, definitely showed improvement in some areas and regression in others. It scored 13.5 out of 18 overall, a solid midrange score. The suite improved in Protection with 4.0, a small uptick in Repair performance with 3.5, and a big improvement in Usability to 5.5 out of 6. The Usability score looks at, among other metrics, how many False Positives a suite detects. So even though version 4.2 was based on a nearly three-year-old engine, the suite was still able to improve quarter-over-quarter.

Third-quarter results aren't in yet, but version 5 beta results shared by AV-Test.org with CNET indicate that the suite has made serious improvements over version 4.2. It notched a 98.5 percent malware detection rate, equal to the overall average rate during May 2011 certification testing. Still, that wasn't as high as some competitors, such as Bitdefender. The suite was able to remove 95.7 percent of active malware infections, significantly higher than the industry average of 85.7 percent. In AV-Test.org's zero-day attacks test, ESET blocked 87.8 percent of the attacks, compared with the average of 80.5 percent. Still this wasn't as good as Bitdefender, which blocked all of the attacks. ESET also did not find any false positives.

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 ESET Smart Security 4.2 toward the front of the class, out of 17 suites tested. Looking at Whole Product test results cumulatively from January 2011 to June 2011 found that ESET came in seventh, blocking 98.2 percent of threats.

Dennis Technology Labs, a member of the Anti-Malware Testing Standards Organisation (AMTSO), found in January 2011 that ESET Smart Security 4 earned an overall protection score of 134 (PDF), the third-best score Dennis Labs awarded.

Conclusion
ESET returns to a tougher security world, not just from the competition but from the threats that it's meant to protect you against. Though the benchmarking is generally solid, we found the interface too annoying and the installation too cumbersome to award it higher marks.

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